Same same but different in Thailand

The thing about being a writer is much of what you produce gets completely buried on your hard drive and in notebooks. But I discovered this short piece the other day, and reading it brought me right back to four years ago in Chiang Mai. Where I was the same same but different.


October 2010

I learnt the Thai word for humid yesterday: cheun, with a falling tone. It sits lightly on my tongue, ready to leap into casual conversation. Even after six months here, the novelty of living with constant humidity still hasn’t worn off so I feel the need to remark upon it constantly. My constant references to the weather have turned me into a rather boring conversationalist, which is only compounded by my limited vocabulary.

I often think about the fact that generations of my forebears lived in a similar climate in south Vietnam, so I’m obviously hard-wired to live in a place such as this. All of the genetic adaptations that have occurred over generations are being put to good use here. It’s little wonder my skin has never felt better than it does right now.

Even though there’s usually a sheen of salty sweat on my skin, I now have a dewy complexion that just isn’t naturally possible for me in Australia’s dry climate. Being here in Chiang Mai, I’ve been liberated from my usual beauty routine; there’s no longer a need for heavy duty body butter or even the need to moisturise my face every day. Which is just as well, seeing as I’m terrified of the abundance of whitening found in beauty products here. Even roll-on deodorant hasn’t been spared.

Running in Chiang Mai
Running in Chiang Mai

This is the first time I’ve lived in a place where I look like the norm, rather than the exception. Instead of having to convince people that I belong here in Chiang Mai, I sometimes feel like I have to convince people that I don’t belong and that I’m not Thai (mai chai khun Thai). When I find myself being subjected to unfamiliar words streaming out of people’s mouths, I admit immediate defeat by feebly replying with an apologetic, “Sorry, I don’t understand.” In English. At that point people either look slightly embarrassed and withdraw, or look slightly embarrassed and puzzle over what I could be, if not Thai.

If people speak slowly I answer with the basic Thai I have at my command, and for a minute I can pass off myself as a local who knows exactly what’s going on, instead of a foreigner who spends most of her time guessing…

…but it’s not long before the game is up, and I give myself away. And inevitably there’s genuine surprise, “Oh! Same Thai-land!” A reaction that can only come about because have the same kind of black hair, the same kind of dark brown eyes, the same kind of skin.

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