Kaya Colin, 126
I have been serving as a Youth in Development Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand for a 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 cant help but think it feels like just yesterday I stepped off that plane and began this journey.
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 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.
One major cultural difference is that Thai people are quick to compare and tell each other how they 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. “Never be upset about who you are or what you have. You are Kaya Cassidy, and there is no one like you.” That is the foundation of my self-confidence. I knew then that 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 a daily 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 kid’s rawness. My host family figured out I was queer by the third week of training, and asked me in a round-about-Thai-way while we were eating at a KFC. It was very casual and we all laughed.
Thailand is known as being a “gay paradise” or something like that. In some ways 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 where Thailand is better than 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 time 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 positive term. Dees are only identified as 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, and 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?”
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 quiet 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 also help with the gender questions since one of the main reasons Thai people assumed I was male was because of my hair.
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 actions that were acceptable when I was viewed as a man, are now seen as bad because I am a woman (or now appear 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 Thai friends.
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: “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 by 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 felt guilty about my behavior until I realized that, if I were a man, none of my behaviors would be seen as bad. Men in Thailand have a huge advantage over women as far as what behaviors are considered “appropriate.” They can do almost anything they want without being viewed as “bad.” However, if a woman steps outside of what is expected of her gender, even a little bit, she is viewed as “bad.”
As hard as this has been for me, I have used it as an opportunity to teach and open discussions about gender. I have been true to myself while being culturally appropriate. I have been out about my sexuality and my gender, two things that do not fit into the Thai gender-box. It has made people uncomfortable, but being uncomfortable is not always bad. I have been uncomfortable many times. I have had discussions with kids and adults alike. It is amazing how many people actually “get it” once “it” has been explained. No matter what, 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 me and Thailand.