Kate Travels: Weird (different) things you can only possibly notice/encounter when living in a far-off land
- ‘Mr Thong’
(pronounced Mr Tong)
At home, we are taught from a young age ‘don’t accept food from strangers’. Everybody knows this – everybody accepts it. That is, until you move to Southeast Asia, and practically everyone you meet tries to shove food down your throat. For me, the most memorable instance of food shoving that has occurred so far is by a slightly aging factory working. This whole charade began when he handed me a letter (written in Thai) as I cycled past on my way to school. I opened the letter, which was stapled shut, upon arrival at school. One glance at the letter told me that it was not only in a language that I did not understand, but also in a script I couldn’t even begin to put sound to, so I stored it away in my bag to re-address at a more convenient time.
Later on that day, whilst sat with some of my M1/1 girls (the youngest year group that I teach but top set!) I decided to show them the note and get them to translate it for me. Probably a brave move considering the note could have contained anything. But the basic gist I got from them was – wide-eyed expression and lots of giggling – “Mr Thong love you! Mr Thong love you!”, then pointing at the telephone number “Mr Thong number telephone” – thanks girls, probs could have worked that bit out myself. Basically, Mr Thong hasn’t got any Farang friends (Farang is what thai people call ALL foreigners, but I’ll get to this later) and he wants one. Apparently I waved at him once and he took this as his cue. I admire his ‘go get it’ attitude.
Well, for the next couple of days, Mr Thong was waiting in his ‘spot’ to give me all sorts of culinary goodies; strawberry milk, ham and cheese croissants, donuts, more strawberry milk, toasted sandwiches – I am well aware these foods don’t sound Asian but if you’ve ever experienced the sheer velocity of 7-elevens in Thailand then you’ll understand. The weird part is, for me and probably every other western person, the food he bought me was the food I always buy myself. Hmmm, how could he have known I like strawberry milk so much?
Anyway, to us this may seem strange, crazy and, although I dislike the word, stalker-ish, but not here. Apparently it is perfectly normal for people to give food to everybody, and anybody, else. Which is actually very nice when you think about it. And I did drink the strawberry milk that Mr Thong gave me and I am still alive and well.
So, I guess the moral of the story is, outside of the UK, it is totally acceptable to accept food from strangers and clearly ‘stranger danger’ does not exist in Thailand.
Oh, did I mention that every time he stopped me to give me either a letter or food, he took a couple of sneaky photos – also, apparently acceptable. People are forever taking photographs of us here without our consent. I like to think I’m being papped but actually I can imagine them sharing the photo around to their friends, all ‘oi look at this weird pale girl who rides her bike around town.’
– Mr Thong’s Letter.
(In Asia Farang is pronounced ‘Falang’, because they inevitably get confused with the whole ‘R’ vs ‘L’ debacle)
So as I mentioned above, Farang is the name given to anyone with white skin. I say ‘white skin’ because Thais have a habit of judging people based on the colour of their skin. ‘Farang’ is technically their word for foreigner but I’m not sure they’d call someone with dark skin a Farang quite as often as someone with pale skin.
There’s also quite a funny back-story to the word ‘farang’ as well. Farang literally translates to guava in Thailand, you know… as in the fruit. Back when the first westerners came to Thailand, they just happened to be French. When introducing themselves to the Thais (something along the lines of ‘je suis Francais’) the Thais, and their mischievous sense of humour, heard ‘francais’ and decided that ‘farang’ was a better word for these strange, pale creatures… aka guava – thus forever painting foreigners as a comical being/fruit in their eyes.
Basically, it doesn’t matter how long you live in Thailand or how much of the language you speak, westerners will always be ‘guava’ to them and they will always, openly, judge you for being a naive tourist based on the colour of you skin. I’d just like to point out that if knowing at least 32 words in Thai makes you a naïve tourist then yeh, fine, whatever.
But it’s not really racism like we know it back home. They just think it’s funny. The amount of times the kids at school will come up to me and laugh at how white I am is ridiculous. Like, actually laugh. When I try and convince them that I’m brown by showing them my tan lines, they laugh even harder. Fang, who is one of my favourite students, told me the other day that the part of my skin (the whitest part) hidden by my bracelets and ring is ‘very white’ and the rest of me is ‘just white’ – her words. Whilst I commend her use of adverbs, I think she is wrong – I’m super tanned right now.
There are other things that will shock you too. For example, if one of the kids happens to have particularly dark skin, they’ll happily all point at him or her and say “black”, which I find quite uncomfortable. Especially coming from a culture where you aren’t supposed to really notice things like that, least of all shout them across the playground.
But this issue of Turrets-style observations goes way beyond just colour. Thai people are perfectly happy to discuss the size, shape and lack of beauty of their friend, who is sat right next to them. The word of choice for calling someone fat: Elephant. The amount of times a student will point to their slightly larger friend and say ‘Teacher, elephant’. I still haven’t worked out what to do. Are you meant to smile and agree? Or cause a scene by disagreeing, thus drawing more attention to the fatty in question? I have no idea. ‘Teacher, ugly’ is also very popular. ‘Teacher, buffalo’, I think combines both fat and ugly. They are very creative with their insults.
Don’t ever tell a Thai person that they smell though. Now that IS insulting…