I’m kind of a big deal… in Thungsong, Thailand

I’m famous

The owner of a beauty shop in downtown Thungsong took pictures of me after I got my hair and makeup done for Satri Thungsong’s annual Sport’s Day.

It didn’t strike me as weird at the time – sometimes random people ask to take pictures of or with me – but I sure didn’t realize she was going to make me the star of the poster that’s been in her shop window for over a year now.

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Notice the difference in my skin tone between me-in-the-poster and me-in-front-of-the-poster: in Thailand, white skin (pew kaao) is valued over darker skin (pew dam – literally, black skin).  Walking through the skin-product aisle of the grocery star, you’ll find dozens of products claiming to whiten skin: lotion, face-wash, and even deodorant.

My unscientific observations tell me that whiteness is related to status: if you’re poor and from the country, you have to be outside working all the time, so your skin is “black.”  If you’re rich or have an office job in the city, your skin can stay pure white and beautiful.  Coming from a culture where tanning salons are ubiquitous, it’s quite a change.  In America, having tan skin is considered beautiful, it’s a sign that you’ve been to a beach or had free time to spend outside of an office.

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Appearance is important here in Thailand. It’s perfectly acceptable to point out flaws with someone’s weight or skin color or the big zit they desperately tried to cover up, but it’s potentially rude to do something like offer constructive criticism to your boss or anyone considered your superior.

Along similar lines, if you’re a good teacher but you look sloppy, you might not fare so well in Thailand.  Conversely, you could be the worst teacher in the school, but if you’re attractive and dress well, your chances of being liked are much higher.  It matters. 

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Attractiveness matters in the workplace in America, too, but we like to pretend it doesn’t.  However, according to this article in Newsweek,

Handsome men earn, on average, 5 percent more than their less-attractive counterparts (good-looking women earn 4 percent more).

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Beauty and beauty-related services cost a lot less in Thailand than they do in America.  I’ve had my hair cut for 80 baht ($2.30), had my make-up done for 100 ($3.30), and received a 2-hour massage for 260 baht ($8.60). 

This past weekend, when I visited Thungsong, my host family and their friends immediately commented on two things: a) my skin is darker now, and b) I’m skinnier now than I was last year. 

One of these things is meant as a compliment and the other is meant to gently chide me.  Can you guess which is which?

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