In Thailand, every volunteer is a star

“People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act / Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts.” – Bob Dylan

I saw Nicole Kidman at the museum and she wouldn’t even give me an autograph!  It would only have taken a moment. 

I’ve never heard this exact phrase, but many like it.  Regular citizens run into famous people and are aghast at their snobbish behavior.  They can’t believe, after all the tickets they’ve bought and how much they’ve supported them, they can’t take 60 seconds out of their day to acknowledge them.

I can empathize … with Ms. Kidman.

Every Peace Corps volunteer is a celebrity in their respected community.  We stick out like a man at an Indigo Girls concert.

Every place I go, heads turn.  Not only am I the only white man in the tambon, but I’m actually considered tall in this country.  My host brother, Ti, in Ayutthaya even went as far to call me “big”, which is a first since my original birthday when I weighed nine pounds.

“I had long ago learned that when you are the giant, alien visitor to a remote and foreign culture it is sort of your job to be an object of ridicule.  It is the least you can do, really, as a polite guest.”  – Elizabeth Gilbert

When the Peace Corps tells you to bring your sense of humor with you, they mean it.  If you can’t laugh off some of the unwanted attention, you will end up like a second baseman who can’t throw to first.  As I bike through the village, kids run from what they’re doing to yell to me, “Hello!  Hello!”  I smile and yell, “Hello!” But this usually isn’t enough.  If there are six kids, they all want a “hello”.  Nope.  Sometimes I like to change things up and yell “hey” or “yo”, to which I usually get confused looks.

The kids yell “hello”.  The adults mutter “farang” to themselves, as if I don’t understand.  “Farang” is the Thai word for foreigner.  When I’m called a farang I like to reply (in Thai), “Farang?  Where’s the farang?  I don’t see a farang?”  This always gets a laugh.  When the smaller kids simply stare at me I like to ask them, “Ever seen a farang before?” to which breaks them out of their rut and they hide behind their mothers.

Sometimes when I leave schools I have to clean the blood and brain matter off my clothes from all the kids' heads that bursts from their excitement seeing a foreigner.

Others will shout out all the English they know.  Hello!  Good morning!  How are you!  I love you!

One of my favorite neighbors to run into is a teacher named Mr. Love … at least as far as I can tell.  He knows a little English and likes to show his talent off by pointing at things, saying the English word for them and then laughing from the bottom of his belly.

Bicycle!  Ha ha ha!
Dog!  Dog!  Aaah!  Ha!
Woman!  Ha!  Ha!

Now that I think about it, he’s a bit like Animal, from the Muppets.  Recently he went by on his moped with his thumb up and a big smile shouting, “Barack Obama!  Ha!  Ha!”

Some Thai people use bikes.  Thai people do not jog.  The looks I get from the people when I run my morning 5K can be compared to what the fish at the Shedd Aquarium see every day.

What is that white man running from?  He’s not on a soccer field.  There are no dogs around him. 

When I smile and nod at the people I pass, most do the same in return, but there’s always the person who continues his stare as I pass, which I suppose isn’t much different from the Chippewa River Valley bike trail through Eau Claire when I’d get glares for daring to be healthy from the depressed 40-year old Packers fan who lives with his mother and plays World of Warcraft 10 hours a day.

Villagers have learned where I live.  I’ve looked out the window at people passing by who do not see me.  They keep an eye on my house hoping Boo Radley might peek through a curtain.  I’m waiting for the first motorcycle accident from the person who’s watching me as they pass instead of the road.

All of the attention I receive is positive, even if it’s not accompanied with smiles … I think.  Much like back in the states, my biggest fans are the old ladies.  They’re usually the most patient with my language and appreciate my manners and ambition to communicate.  The old ladies are always excited to hear I’m not married.  This gets them revved up and then they ask me if I want to marry a Thai woman.  No.  Even if they start shaving their upper lip, no.

One of my fans..

Much like in the states, it’s a big tougher to gain the respect of the older men.  The old men in the states never liked that I couldn’t change my own spark plugs, didn’t root for the Packers or didn’t believe the democrats were going to take away their guns.  Here in Thailand, I often wonder what they’re thinking when they’re at one table in a restaurant drinking beer and whiskey at lunch and I’m at another with my female coworkers giggling without the use of alcohol.

I’m an optimistic guy.  My job is to represent the United States of America in a positive light.  It’s because of this that I do keep a sense of humor and keep that smile on my face even if I just want to keep biking in silence.  But I don’t think I’ll be biking in silence anytime soon, so I’ll get used to it.

As for Ms. Kidman, I can’t blame you for your wish for privacy.  I can see how people turning their heads in your direction all day can get old … loved you in Moulin Rouge.


2 thoughts on “In Thailand, every volunteer is a star

  1. Pingback: Roi Et, Poor Internet, the Life of a Celebrity and Playing in the Rain | Sa-wat-dii From Thailand

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