This is a re-post of a piece I published for the Peace Corps Thailand Magazine.
Captain is 3 years old. He is new so he wasn’t around for my first year here. Upon meeting me for the first time, Captain promptly yelled across the room to my counterpart, “WHY IS KRU CELETE BROWN?” Just another day in the life.
During the Songkran holiday all of my extended host family members were in town. I hadn’t met some of them yet so we started to talk while grilling pork under the outdoor gazebo. Eventually I am full and had begun to get tired, so I zoned out as the rapid Thai conversations around me continued. I’m shaken out of my daze when one of the family members I had just met puts another huge bowl of food in front of me, even while I try to politely decline. She declares to the group, “Eat more! You’re fat, you must need more to eat.” So it goes.
I regularly bike to 7/11. I arrive and greet the cashiers. Some know me by now and I’m sure my weekly haul of bread, tuna, raisins, green tea, and Ritz crackers keeps them all entertained (and perhaps concerned about my culinary choices). This particular week, I’m looking for soap. I spend about 20 minutes reading labels trying to find any soap option without whitening chemicals. Soon another customer comes over, intrigued by the farang. She realizes I speak a little Thai and we exchanged niceties. She then directs me down the aisle toward the skin whitening products and proceeds to tell me which lotions will help me lighten my skin. She also lets me know that it would be better if I wore long sleeves and covered my face when I bike so the sun doesn’t make me darker. I thank her, tell her I like my skin, and leave without the soap I came for while tears burned in my eyes.
I’ve always loved playing sports. Throughout my life volleyball has been a consistent source of joy and release in my life. It helps that I’m really good. I was thrilled when I found out lots of kids at my school love to play. I would stay after school and play with them as often as I could. I finished up a game one evening and waved goodbye to a few teachers lingering in the office, one shouted back, “Keep playing every day and you won’t be so big anymore. See you tomorrow, goodbye!”
I share these stories because Thailand, like most other Asian countries, is obsessed with impossible beauty standards. The preference for thin and white is overwhelming, and at times, sickening. Walking down the street in Bangkok you can kick a rock and hit a clinic offering skin lighting treatments and all of the nips and tucks you could possibly desire. It is a multi-billion dollar industry profiting off the media created and perpetuated insecurities of the selfie generation.
I didn’t want to let the constant commenting on appearance ruin my whole perception of Thai culture, so I decided I needed to work on giving my community other adjectives to apply to me. If I didn’t want to be fat- I would be smart, or strong, or funny. If I don’t want to be the brown farang in town- I’ll be a good person, an invested teacher, a competent leader, a friend. I decided to be interested, curious, active, and involved.
To my fellow PCVs, and all humans really, I say this: You are far more than your size. You are more than your skin color. You are more than your physical appearance. Show the world that. Don’t get bogged down in the fear that being big means being written off. That being anything other than advertisement thin and white makes you less valuable. This could not be further from the truth.
Most of the time the comments roll off my back, but other times they really cut deep. Sometimes it’s just been a long day and hearing that you’re fat and ugly is the straw that breaks the camels back. I had to recognize that that’s ok, too. It’s ok to be frustrated, to cry, to question how the hell you’re going to face the rest of the day. I just hope that, somehow, you find a way out of the dark spiral of inadequacy and into the strength of your uniqueness. Live those other adjectives and your new bubble might just start feeling less hostile.
So yes, every time I meet a new person in my community, we have the conversation about my size. We talk about why I’m brown. They ask if I’m really American, and then ask someone else just to double check. But now, I know I don’t have to wait long before someone who knows me chimes in “she’s strong, and smart, and funny”. There is no better feeling in the world than being known well enough to let someone else defend me in a battle I’m tired of fighting.