In America I am a minority, but there are so many minorities living in metropolitan cities that my skin and my ethnicity don’t seem to stand out too much while walking around Philadelphia. I wear my natural hair (Afros, puffs, and kinky curls) and people compliment me, some of my friends may touch my hair to feel the texture, but it doesn’t drive passersby to feel the need to click photos and cheer with excitement. In America I am a minority but I am not an exhibit. In Thailand however, I am a rarity and sometimes a celebrity.
Although Thailand is considered to have a diverse population, it is diverse when it comes to Asian groups. They have different hill tribe people in northern Thailand such as the Karen, Akha, Lisu, Mein, Hmong, Lua and others. They also have a large population of Chinese and then smaller populations of Australian and European groups who decided to live in Thailand for work or because they realized how beautiful and cheap it is here. While living here I discovered that there are very few black people. I have stayed in the two biggest cities in Thailand and I have only come across four other black people, three of which are staying at my study abroad university. This has led me to conclude that I am a hot commodity.
I first realized how unique I was as I walked through Bangkok. There was a Thai woman who touched my hair as I walked by her. She began to smile with animation as she said Thai words that I couldn’t understand. When I first arrived in Thailand my hair was in long, yarn twists. Not many people wear their hair in this kind of style in America so it is extremely uncommon in Thailand. My program guide, Kai, said that the woman was telling me that I was beautiful. Kai said that a lot of Thai people will want to look at my skin and touch my hair because I am considered attractive here. Kai himself, who is a native Thai, even told me that I was beautiful on several occasions.
Later on that same day Kai took our group to a nighttime street market and as I browsed through the vending stands women beamed as they told me how lovely I was. There was even a man who stopped me and grabbed my arm to compare skin complexions. The next day went the same way. As I walked down the streets of Thailand Kai translated all of the compliments the Thai people gave me and I never felt so captivating.
My self-esteem began to rise greatly, but what really made me feel like I had reached a celebrity status was the event that took place when we went to the Palace in Bangkok. As I walked around taking pictures of the detailed architecture of the Palace an Asian woman ran over to me, pointed to her camera, and then pointed to me. She was asking to take a picture and I wasn’t bothered by the attention so I said yes. She then began clapping with enthusiasm as she grabbed my arm and pulled me close. Then she called over two of her friends to take the picture. My friends began laughing at the event in the background as the woman did different poses. The Thai women took several pictures, in one of the photos the woman even held up the peace sign as if she was taking a picture with a tourist attraction. After I was done taking pictures with the first woman I tried to walk away, but I was quickly stopped as the other women rotated their cameras and took their turns with me.
My friends felt that the moment needed to be documented so they made sure that they weren’t the only ones without their cameras out. I just smiled the whole time and embraced the experience. The ironic thing to me was that they considered me beautiful yet light skin was desired in Thailand. I was unable to buy lotion, sunscreen, or any skin products that lacked skin whitening agents. And when Thais wore make-up their foundation was always lighter than their actual complexion. Some Thai women even went as far as to put powder on their faces when doing their make-up.
Yet they found me to be a sight of awe because I was rare. Thai people wanted to dance with me in clubs, touch my skin, and feel my hair because it was invigorating to see something new. I learned the Thai word for pretty very quickly here because it has been said to me so often. I may be a minority and a foreigner in this land, but to Thai people I am also seen as swy (su: oi).