Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why you do like that?

You know, the only thing worse than the isolation of being the only native English speaking woman in this town* is having everyone point it out to me.

Every day I ask my classes what they did the day before, or over the weekend. And sometimes ... in the more advanced classes at least... they ask me the same question in return. So I was telling my pre-intermediates that I had gone to the beach ... or maybe it was Bangkok, I can't remember. They asked me who I went with and I said "Just me." and seriously - everyone is scandalized.

To reassure them that I'm not completely pathetic I tell them that there were two women who taught at the school and we did everything together while they were here, but now that they've left it's just me, so I do things alone. But they go on to ask "You have a boyfriend?", "Um.... no." "You have a boyfriend in America???" (they're getting desperate now) and I tell them that "If I had a boyfriend in America I would not be in Thailand alone." and now my favorite part... I actually get this one a lot "Oh... I don't believe you." GAH! I don't know if it's meant as flattery, or a joke, or what... but it's just annoying.

In about half my evening classes, when they find out that I walk home alone at night, one of the men is scandalized enough to insist that he drive me home.... the entire 1/2 mile of well occupied road. It's fine, I'm lazy enough to appreciate the ride. One of my students has been driving me home on Tuesdays and Thursdays and actually took me out for mango & sticky rice the other day. It was nice to sit and chat with him... but I got the quiz about being alone again.

Then, yesterday I was walking to the food court to get dinner and I ran into him. As though we had not JUST had the quiz he started in on me again
"Where are you going?"
"To get some dinner."
"Yes... just me."
"Why you do like that?"


I think for a Thai person, there's nothing worse than being alone. Seriously... the culture tends to have the attitude of "the more the merrier" and most restaurants & bars are set up with long tables to accommodate large parties. In the home, meals are served on mats on the floor, usually outside. There doesn't seem to be the concept of needing to set another place at the table, it's normal to have a lot of people at a meal and since everyone serves themselves from several communal dishes in the center - an extra person or two is no big deal.

My students concern for me is genuine, and I do appreciate it. But it's hard not to feel that much worse about being on my own here. Part of me feels like a failure for not having made friends. I get along well enough with the Filipino women at the school. But when I hang out it's rarely fun or interesting enough for me to want to go out of my way to encourage the friendship. We have virtually nothing in common with regard to passions or interests or priorities in life. I spend enough time in bland & polite conversations with my students that I'm just not all that enthusiastic about doing it again over dinner.

It's not like the movies kids. I had this idea that I would be surrounded by all these interesting and adventurous people from England or Australia or wherever... but that just hasn't happened. The western guys who come here do so for the Thai women** and western women don't seem to find their way into Rayong. I imagined being surrounded by other foreign teachers would mean intelligent conversations about worldly topics. Nope. I have never in my life heard so many openly racist jokes and comments about people from different countries.

And it's the kind of thing that I was able to overlook or at least keep a balanced attitude about for a while. Especially while Bunny was here - she tended to steer every conversation towards the silly and ridiculous - evenings out with the group were fine, they were fun. But after a year, and without any buffer personalities to even out the group it's really grating on me. And I'm sure I've grated on the others. It's not fun anymore.

The other day I mentioned to Jeb that I had picked a location for my going away dinner on Saturday night. His response... "Oh - I'm having a party at my place that night... you can come if you want." He'd already invited half the teachers in Rayong... just, you know... not me. And that's fine. It's just my last week here. Why should that matter? I really wouldn't care if he didn't come to my going away thing... but I'm not about to try to compete with his party. I really just need to get out of here.

TAG: Code Fish Sauce

*Marie is technically a native English speaker in that it is her first and only fluent language... but she has a Swiss mother, Filipino father and was born in Thailand.

**I knew this would be the case before I got here, and I've gone back and forth between feeling like I'm being prejudiced and should give the guys a chance, and having those prejudices confirmed over and over and over again. One of these days I will post aaaaaaall about this topic.

*** Edited to add that it happened AGAIN just after I wrote up this post. I substituted for another teacher and was asked "Are you married?" not once, but twice (the second guy was out of the room when the first guy asked) and "Do you have a friend in Rayong? A buddy?" Do you even know what it's like to have to stand in front of a room full of strangers and have to answer "No." while smiling?


IamSusie said...

I've had this experience with casual friends when I was moving. They decide you just aren't worth it anymore and treat you as though you are already gone. I decided it isn't personal, just human nature. Like you, the experience hastened my eagerness to leave. And.. at the time (several moves, this happened) I felt really sad about it.

I imagine Thais living here in the USA feel pretty lonely because of our rugged individualistic values.

Do you think you would have found a wider international community if you were in a bigger city?

Michael5000 said...

I take it as a show of strength that we're only at Code Fish Sauce!


Bezzie said...

But you're also teaching them mmore than the language. You're teaching them that "Hey, in America, there's is nothing wrong with going solo." Shoot, no one thinks twice about it over here. (And sometimes I prefer it!)

Victoria said...

Hey there!! I haven't stopped by here in a while, but I'm really impressed you're still in Thailand! I'm in New York and sorely miss SE Asia....

Also - I and all of the other female teachers I know got the same questions. DO NOT feel like you are being singled out. As you mention, Thais don't understand the concept of a single woman. It's a very sexist country and they continue to identify women with the home and marriage. While it may be grating that they seem to mock your singleness, remember that at the same time how conservative and sexist the country is. There are many Thai women who are probably extremely envious of you because you can be single and be okay with it. You can say in response, "In America, women are strong and respected!" if they seem to look at you with disapproval when you say you're single!

Anyway, we should e-mail! I started to feel very isolated in Asia as well, and I have to say that I was relieved to return to an English speaking country. However, it can be isolating in other ways...the concepts of isolation and miscommunication are interesting because of their many facets that aren't necessarily cultural and language-based.... Talk to you later!

Rebel said...

Susie, yeah if I'd been in a bigger city I would have met more people. But there would have been more traffic, more pollution, and I would have been farther from the beach - everything has pros & cons. =/

M5K, well - fish sauce didn't last long, go read today's post. =(

Bezzie, it's true. I try not to have a political/cultural agenda when I go into the class room, but I do try to challenge them if racist or sexist ideas come up.

Victoria, I try not to think of Thailand as a sexist country - any more than I'd like them to think of the US as a racist country. But you're right, there are some very strict gender roles in Thailand.

Michael5000 said...

"You know, the only thing worse than the isolation of being the only native English speaking woman in this town is having everyone point it out to me."

Technically, it would also be worse if they all threw sharp rocks at you. Or chased after you in a frenzied mob, hoping to sink their razor-sharp teeth into your still-living flesh. You have to keep things in perspective.