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home : columns : columns August 27, 2015

8/26/2014 3:51:00 PM
Whiteness in the land of smiles
Parker Bennett
Guest Columnist

I am writing to you from Uttaradit, Thailand, the land of torrential downpours, smelly durian fruit and cheerful Thai smiles. I will be here for 10 months and have just found the time to finally get my thoughts down on paper. I have been having the time of my life here made up of delicious food, beautiful places, and kind people.

I arrived roughly two months ago as part of an organization called Teach Thailand Corps (TTC). This organization advertises as a foundation, where it "places American graduates in underserved Thai schools" and are expected to teach English in small towns with little Western influence. However, this was not the case. Soon after our arrival, we discovered that we were not working for any underprivileged school but, instead, hired to work for a private program in a public school.

My image of roughing it in a distant town surrounded by rice fields and chickens was an illusion.

I arrived to find myself in a metropolis filled with urbanized malls, swimming pools, and even a university. The particular school I was placed in turned out to be an all-girls school of more than 3,000 students, ranging in ages from 12 to 18. This school has air-conditioned rooms, smart-boards and high-tech projectors.

Thailand loves white people. This love of lighter skin has been constructed from the historical background that poorer people who worked in the fields all day had darker skin than the rich, privileged white-skinned elite class. This illusion has made our white skin, my blonde hair, even our bodies, into exoticisms, where we are local celebrities in our part of Thailand.

We have become a flag for the school to use in persuading the students' parents to pay more for their special programs. When I am not teaching, I am paraded around as if I am a puppet, having to attend assemblies where I do not have to utter a single word, only walk or wave to receive applause and cheers. At first it was flattering and empowering, but once I see past the façade I am left speechless, knowing that my face is simply a canvas to be used by the institutions however they wish.

I thought I was here for my teaching, my creative energy and personality, but no matter how poorly or cleverly I teach, I will be seen only for looks. I know it is hard to believe, I even fought it at first, so it has taken me some time to fathom the situation we are experiencing in the last 80 days here.

The only way to explain the depth of my disenchantment is to compare it to the experience of others. My friend Karmjeet, who arrived as one of us four American volunteers that were placed here in Uttaradit, has darker skin - because her family is from India. Even though she was born in the United States, has an American passport, and can teach English better than I can, she is not given the same privileges that I receive. In comparison, I receive larger portions of food, more opportunities to teach English and far more waves and giggles from my students than her.

The reason, again, lies in the image of whiteness. This is not only apparent in the school, but I believe it is engrained in Southeast Asian society as a whole. I can walk into any convenience store and find whitening agents in deodorant sticks, shampoos or really any hygienic product. What I mean is that this infatuation with whiteness has caused Thai people to bleach themselves.

Part of my sense of disillusionment comes from being prepared for one version of our teaching experience here, and discovering another. Coming to teach English in a country that is world-renowned for having beautiful people, only to discover their obsession with whiteness, has caused a new kind of frustration that I never expected to arise in the land of smiles.

Parker Bennett is a Sisters High School graduate.

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