Philip Hendrix, 130 TESS
(Disclaimer: this is my recollection and my perspective only)
I think that, serving in the Peace Corps, we often have to maintain a double-standard. On the one hand, we are asked to set some of our values aside in favor of pursuing mutual understanding. In some cases, we are asked to keep quiet simply in order to protect our reputation or our personal safety. In any case, we are asked to make sure we fully understand a situation (to verify our interpretations) before we pass judgment. On the other hand, it is important that stay true to the values we brought into this experience, especially when interacting with our fellow volunteers.
As a group, we began sharing things that gave us pause on our Facebook group. It felt like, for me at least, an important way to validate my perspective and my frustrations at times when I couldn’t always do so openly. So, a vegetarian talked about the hot dog dinner they were served. A few of us commented on the elephants performing at a local festival. And then a picture was posted of a doll in a store. The doll was pitch black, with a life-sized head, a big nose, and outsized red lips. It was oddly reminiscent of the “golliwog” dolls popularized in the late 19th century US. Someone posted in the group, saying that the picture shouldn’t have been posted in the first place, insinuating that it was triggering for some of the members of the group for whom the picture reflected a deep and degrading history, the effects of which are still felt today. Others posted similar responses. And then there was relative silence. There wasn’t an outpour of, “I’m here for you,” or “sorry about that, let’s take it down,” or “tell me more.” Most of us didn’t say anything – others changed the subject.
That small moment left a deep impression on me, naturally because it was the first time all was not rosy in our group, but also because of how many aspects of the Peace Corps experience and social life it shed light on:
- Allyship: If I could go back, I would have said something. I would have offered my support to the people whom the picture might have affected more deeply than myself and been more vocal about what we could all learn from the experience. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t quite understand how this picture would affect someone so deeply (e.g., this was not my fight), and – frankly – I was busy. But it occurred to me that this is what it means to be an ally. In my understanding, an ally says, “I don’t quite understand your situation, but I trust that it matters, I trust that it should be addressed, and I’m here to learn and help in any way that I can.” It’s practicing empathy, even when it’s not convenient for us. Instead, often, we let each other down by not bothering to educate ourselves about issues that don’t directly affect us.
- Forgiveness: I came in the next morning expecting drama. Instead, I saw people reaching out to each other and making sure everyone was okay. I saw people having good conversations, and genuinely trying to see each other’s perspective. I felt proud to be in a group that assumes good intentions and doesn’t easily slip into a “what’s wrong with them?” mindset.
- Subjectivity: As it turns out, the doll was a reference to a Thai folk story, the Tale of Sang Thong, in which a prince is cursed with a dark, ugly exterior. Only after winning the heart of a princess and performing a set of heroic tasks is his true nature (as a light-skinned prince) revealed to the public. The moral of the story is, as one of my colleagues put it, that “He is black, but he has a golden heart”. My gut reaction to this story was that it does actually reinforce racism towards dark-skinned people. It draws a clear link between darkness and physical repulsiveness, and also equates a “golden heart” with that of a light-skinned prince, not that of an ordinary dark-skinned person. But stopping there would be missing the intention of the story, and it would neglect what the doll has come to represent in Thailand today. Rather than encouraging racism, its message is one of treating all people as people, and realizing that our worth comes from who we are and what we do rather than where we come from and what we look like. This idea can be seen in the literally hundreds of adjectives in Thai that refer to someone’s heart (e.g., nam jai = water from the heart = generosity). It also manifests in how comfortable Thais are talking about the age and appearance of other people. Thais don’t seem to take these comments as seriously as I do, in part because they take the quality of people’s character far more seriously than I may have in the past.
Beyond teaching me about elements of both Thai and American culture, that day reinforced in me why we have been told over and over again to beware of jumping to conclusions. Sometimes things are truly not as they seem. Sometimes they are exactly as they seem, but there is more going on under the surface – a different cultural context or a set of values different from our own. And while it is so easy to take the moral high ground, and to slip into that “what’s wrong with them?” mindset, there is so much we can learn if we are able to stay open-minded and even, at times, forgiving.