Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Mid-Service Reflections and Gender in Thailand: One Persons Experience.

I have been serving as a Youth Development Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand for a over year now. Time is a trippy thing especially in the Peace Corps. As I watch a new group of trainees swear in as official Peace Corps Thailand volunteers, I can’t help but think it feels like just yesterday I stepped off that plane and began this journey.

I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to be a resource volunteer for PCT (Peace Corps Training).  Each week of PCT a few current PCV’s go to training and help.  I vividly remember the volunteers who came to my training, some of them I later became great friends with. I remember being in training and looking at the current volunteers like they were famous. They had lived in Thailand already 1 or 2 years and I thought they surely knew so much and were PC Thailand professionals.

Returning to training a few weeks ago made me realize what I have learned over the last year. I really have learned a lot.  It also showed me that I don’t know anything at all and I related more than I thought I would to the new trainees who have only experienced 9 weeks of Thailand.

My days are not 9-5 here as a volunteer. I rarely know what to expect each day. Sometimes I make plans and they never happen. I am learning not to do that so much but…I am a planner. It is how I deal with chaos, change, and uncertainty…a good skill that helped me a lot in the past but one that I don’t need anymore while I am here in Thailand.  I completed college, always taking more than the minimum classes and then went directly into Grad School. I survived best staying as busy as possible. Grad School and internships kept me so incredibly busy up until the moment I took my diploma. Then I transitioned into Thailand.  School and studying and working 40 hours a week had been my normal. I liked staying busy because then I felt like I was accomplishing things but I never took the time to stop and enjoy my accomplishments I was already moved onto my next task.

My first 10 weeks of being in Thailand, while I was a trainee, were so hard.  I hated training but I knew what to expect. There was a schedule and we stuck to it very strictly and I liked that. There was a plan and I knew what would happen next.  The plans in my life stopped working the moment after I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Thailand Volunteer and all Group 126 went their own ways to their new homes for the next two years.

The first month of service when I was the only volunteer in my town all on my own was one of the hardest months of service.  I was not good at the language, honestly learning Thai tried to kick my ass, and everything was an effort. Every time I stepped out of the house I tried to become Thai Kaya…adjusting myself to Thai culture and being as appropriate as I could. 

Life in Thailand was not a Monday-Friday 40 hour a week job.  There was no schedule, no expectations, no job description, and compared to American work culture people seemed not to care about doing any work.  My type A personality wanted to organize, outline, plan and implement every task I would do for the next two years….but I couldn’t do that.  I had to build relationships with my new community and the people first before I did any work. In order to build a relationship I had to talk to them and if I wanted to talk to them I had to speak Thai.  That was my job…speak Thai and get to know people and get to know Thai culture.

Thai people are quick to compare each other and tell you how you look physically. If they think you are fatter than yesterday or a week ago…they will tell you. If you have a zit they will point at it and ask you what it is called in English.  In my case, if they can’t tell if you are a girl or a boy they will ask you….EVERY day.

Growing up my mom did an amazing job helping me to build self-esteem and self-confidence.  She was body positive before she knew what it was.  During high school when all the girls world compare themselves, my mom taught me to honor and appreciate the beauty in other people “but never be upset about who you are or what you have because you are Kaya Cassidy and there is no one like you.” That is the foundation of my self confidence, I knew I had to be real to myself, be the best Kaya I could be and be happy with who I am.  I am Real.

My gender has been a surprising challenge in Thailand, a challenge I couldn’t plan for until I experienced it.  A challenge that has been an occurrence nearly everyday I have been here.

When I first arrived in Thailand I had very short hair.  During training I regularly wore dresses and ear rings and kept my lipstick on point because it made me feel a little better despite looking like sweaty wet mess every waking moment.  My little host sister was the first person to ask if I was a boy or a girl. It was expected, gotta love kids rawness. My host family figured out I was queer and asked me in a round about Thai way week 3 of training at a KFC. It was very casual and we all laughed.

