Muange-Ake near Bangkok, Thailand is just like any other small college town, a small mecca of businesses and housing catered to the university student, coffee-shops and restaurants, movie and printer shops, a ton of hairdressing places. The only difference is, in the words of a well-travelled young man in my USAC program, “it’s pretty Asian” (lol). Street vendors and fleets of motor-bike taxi-men nearly match the number of pedestrians, mostly tiny thai college-girls rocking stilletos with their uniforms, packs of boys with 80’s rocker haircuts. If you’re into WOW, you’d have your pick of dimly lit gaming/internet cafes with rows of computers and bright orange office chairs.
There are so many gorgeous sights here to pause and take in, but just as many New Yorkers never crane their necks at skyscrapers and some Key West-ers jog by the ocean as though on a treadmill, people here don’t seem to give a second glance to the flowery trees, gorgeous landscaping at the university, the splash of color and inviting smells at lively marketplaces, even each other’s beautiful faces and relaxed gait. I’ll get used to it all, too, I’m sure, but for now, whenever I find myself with a whole length of sidewalk to myself, I gape at this whole other world.
The students at the university don’t really know what to do with us exchange students yet. We don’t speak very much Thai, we walk and think differently. People stare at me, probably because they’re not used to big hair, blue eyes and have never seen so many Farang-Spots*. It was unsettling at first, I felt kind of judged, like they thought me ugly or unwelcome. At my most uncomfortable, I’d whistle to feel more at home and make myself more approachable.
A few experiences gave me the warmth I needed to feel less insecure and enjoy myself more…a bowling alley attendant told me he thinks I’m beautiful, a couple at the grand palace each took their picture with me for the same reason, a professor said “turn around and show your face to the class, so pretty”, and friendly roti** and fruit shake vendors warmed my day with smiles as they guessed what I meant with my language of sherades and helped me with the pronunciation of the Thai I do know. I don’t mean to come across big-headed, I’m not trying to brag, “thai people think I’m hot!!” I’m pleasantly surprised that people have been so nice to me, I was nervous that I wouldn’t receive a good welcome because I look so different. I took more away from these compliments than feeling good about the way that I look…the gesture of a compliment, when I didn’t yet know a word of Thai was so warm and welcoming, and helped me feel comfortable.
Learning about buddhism in my buddhist philosophy class puts those nerves to rest, too. An buddhist parable imagines a conversation between two waves. One small wave bemoans his stature compared to the bigger waves around him, until another wave reveals to him that “we’re all composed of salt water, it doesn’t matter how much”. The lesson is that our outward differences are only appearance, and our focus should be on our true nature…that we’re all manifestations of the same spirit, humbled to the forces of karma that bend and move us. Subject and object to a Buddhist is one and the same. Looking at an ant, a Buddhist’s thinking includes the perspective of the ant’s experience. Watch the ant, and meanwhile know that you are the ant.
I experiment with this way of thinking walking around town. I don’t claim to know about energy or how we communicate without a word or even a glance, but I like to think that I extend warmth and recognition that on some level, we’re the same, even though I’m a farang. If we’re not the same spirit as in Buddhist belief, at the very least, we’re all human, that’s the truth of our being, and differences in culture are just interesting differences in appearance.
*Farang: foreigner, usually a “golden-headed” one. Farang spots are a funny name for freckles, hardly any Thai have them.
**Roti: this street food im obsessed with, like a buttery egg crepe with condensed milk drizzled all over it.