Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Standing Out

I've gotten used to being special. In Kazakhstan, I don't have to do anything out of the ordinary and I stand out. In fact, even if I try to be completely ordinary, I still attract attention. When I first got here, that attention was flattering. Then, it was annoying. And now, it's just the status quo. It's so normal, in fact, that I didn't notice how much I'd come to expect it until I wasn't special anymore.

In January, I took a trip to visit an American friend in Thailand. Walking down the streets in downtown Bangkok, I saw as many foreign faces as I did Thai ones. On the one hand, foreigners stand out in Thailand even more than they do in Kazakhstan. In Thailand, if your face is white, you are not from around there. At least in Kazakhstan you can buy a local fur coat and hat and boots and convince yourself, as you shuffle down the street, that you look Russian. In reality, just the way you walk often sets you apart as a foreigner, and something is always a little wrong with your wardrobe. But you can at least think you're fitting in. In Thailand, there's no way to change the way your face looks; you are not Thai.

But, despite this stark feeling of standing out, in reality westerners in Thailand blend into the tourist landscape almost effortlessly, at least in the touristy places that I visited. Unlike in Kazakhstan, where foreigners, even in the big cities, are rare, it seemed like every other face in downtown Bangkok wasn't local. My white face was nothing special. Not interesting, or different, or annoying because I couldn't speak the language. Thais were completely unaware of me, because they'd seen a hundred others just like me that very morning.

I didn't realize how much I'd come to expect that other people saw me as special. The shopkeepers in Thailand treated me the same as everybody else, never asking where I was from or striking up a conversation about whether I liked Barak Obama or was planning to marry a local man. The people selling food were unimpressed with my paltry Thai skills, and never once told me I spoke perfect Thai after only saying, “Hello, how are you?” And the other tourists completely ignored me. This was the hardest part for me. At first, every time I saw a white face I wanted to go up and introduce myself and ask where that person was from and what they were doing there. Of course, this would have meant talking to every other person on the street, so I contained myself. And anyone I talked to probably wouldn't have been too happy about it; they'd come to Thailand to get the “Thai experience,” not spend the whole time talking to Americans. They could do that at home. But for me, expats are an exciting oddity. Thailand was closer to America, at least in terms of the population I passed on the street, than anywhere I'd been for the last year and a half.

I realized, as I blended into the tourist crowd, that I liked being different. In Kazakhstan, I don't have to do anything extra to get people to know that I exist. Just walking down the street, people say hello to me, people that I'm sure I've never seen before. On the bus or in the store people will strike up a conversation with me. Sometimes, this can be annoying, but when else am I going to have people so interested in everything I have to say? When the teachers from different schools in our region held a volleyball tournament, I was asked to play for our team. Even after my teammates figured out that I'm terrible at volleyball, they kept asking me to play, although my allotted position on the court was always the far back corner. But they made sure I always shook the opposing team's hands.

I often get extra honor, even though I'm younger and not in a position of authority. If someone has set out tea and cookies in the cafeteria for some holiday, I'm always invited. When I give a toast at a party, people always listen, and often ask for a song afterward. I was asked to sing in a concert with my fellow English teachers, and then, even though we sang quite terribly, we were asked to sing again at the next concert. I'm sure this was solely because of my minor-celebrity status. At festivals, people always shove food on me, and when I visit other schools I get the full tour, plus a free lunch in the cafeteria.

I've started to expect these little honors. When I heard about a wedding for one of the teachers at my school that I thought I wasn't invited to, I felt a little slighted until I realized it was just the wedding announcement. The actual party will be this summer, and I can only assume that I will be invited to that. My ego was soothed. When I invited another volunteer to my school to help with a teacher training, I expected that the cafeteria would serve her (and me, as her companion) all their best dishes for free. They did; but for a moment, as I wondered whether they would, I contemplated what my reaction would be if there were no cookies on the table.

The Peace Corps warns you that one of the most difficult transitions back to America is the fact that you no longer stand out in the crowd. When, for the hundredth time, someone asks me if I'm going to marry a Kazakh man, I look forward to this anonymity. But mostly, I realize, I'm going to find it difficult to have to earn the right to be called special.

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