Chronicles of a Black Girl in Thailand
I was sixteen, a little afraid, but prepared for the time of my life
It honestly felt like the hottest place on earth. Once the airport doors slid open and I took my first breath of Bangkok smog I was simultaneously choked up by the hot, thick, humidity of the atmosphere, but I loved it. I think I was an island dweller in a past life from the way I’m obsessed with being warm. As someone who grew up in Northeastern Ohio where cancelled school due to lake effect snow was a common occurrence throughout my upbringing, the promise of hot, sunshine filled days, even in the middle of December felt like a blessing to me.
I was so excited that this would now be my new life. Now I admit, being only 15 years old, flying halfway across the world, not even knowing how to say basics like “hello” in the language, and being without my parents, was quite intimidating. But I knew what I had signed myself up for. I read all the material, every textbook and manual about how to be an ambassador for your country, how to be respectful to your host country, and the do’s and don’ts of an international exchange student. I knew it all, but it was now time to put all that knowledge into action, which is much easier said than done.
I found myself sitting in a river boat, feeling a bit insecure in between sharing awkward smiles and head nods. I can feel strangers’ gazes boring holes into my body. The neon orange life jacket wasn’t enough to save me from the unbearable silence. However, it wasn’t exactly silence. Everyone was talking and laughing but my ears couldn’t catch on to this new language. I shifted my efforts toward my senses. My eyes searching people’s faces, eyes, and lips for a sign, a hint, a feeling of what was to come next. I had no recollection of the conversations I had participated in over the past 3 days. I couldn’t tell you what region of the country I was in, I had completely forgotten how to say my host father’s name and was too afraid to ask for it again. So, I sat there motionless, quiet, and with my eyes wide open as to not miss one moment going by.
On the bus going back to wherever we came from, my host mother walked toward me with a blue plastic bag in hand. There was something bulky inside of it. The way she glided down the aisle of the bus, you could tell it wasn’t heavy. She handed it to me. I instantly feel my cortisol levels starting to rise. How do I tell her the bag, nor its contents are mine? I don’t have the vocabulary for a situation like this. I shake my head no, and she ignores me and places the bag in the empty seat next to me and says something to me while gesturing at the bag. I hesitantly open it and I see spikey red balls, tens of them piled in the bag. She reaches her hand in and pulls one out. My eyes racing to see what she’s going to do next. She bites into its skin and begins peeling it back to reveal a white meaty inside. She starts gesturing toward me, egging me to repeat her actions, so I do. I bite the skin, and peel back the spikey outside until the white ball is released. I bite into it, and the sweetest flavor coats my tastebuds. It was the texture of a plum and the flavor of an apple, but a hybrid between a granny smith and a gala. In the way that it’s obviously sweet, but there’s definitely a slightly sour undertone. It was also creamy like the meat of a coconut. Before I knew it, I had eaten my very first rambutan. And soon after another eight more were to follow. By the time I looked back up from my pile of pits and skins, my host mom had walked away back to her seat and was once again laughing and smiling with everyone else around her.
After rambutan number 9 and 10, I decided to take a break, I carefully scooped up the fruit remains from my lap and carefully put them back in the plastic bag, making sure to separate them from the uneaten ones. As I pushed the bag’s contents to the side, I notice a piece of paper taped to the backside of the bag. It read, “HBD Manow”. Chills ran through my body. I could not believe I had nearly forgotten my own 16th birthday. So much of my life was changing, everything was happening before my eyes. People’s words slipping into my ears faster and further than my comprehension could take me. In this one experience, I’ve suddenly become one year older, I was beginning to feel a lot less wise, but it was also the first semblance of trust that I put into the stranger that I’m meant to call my host mother. At this point I’ve only been in Thailand for 10 days, and there’s still approximately 287 more to go.
It’s the night before my first day of school. Earlier in the day my host sister Mint showed me how to get to and from school by bus. She drew me a map, using various 7-Elevens as landmarks along my route. My host mom is now prepping me on how to say my address in Thai. According to Mint, this is really important information to know for when the motorcycle man needs to drop me off after school. I rehearsed and repeated my address many times over, as my mom checked and critiqued me for proper pronunciation. I had my sister help me with a short speech I was meant to give on my first day in front of the entire school. I went to bed that night anxious. What would school be like? Will I fit in? How am I going to handle class when I can’t speak or understand the language, let alone read or write? Who will I sit with at lunch time? So many thoughts ran through my mind that night. I rehearsed scenarios over and over again trying to account for every possible outcome to any situation I might find myself in. I eventually worried myself to sleep. I only know this because at 5am I was awakened by my host dad.
I got up, washed my face, brushed my teeth, and slipped on my school uniform. I had never worn a uniform to school before, I didn’t know how I felt about the concept of uniforms. Did it make me feel like I was losing a sense of my individuality? Was it making me a less vain person and allowing me to focus more on other aspects of myself? There honestly wasn’t even time to ponder these questions to myself before I was being whisked into the car, but of course after nearly climbing into the driver’s seat. “Sorry, I forgot you drive on the other side of the road.” I awkwardly explain, as I made my way to the passenger side. My host dad drove my sister and I to another location, where we would switch into another car and someone else would then drive us the rest of the way to school. I don’t exactly know who this woman was, I didn’t really ask questions, it was 5:30 in the morning. I couldn’t tell the difference between my jetlag, my restless sleep from the night before, or the fact that I was being waken up at such an ungodly hour. I dozed off on the ride to school and I wake up to being rushed out the car, so we didn’t hold up traffic.
