When you travel, your brain opens up in a way that people who don’t travel will never understand. It literally changes your brain composition. – A 68 year old guy I met in a vegetarian restaurant
It’s been close to six months since I boarded my flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand, with most of my worldly possessions in tow. With only two weeks left in this country, I’ve been reflecting on my expectations of how this trip would go compared to what actually went down. My actual adventures FAR exceeded any expectation I had at that time. I let my experiences as a Black man in America, along with the projected fears of those around me who voiced a negative opinion about my departure from the U.S., paint an inaccurate picture of how my time as a dark-skinned male in a foreign country would pan out.
Coming from a system that has racism so engrained in it that a Black president and two Black Attorney Generals could do nothing to improve race relations in the U.S. on a large scale, it seemed reasonable to expect that I would be subjected to semi-regular racism as I thought I’d be one of a handful of Black people in the whole country. To my surprise being Black has actually kind of my Thailand experience. This only happened once I stopped looking for racist incidents to occur and got an understanding of the Thai (and Chinese) attitude toward Black people.
I’m 6’1”, 220lbs, and dark-skinned. When I walk into a venue here, people tend to notice. My initial reaction of “What the hell are these folks looking at?” was eventually replaced with indifference once I realized that the stares were either out of curiosity or the assumption that I must be somebody important. Now, I just pretend to actually be somebody famous when Thais and Chinese tourists ask to take a picture with me. This week alone, I’ve been both a wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons and Idris Elba’s son, autographs and all. I can’t stop it from happening, so I have fun with it. The stereotypes associated with being a Black American, as I’ve experienced them, have been totally harmless.
Ok, some of the stereotypes can be whack, like when the lady selling grilled mystery meat at a street stall tells me everything is chicken knowing damn well I wouldn’t eat if I knew it was pig intestines. Or when people greet me with the awkward, complicated dap like I don’t know how to shake hands. Other than that though…it’s all good.
Socially, being Black has allowed me to build a small network of like-minded individuals who have helped make my time abroad phenomenal. While our skin color contributed to drawing us together, we’ve grown as individuals through shared experiences and support for one another. We really want to see our Black folks be able to take that leap of moving abroad and really thrive. I could go on for days about how these people have stoked my and Erica’s drive to be the best version of ourselves. This encouragement coupled with my intention to stay abroad throughout the entirety of the (potential) Trump presidency has me working harder than ever to make this living abroad thing a way of life. Put Bernie Sanders in office then we can talk.
On the flip side, the Thai culture does have an unusual obsession with lighter skin, as it is associated with a higher status in society. Darker skin is associated with rural field workers. This ‘lighter is better’ attitude is obvious in advertising, and I’m told it’s even passively taught in the classroom. It seems like a standard that they hold for themselves though, foreigners not so much. Neither I nor my wife have run into any situations where we felt discriminated against.
Really, aside from the curious stares, Thais as a whole don’t really seem to care that I’m Black. Expats neither. The culture overall is based on mutual respect and non-judgement and it shows in their interactions and demeanor. While I don’t believe my experiences will be echoed by everyone who comes to Chiang Mai, this has been the case with most people I’ve talked to. Even a smattering of racism here and there wouldn’t be enough to keep me away from Thailand. It would actually make it feel a little more like home.