By May Cat
Besides confronting subconscious biases of the Asian identity, Thai people have a unique set of microaggressions from farangs, people of European descent, who often become tourists, “expats,” or begpackers in Thailand.
I asked people of Thai diaspora from all over the world what microaggressions they encounter specific to their Thai identity. From “third world” country biases, sexual objectification, food, and transphobia, here are 7 common topics you should avoid with a Thai person.
1. THIRD WORLD COUNTRY BIASES
“People assume you ride elephants to school in Thailand. Someone in the UK actually asked me this once. They seemed disappointed when I told them we had cars… Most likely because of the film Ongbak.”
- Kritti T., London
It’s true that elephants are a sacred symbol of Thailand due to their prominence in Buddhism. People would offer sugarcane and food if the elephant’s gentle presence were to grace a Thai market, revered as if they were monks. Oddly enough, it’s only the tourists who come to Thailand to ride elephants for entertainment. Sometimes it’s romantic to paint us as primitive and uncivilized, but elephants are not safari play things.
2. HYPER SEXUALIZATION
“One time I was going back to Thailand to visit family for the summer and this white guy was like, ‘You sure you’re not just going back there for your ‘summer job’?’ (implied sex work)”
-D.R., Los Angeles, USA
Every so often, Thai women have to confront the colonial male gaze that say we exist solely for sexual consumption.
Thanks to White Sexual Imperialism, Asian women are coerced into sex work, endure sexual violence, then slut-shamed for their economic survival. This, of course, has real consequences, where tourists would assume Thai women are sex workers, touching their bodies in public without consent — normalizing dangerous, predatory behaviors for Thai women everywhere.
Why then, wouldn’t anyone make that “joke” to a white woman visiting Thailand for the summer? It’s because people don’t see white women being commodified in the same way as Asian women. Simply put: this is hypersexualizing the Thai woman in front of you with an anti-sex worker joke.
3. “Your mom is Thai? Can I come over for dinner?!”
- Rinna R., Portland, Oregon USA
Besides you asking me where the best Thai food in town is, do you think that:
- My brown Asian mom exists to serve you for free, and
- We will let you steal our recipes?
It’s ridiculous enough when farangs like Andy Ricker asks Thai chefs to share recipe secrets, then use their American privilege, generational wealth, and capital to sell Thai people’s cultural productions. What profits then, actually reach the Thai immigrant community? In the NY Times article Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes, Francis Lam points out:
“…An American-born chef is more likely than an immigrant to have the connections and the means to grab investors or news media attention — even more so if the chef came up through a prestigious restaurant or culinary school or is quick with a witty quote.”
Can you guess their biggest crime? Hybridizing our foods for the farang palate, leaving off ingredients like Thai chilli and shrimp paste, then rebranding it as authentic. (My grandmother would definitely call it: โง่!)
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4. SERVANT OR MASTER POWER RELATIONS
“People tend to think that I’m the Thai bride to my father [when we are out together] because he is white.”
- Ida O., Sweden
“Probably because I’m mixed but I get the ‘Is that your nanny?’ (implying that my mum is my nanny) a lot.”
- Melanie M.L. London
Specifically when you are a Thai woman, people will assume unequal power dynamics to your relationships, rooted in racial and gender based implications. If you are near someone who’s a white straight male, or a person adjacent to whiteness, you are either a mail order Thai bride or their domestic servant — a notion that Thai women exist to fulfill a subordinate role for other’s comfort.
“When they make a joke about how I “used to be a boy” because that’s what they know Thailand for and I was pretty androgynous when I was little — I was partial to boys’ clothing”
- Somjit P., Austin, USA
Though Thailand may appear liberal as if trans folks are integrated into the culture, our trans sisters, brothers, and loved ones still face violence and discrimination in the public and workplace. When transgender characters are visible in the media, they are mocked or pigeon-holed as the punch line — something cisgender people definitely invented, oblivious to the violence and bullying they perpetuate. With transphobia and homophobia, some Thai LGBQT children are forced to go through physical and psychological training to be cis and straight. This is a hackneyed, ill-conceived joke using Thailand, Thai children, gender normativity, and transphobia as a lazy punchline.
6. ONE MONOLITHIC ASIAN CULTURE
“When people think [Thai people] use chopsticks for everything and they’re very surprised when I didn’t learn how to use chopsticks in the US until college…. And say they’re more “Asian” than me.”
— M.C., USA
Lovers of Diversity: Southeast and South Asians also exist within the Asian identity, and we have uniquely different cultures. Thai people’s dominant utensil is actually a pair of spoon and fork.
When the Western Gaze exotify Asian cuisines, as food photographer Celeste Noche points out — perpetuating stereotypes by lumping all “Asian things” together like a bad case of Chinoiserie, they expect bamboo plates and chopsticks, even if it’s offensively misused or not authentic to the culture at all. When there still is an “Asian salad” on the menu in 2017, that’s not a surprise. Thai people also use our hands (as well as many Southeast Asian countries), which is not impolite or uncivilized in our culture.
“We’re not less Asian just because we don’t use chopsticks, and you’re not an honorary Asian just because you read manga and eat rice with chopsticks.” — Somjit P.
You can familiarize yourself with Thai eating etiquettes here.
7. LINGUISTIC JOKES
“When people make the “bang cock” joke whenever I say I’m visiting Bangkok [or] my family is from Bangkok… wow. Hilarious. I’ve never heard THAT one before”
- Julia N., New York, USA
Finally, if it’s offensive to blurt “Ching Chong” jokes for East Asians and use fake names such as Captain Sum Ting Wong about an actual airplane crash, why is it different for Southeast Asian languages? The phonetic imitation of the “Asian language” is a favorite casually racist past time for non-Asians, with authors anchoring the western cannon like Mark Twain and Bret Harte’s “Chinaman” named “Ah Sin,” and Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar’s “Cream of Sum Yung Guy”.
As tonal and complex as the Thai language is, with 44 alphabets and 32 vowels, people shamelessly and clumsily mispronounce Thai words like Krungthep, Panang Curry and basic Muay Thai moves***, and still want to make an offensive linguistic, phonetic joke with the country’s capital.
Maybe we can move away from the casual Asian racism because it’s almost 2020?