The Story of my Toenails: A Thai Psychological Experiment

It began on the Fourth of July.  It still hasn’t ended.

It was on America’s Independence Day when group 123 – in Suphan Buri for reconnect training – put on a Fourth of July parade outside the hotel.  Everyone was supposed to dress patriotic.  Not having anything flashy to wear, I agree to let Erin Lubeck paint my toenails blue.  I was complimented by numerous volunteers and staff members.  I remember a Thai instructor, Patcharapan, seeing them and telling me, “Jeff, I never knew this side of you, but I’m happy you’re comfortable with yourself.”

I was so comfortable, I declined any nail-polish removal to see how my friends in Sangkha would react.  This is the story of that psychological experiment.

There’s a simple way to explain the reactions – women love it, men don’t.  The women-filled office I work in was also laughter-filled when they saw Erin’s artistry.  I asked them if they liked it and they said yes.  When I asked the men if they liked it, they said no.

Walking into classrooms, I feel like a big-breasted woman showing plenty of cleavage only with all eyes going to my toes instead of my chest.  I see the Thai kids looking at my toes and can almost read their minds – Why?  Is that something all Americans do?  Is this why he doesn’t want a Thai girlfriend? 

A week after reconnect I met a number of friends in Khon Kaen for a four-day weekend.  They were surprised to see I still was sporting the experimental look.  I’d let a girlfriend do the same once in the states, but there’s a big difference – I didn’t wear sandals every day.

I enjoy watching the Thais minds work when I tell them the painted toenails are in honor of the independence of America.  They say, “Oohhh,” and stop laughing.  Huh.  That must be some cultural ritual done in America I don’t know about.  Do ALL the men paint their toenails to celebrate the country’s independence? 

When Thai men notice it, they seem to be afraid of me.  It’s as if I’m a new kind of man they have yet to encounter – a man not afraid to have his toenails painted.  Why is it so feminine anyway?  If they were painted a more “manly” color, would they be as offensive?  What if I painted them black?  When did painting ones toenails become something just for women?

As I write this, the polish is creeping up to the ends of the nails and a lot of it has chipped off, but it’s still noticeable.  I’m still getting double takes, but I get double takes being a tall white guy anyway, so what’s the difference?

I encourage all Peace Corps Thailand volunteers – men and women – to paint their toenails.  This is a nation that accepts lady boys.  A little nail polish isn’t going to offend.

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1 thought on “The Story of my Toenails: A Thai Psychological Experiment

  1. I had to laugh when I read it was my daughter Erin who painted your toes! Watch out next time u get together, I sent a rainbow of colors for Christmas. Hope u r enjoying Thailand and Happy New Year!

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