Friday, September 21, 2012

African Vs. American, Black Or White: What Difference Does It Make in Thailand?

I wasn't going to say anything, but then yesterday I found myself talking to Ben, a guy who is a guest at the hotel where I live, and it all came flooding out, everything about that odd question I was asked last week.

As for the guy who got it out of me, Ben is 32 years old, and he spent the first 18 years of his life in Zimbabwe. Being a white guy who lived half of his life among a predominantly black population (his first language was Afrikaans, his second Swahili, and his third English, which he didn't learn until he was 16), Ben approached race relations from an interesting angle. We dove right in.

He talked about some of the difficulties he had growing up in Zimbabwe, where his experiences in some ways mirrored mine growing up black in the United States. But it was what he said about the way Thai people react to him that left me somewhat shaken. He told me about how his sister, who lives in Bangkok with her boyfriend, applied for a teaching job here before her arrival, and was asked if she was a white African or a black African. Apparently, black Africans need not apply for teaching jobs with this particular organization, as a black African friend of Ben's recently found out the hard, direct way.

Ben had experienced this particular brand of discrimination against black Africans firsthand, having had professional contact with people before his arrival who were visibly relieved when they realized that he's white. According to Ben, "Are you a black African or a white African?" is a standard business question here. If they were afraid to ask, they came up with some excuse not to do business with him and magically changed their minds once they figured out that he is white.

As I listened, I thought about all of the people I've met since I've been in Thailand. I don't believe I've ever been in a country with kinder natives, and I haven't encountered any overt racism against me here. But I've always sensed that there might be another side to Thais, a darker side, one that I'm not privy to because most of my interaction with them is on the level of customer to service provider. People are pretty much paid to be nice to me in Bangkok.

My dealings with the folks who don't serve me have been mostly positive as well, but on a superficial level. They observe the traditional Thai code of conduct, but I can't say that they go out of their way to connect with me in any meaningful fashion. Even when I go out and local guys talk to me, I always sense it's more out of curiosity about the exotic black guy. "Is he really as big as everyone says he is?" I'm basically a piece of dark meat, and white meat is clearly the preference. Most of them save the deeper communication for the European white guys with blue eyes. That's what they really want.

Certain that he'd understand, perhaps even provide some valuable insight, I told Ben about the misgivings I'd been harboring over a conversation I had last week with a Thai-Chinese guy who works in my hotel who is good friends with a buddy of mine. He and I have known each other casually for months, and we always observe all the perfunctory niceties when we pass each other in the lobby or on the street or when we wind up in the same elevator, but this was the first time we'd had an actual conversation.

"Jeremy, are you from Africa?" he asked halfway into it.

I was shocked. Not because it was an uncalled for assumption but because somehow, astonishingly, I'd never been asked that before. During my six years living abroad, people had always assumed I was from anywhere but the motherland. In Argentina, I got (in the order of frequency) Brazil, Cuba, the UK, France, occasionally even the United States. If only I had a peso for every time I was asked, "Sos Brasilero?" -- I'd never have to work again. In Australia, I generally got the United States, with some people actually pinpointing the Caribbean because they were native English speakers, so it was obvious to many of them that my accent places my origins outside the U.S. mainland.

In Thailand, though, people rarely make those assumptions out loud when dealing with me. It's usually "Where are you from?" without betraying that they have the foggiest idea. So when I was asked if I'm from Africa, I was taken off guard. Not just because I'd never gotten that question before, but also because I couldn't believe he had no idea. I thought everyone who works at Anantara knew. It's sort of my thing around here, all anyone ever talks to me about.

"No, I'm from the United States, New York City, to be exact."

"Can't you tell by the way he talks?" our mutual friend, also Thai, chimed in. "He has a classic perfect American accent."

I don't, but I didn't feel like arguing that point. I was still focused on the question. I wasn't 100 percent sure, but I thought I noticed a shift in the guy who'd asked it, one that would have been imperceptible to most naked eyes. There was something about the look in his, the way it changed from one moment to the next, after I revealed the truth about my origins.

"He was raising his opinion of you," Ben offered, taking the words right out of my mind. "He saw you as being more valuable because you are from the U.S. and not Africa."

I don't like to think the worst of people -- even people who spend months thinking the worst of me -- but somehow I knew that Ben was right. It's why the conversation had been weighing down the recesses of my mind for the last week, and I felt that since Ben had finally said it, not me, there might be some justification for the way such a seemingly innocent but in reality, terribly loaded, question had made me feel.

One of my best acquaintances in Bangkok is a guy from Liberia, and shockingly, we've never even broached the subject of race. Memo to self: Don't forget to bring it up the next time you see him. Coming from a place where he's part of the majority to one where he's among the minority, perhaps he's not conditioned to over-analyze things the way Ben and I are. When someone asks him if he's from Africa, maybe he's genuinely impressed that they're able to figure it out on their own.

I just hope he's not looking for work.

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