Off colour - a Texan in Thailand
My boss, an Irishman named Chris, is fond of telling me that I come from "the land of gleaming white teeth and expressing yourself". He's not far off. My father is a dentist and my sister Amanda, a cheerleader throughout high school, is now a social emotional counsellor who works with children.
America, in all its prepackaged glory, was indeed founded on the premise of expressing itself. It's the first amendment of our Constitution — the idea of saying what we want, when we want is a cornerstone of the country's in-your-face history.
But what Chris forgets is that not only am I American, I'm from Texas, a state that existed as a sovereign nation in the nearly 10 years between gaining independence from Mexico and its annexation to the United States. The people of Texas are a friendly sort, but proud (some might cry hubris) and fiercely loyal. Just take a look at one of the state's slogans, a steel-toed, "Don't mess with Texas."
It doesn't matter where you are: everyone thinks they know Texas. People wonder "where" my accent is. (I'm supposed to sound like John Wayne, or a mid-song Toby Keith — himself a hayseed Oklahoman with whom we Texans want no part.) They want to know if I have a gun. Does my family own cows? Was there a hitching post outside the supermarket? A Danish woman once asked me if it was true that a man in Texas could legally rape his wife. These things are expected from a six-shootin', cattle-drivin' good old boy like me.
People also expect something else. Along with the rodeos and the Wild West comes a perceived racism endemic to my Southern-fried heritage.
In addition to the goths and the skaters and the band geeks who populated the halls of (then somewhat rural, now suburban) Weatherford High School was a group of students who wore Wrangler-brand blue jeans, wide-brimmed Stetsons and belt buckles the size of dinner plates. These were boys and girls with hick names like Kody and Kasie-Lynn and Braxton, whose senior class photos contained at least one hay bale, if not a horse, and who would sling muddy epithets like "spic" and "wetback" at the Mexican kids slouching down the hallway.
Most of this stemmed from fear — rumour had it Eric Nuncio was once caught with an ice pick tucked away in some secret pocket of his backpack — but also of stupidity and, sometimes, a plain curdled meanness. The Mexicans hated the whites right back, of course; they were just quieter about it. Plus they spoke Spanish, so we couldn't understand them.
Ignorance, to be sure, the sort that had been woven into both sides by fathers (and mothers, but I'll bet it was predominantly a patriarchal trait passed down) with calloused hands mottled with motor oil, thick-moustached men who dipped tobacco and drank Lone Star beer out the can and listened to 95.5FM The Ranch. Racism ain't discovered, cowpokes, it's inbred.
You can't just blame Texas; America herself is in on it. Founding our great nation involved stealing the land from its indigenous people (then systematically murdering them), using enslaved blacks to cultivate it and the Chinese (also enslaved) to build railroads across it. Only then did the damn Mexicans begin to sneak across the Rio Grande to mow our lawns and pilfer cheap day labour positions from hard-working, Big-Mac-attacking patriots.
Should I hail from a northern state, Massachusetts, maybe, or Pennsylvania, I might be able to distance myself — if only slightly — from the madness, citing geographical differences. As it sits, my mother's side of the family is rooted in Jackson, Mississippi, the fabled Deep South of the United States. Who knows what juicy atrocities dangle from the limbs of my family tree?
These attitudes haven't dissipated, either. Not completely. Why, just last week, at the University of Oklahoma (my storied alma mater), a fraternity was disbanded after a video surfaced of its members partaking in a down-home racist chant. Ah, to be young and intolerant!
But in Texas, just as America, we hate people the old-fashioned way: by the colour of their skin.
That means we've got a lot to learn from Thailand, where, like dogs' sight and old movies, bigotry is monochromatic.
Put aside the skin-whitened classists who wrinkle their noses at Isan farm folk, and Thailand is a postmodern place when it comes to hatred. A Confederate David Foster Wallace would have been over the moon.
Forget casual, this is black-tie xenophobia we're talking! Migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar are regarded with the same twisted distaste I reserve for wads of gum stuck to the underside of my shoe. Let's not forget the Chinese, either, who make a mad rush for Thai borders and leave behind nothing but a patina of excrement and phlegm, leading some dimwit to suggest — and ostensibly implement — "Chinese only" restroom facilities at the White Temple in Chiang Rai. How quaint is that? It's so pre-Brown-vs-the-Board-of-Education!
There was the cabbie who posted a sign in his vehicle refusing fares passed from the grimy hands of anyone of Japanese descent.
And there's that ubiquitous word, the seemingly innocuous farang — Thailand's "cracker"; the "honky" of the Far East — the offensive use of which is in direct proportion to the economic class of the person who utters it.
As a Texan, I couldn't feel more at home. The Lone Star State might be across an ocean and closing in on 15,000km from Thai soil, but it feels no more than a two-step away.
Adam Kohut is a subeditor in the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Sub-editor for Guru magazine
Adam Kohut is the sub-editor for Guru magazine of the Bangkok Post.
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