Most people think of Thailand like a gay paradise and while it is true it is not illegal to be queer here…it is still far from a paradise unless you are middle class cis-gender (someone who is not transgender) gay man…that I am not.  It is true…I have been here for a year, I am out to nearly everyone and have yet to be told I am going to hell or that what I am doing is wrong.  That is more to say for America, but it is still far from a paradise. Like America, most people in Thailand think Gender and Sexuality are the same or somehow linked.  This means that because I like women and had short hair I was assumed to be a man. 

In relationships between women in Thailand most of the times there is a Tom and a Dee.  Toms are masculine presenting and Dees are their partners.  Lesbian in not a term in Thailand, well it is but it is not a good term.  Dees only get their identity of a Dee if they are in a relationship with a Tom. If they are single they are not a Dee.  Toms are immediately assumed to be men.  They use male pronouns, others use male pronouns while referring to them, if someone is a Tom or is assumed to be a Tom they are automatically assigned the gender of male. Dees are women, Toms are men therefore the relationship is viewed as heterosexual.

From my first day at my site in Surin I was assumed to be a Tom. I was a man.  When I wore lipstick and earrings people would laugh and make fun of me saying that I was the prettiest boy they had every seen. 

My gender became a regular question people asked me.

“Yaya have you eaten yet?”

“Yaya where are you going?”

“Yaya do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?”

“Yaya are you a boy or a girl?”

Everyday. Nearly every interaction I had with people my first three months at site followed the above pattern.  Several times a day I would be asked my gender. It was exhausting.  Gender is a hard enough conversation for people to have in English, let alone trying to explain it in Thai.  As hard and annoying, as this was I was able to experience something I never imagined I would every experience: Male privilege.  Since most of the society viewed me as a man I got away with more.  Women in Thailand are supposed to be quite and small, two things I am defiantly not.

I started growing my hair out last year because I wanted to.  I also thought a perk might be that it would also help with the gender questions since one of the main reasons assumed I was male was because of my hair.  Little did I know the effect this would have.

Today one year later sporting a short bob haircut that lands right under my ears I was told that I am not a proper lady.  I walk too loud. I laugh to loud. I don’t sit pretty and women are supposed to sit pretty. Also, my favorite, I whistle while I walk…apparently women who whistle are bad girls.  Because my appearance has changed, certain action I now do that were acceptable when I was viewed as a man and now seen as bad because I am a woman (or now appear more to be a woman).

When I was seen as a man I was never told my behavior was inappropriate. However, now that I am seen as a woman I have been told to “sit pretty” literally. I have been told not to speak so loud and walk so loud. Women are supposed to take small steps and be as quiet as possible.  I feel like being here a year and building relationships has allowed me the opportunity to finally challenge some of these ideas of how a woman should act with my Thai friends and help them learn some new things.

The other day a friend came over to my house, a male friend. He told me that a woman’s house should be clean all the time but a mans house is no problem.  I told him with a smile on my face that if he wanted to comment on my house or my looks inside my own home…he was welcome to leave.  I still am the person I was when I first came to Thailand with my short hair. I will not change how I act because my appearance is now more feminine in Thai standards.

Internalized oppression is a trip.  It took me a few weeks to realize I was conforming to Thai standards for what a woman should act like. I began to feel guilty of my actions until I realized that if I were a man, none of my actions would be seen as bad.  Men in Thailand have a huge privilege over women, they can do almost anything they want without being viewed as “bad”. However for woman, if they step outside even a little bit about how they are supposed to act as a woman…they are viewed as bad.

Every awkward conversation is a learning experience…for everyone involved.  I know that my actions and who I am make some people in my community uncomfortable because I do not  fit into their idea of what a “good girl” is. I have been out about my sexuality and my gender, two things that do not fit into the Thai box.  It has made people uncomfortable but being uncomfortable is not bad. I have been uncomfortable many times. I have had discussions with kids and adults alike. It is actually amazing how many people actually “get it” once I have explained. No matter what I ‘look like’ the Thai people love and accept me whether I am a boy/girl or a girl/boy. It has been a cross cultural learning experience for both myself and Thailand.

I'm grateful for the process. I am learning that who I am is exactly the person that I am supposed to be. I don't have to conform and being myself will hopefully help others to gain the strength of being true to themselves.