"How do you feel being the only one?" she asked, rather bluntly, with concern and interest in her voice.
I was sitting in a circle with the fellow American ESL teachers, surrounded by wine and beer bottles with a deck of cards in the center and some alternative rock playing from a laptop.
The only one. Those words echoed in my head for a couple of seconds. I didn’t know how to respond to such a question. We had been in Thailand for about two weeks, and the culture shock was strong. The smells, the sounds, the language, the food, the jet lag -- the adjustment was as exciting as it was exhausting. Furthermore, I was experiencing a double dose of culture shock. Besides being a Ghanaian American girl in Thailand, I was also one of four persons of color in a group of more than 200 soon-to-be ESL teachers. I was alone in my culture and my race.
As audacious as her inquiry was, it was caring nonetheless. It was better than if she stated that our feelings are the same and as foreigners we are experiencing equal levels of culture shock and treatment from locals. Her question held a social awareness that is hard for some people to admit.
It was a fitting introduction to the cultural confusion and personal reflection that marked my experience as an ESL teacher in Thailand.
There was the time when students laughed at me for wearing a head-wrap to class, and one teacher approached me and asked if I was wearing a Thai skirt on my head. Shortly afterward, my coordinator pulled me aside to explain that in Thai culture, decorative scarves are traditionally worn as a skirt. I replied, "Well, in my culture, scarves can be worn as a headdress, to serve as statements of fashion, beauty and individuality." I then gathered pictures from Google of some fine looking brown-skinned women in head-wraps, and showed them to my coordinator one by one.
There was the time when one of my students drew a picture of me, coloring me in with a black crayon.
Worst was the time when we saw a racially disturbing performance that broke my spirit. It was a burlesque show in which one of the performers posed as a pregnant woman with darker skin, short kinky hair and painted-on missing teeth while lip-synching an old jazz song. At the end of her piece, she pulled a tiny dark-skinned baby doll out from under her dress. The crowd roared with laughter. I stormed out of the theatre and burst into tears.
There was the argument I had while having lunch at the local outdoor restaurant across the school campus. A man I had never see before sat at one of the tables across from me and asked where I'm from.
"Maajak America, kha," I replied. He refused to accept that as an answer. This started the most insulting mini-verbal-war I have had in another language. We argued back and forth, him saying that I am not American and me wishing I brought a copy of my passport along with me.
He gestured to my skin and said "African!" in a disgusted tone. I finally explained that yes, I am African, but I was born and raised in America. He shut up, satisfied that he was correct.
Finally, there was the time I met a beautiful little girl with an (absent) Ethiopian father and Thai mother. The girl didn’t speak English, so she didn’t understand what I said while I hugged her tightly and told her how beautiful and special she is. After I left, I was filled with sadness. I wondered who will be there to understand her feelings when she grows up and realizes she is not like the girls around her. Who will show her pictures of African women? Who will teach her the other side of her culture?
And there were several other incidents that I want to keep inside. Or for a future memoir.
I eventually stopped being angry about the misconceptions some Thai people had about my race and culture. The racial stereotyping they had received from Western media is the same kind that we Americans ingest. Those messages travel much more negatively halfway across the world, especially within a culture that knows little or nothing about the history of Black struggles in America -- slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, police brutality and so on.
Colorism is also a huge issue in Thailand. There is a general desire for white skin, and a large market for whitening skin products. It was a challenge finding skin care products that did not have "whitening" on the label. I also had experiences of meeting dark-skinned Thai people who jokingly referred to themselves as "black like me."
But it wasn't all bad. Living in Thailand also meant being surrounded by the most hospitable, fun-loving and kind people I had ever met.
There was the time I got into a small motorbike incident right outside of the school. Everyone who was nearby rushed to help me and my friend. We were surrounded by local shop owners and their family members, who cleaned and consoled us.
Or when I met my new soul friend, who was practicing English as I was learning Thai. We understand each other in a rare way that involves us speaking a wordless language.
The time I led the school's band for Teacher's Day. I marched throughout the marketplace of the town, as people smiled and waved proudly at me.
The time when my student wrote me a beautiful and simple note, which read “I’m glad you could come."
And many more wonderful moments that I want to keep to myself. Or for a future book.
My time in Thailand was short but significant. There were irreplaceable moments of being surrounded by a new unit of family and friends, in one of our humble and beautiful homes. I started a bubble tea fundraiser to bring b-boy dance teachers to our school, with an inspiring teacher who remains one of my closest friends. I fell in love with about 500 students, who I hope to see again one day. I learned some Thai!
Most importantly, I shared with my students and community something that they had yet to experience about black culture and colorful personalities. And I did it by being my complete self.
I believe that it is important for people of color to teach and travel to distant lands in order to cure the misconceptions that others may have about us. It is just as crucial to experience another culture wholeheartedly and completely as it is to express and educate others about a misrepresented side of American culture.
During my trip, my journalistic mentality was (and still is) to find "the universality of all people" -- what makes us think alike, bleed the same color? Ultimately, what do we share in this life besides inhabiting the same marvelous yet malicious earth? And why is this universality not enough to shield us from the social discrepancies in our world? I set out on this trip to find some answers to my questions, teach wonderful students and learn a new way of living.
I may not have the answers yet. But I do know the answer to understanding one another. It simply involves learning the language of the heart. And that can be spoken in any tone, dialect or accent.