Reader travel essay
Encounters on Thai beaches change American's perceptions
Call me vain, but I love the color of my skin. In the summer, it darkens to chestnut, but for the most part it's Crayola crayon brown. I wouldn't change it if I could, which is...
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Call me vain, but I love the color of my skin.
In the summer, it darkens to chestnut, but for the most part it's Crayola crayon brown. I wouldn't change it if I could, which is good, because I can't. When I decided to travel solo in Thailand, I prepared myself to be treated as an American. I prepared myself to be treated as a woman. It never occurred to me that I should prepare myself to be treated as brown.
But toward the end of my one-month journey, I was reminded in the most unexpected of ways of who I was and what I was in the eyes of others.
If you've never had the pleasure of visiting Thailand, it is a beautiful country full of color. Before I left Boston, I'd studied pictures in travel books and on Web sites. I knew to expect the vibrant orange robes of the Buddhist monks and the sunlit brightness of the gilded temples.
What I didn't expect were the variations in color among the people.
Just like Americans, they were dark and light. And just like Americans, it seemed like those with darker skin did more of the menial tasks street cleaning and driving taxis, for example.
I didn't ask anybody about it. Nor did I equate their situation with my own. I indulged in being a stereotypical tourist. It took a child to open my eyes.
I never knew her name. She must have been 12. I met her and her friend on a beach in Phuket. It was a beach frequented by locals. I remember looking up from my journal to find her staring at me. I smiled. That was all the invitation needed.
They plopped into the sand beside me. The girl who'd stared was dark-skinned. Her friend was fair. The friend began asking me questions they were trying to practice their English.
Finally, their teacher appeared. She thanked me for my patience and pointed out, "She's staring at you because she's never seen a dark-skinned American before."
The girl said something in her language. The teacher translated, "She's happy to see you. She feels like it would be OK for someone like her to visit your country."
Someone like her.
Those words returned to me a few days later when I visited a different beach, one frequented mostly by tourists. The only Thai people that I saw as I strolled in front of the long line of beach chairs were fair-skinned Thai women lounging with older Caucasian men and dark-skinned Thai women renting the beach chairs.
I couldn't afford to rent anything, so I found an empty spot and spread out my beach blanket. I had just gotten settled when two men approached. They were blond and very pale, as if they had just arrived in Thailand. When they stood over me, one smiled and asked, "Do you speak English?"
Since I always thought I looked and acted distinctly American, I was a bit surprised by the question, but I replied with a smile, "Yes."
"Great," he said. "How much are you renting the beach chairs for?"
I wanted to laugh, but I kept smiling. "I don't know anything about beach chairs. Try asking further up the beach."
They got that look on their faces that I had only ever seen in the United States, when I'd been walking around a store, usually a fancy store, and someone, usually Caucasian, asked, "Do you work here?" And like those people back in the States, both men apologized profusely and walked on.
They didn't rent a beach chair. They pulled out their own beach blanket. And as I surreptitiously watched them sunning, I couldn't help but think no one was going to approach them to ask about renting anything.
I traveled to Thailand five years ago, but what happened continues to this day to influence my perceptions.
Five years later, I don't know if those two young men remember our encounter. Why would they?
But I do like to think that the girl remembers. I'll never forget any of them, any more than I will ever forget the color of my skin.
Cynthia Staples lives in Boston.
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