Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Hierarchy of Color

I have been at the home-stay--where I will spend my internship month--for a grand total of 3 days and I’ve been sick for the most part. I left my home (and Isaan family) on February 29th at 7am. My host teacher, P’Nok, the math teacher, P’De (also the gentleman that drives me to school every morning), P’Sa (his wife, and the lovely woman who delivered tangerines to my room when I had an infection in my throat) and I commenced our 12 hour drive north to the small town of Papae in Chiang Mai, Thailand. On our drive, I indulged in many local Thai cuisines. I don’t know what did it...but the doctor/nurse/person-at-the-clinic said I have food poisoning (I don’t think I need to explain further what that entails).

Details about my home-stay: I am staying in the home of a family that leads the communal credit union. On Friday, March 2nd, I was a witness to the collective’s monthly meetings and member dues collection. The portion of the town that I live in was all represented. The women in the credit union outnumbered the men and I was highly amused by the local business women cracking numbers on their calculators.

The family that I am staying with is preparing a house for a German volunteer that will be joining them in August. The organization (I doubt they did) notified the family in Papae that I would be joining them on March 1st (SIDE NOTE: some Thais are very relaxed about deadlines and details--this is also known as “sabai sabai,” which to an American this at times can be very frustrating). When I arrived, the family said that I could move into the new house at some point during the month but in the meantime I could stay in their daughter’s room (who only visits on Fridays). Living with a traditional Thai family has really made me grateful for the family that I have in the northeast of Thailand. Side note: My Isaan family is very understanding of my need for privacy and that I dance to a different dance (I do things differently because I am “farrang”**). The family at the home-stay monitors my eating, bathing, and sleeping habits and then they discuss and re-discuss the matters with everyone who stops by their house.

**Let’s count the ways in which I hate the word “farrang.” Farrang is the word that is used to describe “the Other” or anyone that is not Thai. My heart feels warm with joy when someone tells me that they do not see me as “farrang.” On the other hand, there is an unexplainable heartache that comes when someone that I see as a dear friend describes me as “farrang.” My farrang status is further reinforced by inability to speak the language.

At this point in the entry you might be asking: What brings me to this part of Thailand? What is my internship? I am here to volunteer at a rice, tea, and coffee farm. The purpose of my internship is to observe the role of women farmers in sustainable agriculture and their rural communities in Thailand. My goal for my internship was to continue my analysis of women in sustainable agriculture and social movements that I began in Venezuela in 2009.

This entry is entitled THE HIERARCHY OF COLOR because my stay in Papae has brought forward a matter that I had been ruminating upon. Thai culture is implicitly a society of hierarchy (in various ways) and I have noticed that there is a very evident hierarchy of color in regards to value and beauty. Yesterday morning, I walked around the plot of land where my home-stay is located and I stumbled upon their rabbit cages. I noticed that the white rabbits had their own spacious cages, while the gray, black, and multi-colored rabbits were crammed in 2 to 3 rabbits per cage. The colorful rabbits were housed in cages placed on the ground, but the white rabbits were housed in a structure that kept them away from the nuisance of the roosters, hens, cats, and dogs. This was not the first, or last, time that I realized that in Thailand white is beautiful.

If you step into any store, you will notice lightening creams and you will struggle to find lotions and body soaps without whitening agents. If you turn on your TV, you will notice that the protagonists in Thai soap operas are all only a representation of the lightest shade of skin colors in Thailand. If you drive on the road, you will notice most drivers will opt to drive white cars. Side note: People with black cars will put stickers on their cars that read “This car is not Black.” It is believed that black cars are unlucky (hence less valuable). All cars (or most cars) in Thailand are blessed by monks (by request of the car’s owners), and black cars tend to have more elaborate blessing decorations on the inside of the car’s ceilings. If you show pictures of friends back home, you will notice that most Thai people will comment that white is beautiful and everything else is not.

Some people justify Thailand’s obsession with whiteness with the country’s agrarian background. It is believed that the darker your skin color is the more likely you are to work on the fields. Hence the whiter your skin the more likely you are to work in a profession that shields your skin and fills your pockets with more baht/money.

In the classroom (the teachers’ office and my students’ hangout spots), I would notice the importance of the hierarchy of color on a daily basis. I would see female students and teachers covering every inch of their bodies as to make sure to protect their skin from the sun. The same female students would cover their faces in white baby powder as to appear paler (or in my opinion SCARIER...they looked as pale as the vampires on Twilight).

For a long time, I was afraid to know where I fell in Thailand’s hierarchy of color. Side note: I was surprised that I wasn’t told opinions of my skin color sooner...seeing how in Thai culture it is completely acceptable to divulge your blunt opinion on someone’s appearance without any regards of the other person’s feelings. I know in America, the tan of my skin (along with my facial features) clearly otherizes/characterizes me as Latina (but very few Thais understand why my skin is the shade of brown that it is). My first month in Thailand, I had a housekeeper in a hotel come up to me and place her arm next to my arm and compare her skin color to mine--and I didn’t think twice about it. Now after several months in Thailand, I wonder: Are Thais comparing their beauty to what they see in western magazines and movies? (And because western media outlets do not have any [or very little] representation of racial diversity Thais [and other nationalities] cannot conceptualize non-white as beautiful? I strongly believe that the world looks to American/western culture to set their standards of beauty and I know that America/western culture has the capacity to revolutionize what the rest of the world views as beautiful.)

My best friend’s grandmother once told me that I should stay in Thailand because I am so beautiful and my skin color is very pretty. It seemed that after that the flood gates were open and many people began to comment on my skin color and it’s appropriateness in Thai culture. I also have been reprimanded for not being more careful about protecting my skin color--I happen to enjoy running outdoors when the sun is out.

What are you doing to reinforce the hierarchy of color? I know that this hierarchy that I observed in Thailand is not idiosyncratic to my current location.

**SIDE NOTE:** Since originally writing this entry, I have moved to Chiang Mai City where I will be living for the remainder of the month. I will do site visits to different agricultural sites and learn about the work that the Royal expansion project is doing to encourage sustainability in the north of Thailand. My supervisors agreed that I will get more out of my internship month if I receive a more diverse outlook of agricultural sites in Thailand. I have been in Chiang Mai for 3 days and have loved EVERY single moment of it!!

In the parking lot (things I want to address in upcoming entries):

  1. The Hierarchy of Numbers: How much do you weigh? How much do you make a month? How much was it? How old are you?
  2. Being Latina in Thailand
  3. Toilets in Thailand
  4. The effects of mai pen rai on my life


  1. Wow what an incredible experience! Looking fwd to your future posts! Enjoy your stay.

  2. Oh the stories you will tell!! Salute to your fortitude and braveness- BB doesn't do non air conditioned travel. ; ) Keep those post a comin' !


  3. Your observations are very interesting. It's sad to see this phenomenon happening all over the world. I know in the US we are bombarded with media that has replaced the truth, America is diverse with a false stereotypes.

    What we can do is take control of our children's education, expose them to different cultures and teach them everything schools do not.

    I look forward to reading more of your adventures. :)

    1. BellaVida Letty you are absolutely right about exposing children to the beauty of diversity!!