The steamy morning air feels as if the sun is taunting us, just giving us a hint of what blazing temperatures are ahead of us. I walk up to the entrance gate tucked closely behind my host sister. The 100 Baht my host dad gave me to pay for lunch and the bus home, is clenched so tightly in the palm of my hand I thought my nails had begun to pierce through the paper. My sister and I wait for a group ahead of us to move forward. Then we were next. We walk through the gates and turn to face a monument decorated with marigold flowers and offerings. I see everyone else begin to press their palms together in front of their faces, with their noses resting against the tips of their thumbs. Their mouths were moving, but I couldn’t hear a word that was murmured. I followed suit and then quickly moved along so the next group could take their turn in front of the shrine.
Since we arrived at school so early, my sister and I sat at a table on the side of the canteen to wait for the morning ceremony to begin. As usual, I dozed off with my head resting on the iron lattice table. I wake up to my sister tapping me on my shoulder and telling me that the morning ceremony is about to start. I jump up, wipe the sleep out of my eyes, and try to rub the imprint of the table grid lines off my forehead. I reach into my skirt pocket and pull out the money my father gave me and the index card with my speech written on it. I’m being pulled along, and told where to stand, and where move to next. I look around and I can no longer find my sister through the shuffling. Next thing I know, I’m standing on stage in front of thousands of Thai students and staff, everyone in the audience sitting neatly in rows.
In this very moment I’m extremely thankful for my uniform. It became an equalizer for myself amongst the sea of people surrounding me. All the girls wearing the same skirts and shirts as me. Everything the same, down to the shoes and socks. But even my uniform couldn’t counteract the immense realization that not only was I the only brown face in this school, but possibly the only Black girl for many more kilometers around.
It was overwhelming to be so young, so far away from my family, and so painfully aware of my Blackness. I’ve never experienced this before. None of the scenario rehearsals in my head from the night before prepared me for this. None of the textbooks, or materials mentioned this, not even the text boxes in the margins of the page with the small print. None of the predeparture orientations warned me that I was going to feel this way. I felt like my cultural ties to anyone and anything that resembled familiarity had been cut loose in this moment of clarity. I was flying without a parachute, and I had already jumped.
I was gestured toward the microphone at the front of the stage. And I held my index card firmly with both hands and read aloud the phonetic Thai words from the card. “Sah-wah-dee-ka… Kawp-khun-mak-ka… Joop-joop-na” and with the biggest smile I could muster, I finished my speech with a bow, a proper Thai wai, just like Mint taught me. I stepped away from the microphone. The audience erupted in applause and laughter. I was trembling, but I was proud. That moment felt as if one cord of my parachute had miraculously been reattached.
The rest of my first day at school was a blur. Girls were coming up to me asking to take pictures and repeating their favorite parts of my speech back to me, “Joop joop na!” The next couple of weeks I felt like a celebrity. Everyone knew who I was, everyone knew my name, I always stood out in any and every crowd, but it was a nice feeling. My Thai school had become a safe place for me.
Now of course there were still those moments. Moments when someone reached out to shake my hand and would use their other hand to not so casually feel the brown skin on my arm. Or when someone would ask if they could touch the texture of my curls. My least favorite would happen on the bus rides home. Mostly it was the silent stares as I went to sit down in my window seat. I was hyper aware of every noise and whisper. The worst part was the pictures being taken of me. As I sat alone at the bus stop in my school uniform, I wait for the number 74. Buses would pull up and stop to drop off passengers. The people on the bus would pull out their phones, reach out the bus window, and snap a quick picture of the Black girl before zooming off into the Bangkok traffic. I wasn’t unaware, I knew I was different, it was just that these moments wouldn’t allow me to forget it.
But there was one place I knew I could always seek refuge, without the pressure of feeling different, or being aware of my other-ness. At home my mom and dad, khun mae and khun paw respectively, truly took me in as their daughter. They took me into their home and made it our home. My khun mae taught me how to properly hang my laundry with my socks and bottoms on the lower rungs and my tops at the top, letting me know that hierarchy is very important in Thai culture and society, even when it comes to your laundry. My khun paw always asking me to be his riding mate on the long rides to the airport to pick up my eldest sister May. When we would go out for dinner as a family, my khun paw would beg me to sing just one song on karaoke, for the entire restaurant. And the only reason I would agree was to see how proud my khun paw was and how he would yell out to the restaurant, “luk sao kawng pom!” or “That’s my daughter!” in Thai.
Living with my host family through the year slowly but surely repaired every parachute cord I felt had been cut. Through the sharing of their language, food, religion, culture, and their lives, it felt as if I was strapped to their chest and they had a backup parachute to catch us both from free falling. Every cord in perfectly working condition. New cultural ties were being formed. And before I knew it, I was able to leave the house without my Thai-Eng translation dictionary. When someone would take an unsolicited picture of me, I would pull out my phone and take a picture right back. I would proudly recite my full address for the motorcycle man every time I needed a ride home, even if he already knew where I lived because he remembered me from last time. Everyone knew who I was, as I was still the only black girl in the neighborhood and kind of hard to forget. Looking back on this time in my life, it almost feels like a fever dream.
I sometimes find myself thinking aloud asking, “Did all of that really happen to me?” “Was that really my life?” The photo prints and ticket stubs I kept are constant reminders that it all was indeed very real. And out of all the questions I ask myself there’s a few that I simply can’t answer for myself, what happened to all those photos of me sitting at the bus stop waiting for bus number 74? Did I make it into someone’s family album? Am I frozen in time on someone’s old sim card from a decade ago? What would I do if I could see those pictures now? Well, I guess there are just some things in life that you’ll simply never know the answer to.