Even after two years this country still manages to bewilder me, confuse me, and anger me. I am angry that no one informs us about assemblies or schedule changes so that we show up to class only to find that our students are missing—gone on a field trip or visiting with monks in the cafeteria or seeing the dentist in the meeting room downstairs. I am angry that when I first visit local food carts, I am overlooked and only attended to after all the locals have been offered food first, even if they arrived twenty minutes after me. I am angry that our school still puts our lunch out every day, placing our meals on silver trays next to the director’s seat, a clear sign that we are socially above all the other teachers even though none of us have any actual teaching experience. I am angry that we are treated differently everywhere we go, that we are simultaneously like celebrities, random women grabbing our wrists and directing us into selfies, while also being a circus side show, small children gawking in awe at our white skin and blonde hair and shouting after us FARANG FARANG (a.k.a. foreigner). I am angry that no one thinks to mention to us that we need to wear orange on a certain day and then show up to school to find that all of the teachers are not only dressed in that color but wearing identical shirts. I am angry that the way of life here forces my students onto motorbikes each day, most without helmets and all without a say. I am angry that one particular student suffered the consequences of this lifestyle when she was involved in an accident last year and now has a completely scarred leg due to her injuries. I am angry that for the first time in my life I am made aware of my gender in a way that not only makes me uncomfortable but makes me want to shout and scream WOMEN ARE JUST AS GOOD AS MEN!
This is a wide but not all encompassing list that has accumulated
throughout my time here. I realize that this is not my usual positive self speaking about students that make me smile and landscapes that take my breath away, or even experiences that challenge me and make me learn something. This is a stark reality check. When I came home for the months of April and May I was astounded at what most people thought my daily life was like. You’re living in Thailand. That must be wonderful. I think some people imagine me sitting on the beach most weekends, sipping a cocktail, and reading a book. Others see exotic fruits, steaming curries and an unfathomable language. And then the smaller percentage pictures shouting children, chalk dust and sticky marker covered hands. In reality my life is a little of all of these things, mostly the latter, and very little of the former. But most importantly, my life is made up of reflecting on my emotions, managing them and directing that energy in a positive way. I have learned over the last year ways to manage my anger. However, that doesn’t mean that still aren’t moments where I am threatened, where I feel I am about to be unraveled, where I don’t know how to suppress that anger any longer.
Over the past couple of weeks I have struggled with one such scenario, an anger that feels raw and untouched mostly because I have never had to experience this sort of adversity in the States. Gender inequality. It is something that I noticed from my first couple of months here last year. No girls seemed to run around the track, or play sports, or really have any muscle tone what so ever. All the women had a style that I would describe as overly feminine and girly giant bows tacked onto the end of their ponytails, small shiny belts accentuating their unbelievably small waistlines. The gender discrimination only became more apparent the longer I lived here. Some hotel managers only addressed the male in a group, never speaking to the women, some even implying that the male must be married to one or all of the women. I was told I couldn’t lift tables or chairs in the classroom, that I couldn’t carry my students’ books from one side of the school to another. Only men, a good Thai friend told me one time when I asked if we could help move a new table into our home. At first I found this all a bit comical. That is until this whole sexism thing started to affect my daily decisions.
I wanted to play soccer again. After having been off the field for a year, I finally found a fellow American friend who played three times a week with some locals. I asked to join and headed to a sport’s store to pick up some cleats. The woman who ran the shop was perpetually confused by me. When I first pointed to the cleats I wanted to try on she looked at me skeptically, saying they were for football.
“I know. I know,” I said. But still she was hesitant.
After I perused the shelves for a few more minutes and she saw that I wasn’t fooling around, she pulled a pair out of the glass casing for me. I was probably the only girl she had ever helped to buy cleats, I thought as she packaged up the red and white ones I had chosen.
I expected to get some backlash when I first walked out onto the field, expected for the men to not totally accept me. Yet, I was so so glad that I was brave enough to go play, after a year of not playing, on a field in hot, humid Thailand among all older men who could say anything they wanted about me and I would have no idea what they were saying. That night on the field, the men seemed welcoming and yet subtly hostile towards me. They told me good job and tried to translate for me as we switched activities. And yet they snickered at me when I ran, saying I was a foreigner, a girl. I imagined that they discussed my audacity to come play with them in the first place. It wasn’t until the next day when I told my mother over the phone, glowingly I might add, that I had played for the first time since moving here. Be careful, she warned. You can’t change a culture, Brenna.
And this, my friends, is where I started to feel uncomfortable. And angry. I was angry that when my male, American friend said he wouldn’t be going to practice for the next week in order to nurse a nagging Achilles’ heel, that it meant I couldn’t play either. I was angry that I had to be afraid of what could happen if I was on this field alone without a friend to “look out for me.” I was angry that these images even came to mind, that I even had to assume this of the men here. I was angry that girls are not encouraged to play sports here, angry that they didn’t have the same opportunities as boys, angry that these deeply engrained cultural values were now affecting me.
I remembered the man that owned the sports’ shop where I bought my cleats, how he sat at a table with a bowl of porridge in front of him and the TV on, not even acknowledging the sales woman when she asked him for change, wordlessly shooing his wife over to do the petty task. I was angry that men here could get away with doing nothing and still have all the wealth and power. I was angry that my girls, my brilliantly beautiful girls, could out perform the boys on every single task in school and yet they would still have less because of where they live, because of the gender inequality that exists here. I was angry that I was conscious of my gender, conscious of my limitations because of it. I was angry that I had grown up in a country where I had the opportunity to play, angry that my girls didn’t have the same opportunity. I was angry. So angry that I was nearly swallowed in tears as I tried to calmly explain to friends why I felt uncomfortable to go play soccer without a male counterpart. So angry that I didn’t want to think about my anger, didn’t want to think about the gender stereotypes that pervade this culture, didn’t want to think about how this would affect my young girls’ lives, how they would be shut out of so many opportunities simply because they had breasts and a vagina.
I haven’t been to practice for about a week and a half now. My cleats sit out on the back porch, grass and mud still clinging to their new surface. And I am still angry.
I am still angry.