I lie here on the beach of this lush tropical island, a tiny white spot among hundreds strung out under beach umbrellas, watching the promenade of jet skis, parasailors, and aging, obese European retirees. Topless, sagging women with folds of dimpled buttocks protruding from bikinis--ignoring the cultural norms of their vacationland--and men with jiggling bellies stroll in celebration of their escape from northern winter climes, as young dark-skinned Thais hawk overpriced clothing that flap in the breeze as they pass by, smiling and hopeful.
Instead of simply waving the beach vendors away, as most visitors do, we smile and listen to their pitches, then engage them in conversation, learning much about the economic as well as political climate of Thailand from their perspective: Most are from the poorer regions of Thailand, especially Issan in the northeast, here because no jobs are available where they live, and they need to make money to feed their families. On the lookout for the police (there is a 300 baht [$9 US] "fine" if caught), they sell beautiful skirts, wooden crafts and jewelry from dawn to dusk.
It seems very strange to be just one more "farang" (foreigner, literally 'French' but now meaning generally 'westerner') sitting on the beach, drinking Thai beer and slathering on sunscreen, spending in one day what most Thais make in two weeks. I feel quite out of place, emerging from my life among Thais and seeming to the casual observer more closely related to the Russian accountant under the next beach umbrella. I have an urge to stand up, clap my hands loudly, and announce to all within earshot, "I live here! I'm not a tourist!"
But why do I feel this way? Is it because I'm a wee bit embarrassed to be spending what must seem to Thais a frivolous amount of money? Or could it be that I feel I am compromising my attitudes about living in Thailand? Perhaps it is because that when I am living and vacationing with crowds predominantly Thai that it is less likely to be considered patronizing. I'm not quite sure, but I think it has to do with finding a way to be thankful to my host country and honoring its people.
Maybe Thais bear no ill will toward their rich guests from afar after all. Perhaps the presence of these westerners is accepted just as another aspect of karma, and we simply look for opportunities to respect and appreciate the positive fortunes that each of us brings the other.