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Thailand — friendly, tropical and inexpensive — is flush with expats and retirees. And almost every English-speaking foreigner living in Thailand has been within earshot of the "hardships of being farang" conversation.
It usually involves two Western men, drinking beer or coffee in some public place, reciting a litany of their mistreatment in Thailand.
The cab drivers rip them off. The immigration officials screw up their paperwork. Their rural-born Thai wife treats them like an ATM.
The grumbling builds and builds to a crescendo. And then you hear, "... because that's the way Thai people think they can treat us 'farangs.'"
Of course, these guys inevitably pronounce 'farang' sarcastically — and mispronounce it at that. It's a Thai word that loosely translates to Westerner. More often than not, light-skinned Westerner. Kind of like "gringo," but just a shade more polite.
I wish this point of view were more isolated, but I've overheard it too many times. Message boards are littered with ugly farang gripes about Thailand.
It's as if they've arrived to this foreign country only to find they're surrounded by all these ... foreigners! With their foreign ways! And their foreign language!
Allow me to be direct. Being "farang" confers so much privilege in Thailand that it's practically embarassing. Especially embarassing for a guy raised in post-modern, race-conscious America.
Guards wave me through metal detectors without a second thought. I am always assumed to be at least upper-middle class. (Pay-wise, even though my income is likely lower than a U.S. Burger King assistant manager's salary, I am.) Teenagers nervously shout "hellloooooo!" on the street and giggle giddily when I walk up and shake their hand.
And if you respond in Thai? Many Thai people seem flattered, as if you've done them a personal favor by learning their tonal language — one that only about 70 million people share. In upcountry Thailand, I've seen a gas station attendent clasp her chest with surprise when I asked for change in Thai.
I feel especially compelled to write all this after returning from an community event at an air force base in Lop Buri, two hours north of Bangkok. A local principal spotted me there — the lone farang in a crowd of hundreds — and dragged me over to his kids so they could practice saying, "How are you?" and "What is your name?"
Switching back to Thai, boys asked if it was cold in Farangland. Girls asked if I used contacts to make my eyes green. Kids lined up to shake my hand like I was someone important.
It's almost as if I've arrived in this foreign country only to find I'm surrounded by foreigners ... who have no idea I'm just a goofy guy from North Carolina.
Come on, guys. Is being "farang" really worth complaining about?
P.S. One big disclaimer: It's not so peachy for all foreigners here, as Thai society's regard for dark-skinned outsiders — and even dark-skinned rural Thais — can be disappointing. An example: Thai-Indians are typically called "kaek," a word that means "guest" despite the fact that they've lived here for decades. (My Thai-Indian friends do not embrace this word at all.)
As always, anyone who can add more to this discussion should comment below.