When 29-year-olds Tanne Stephens and Grace McKirdy first came to northeast Thailand, they felt cared for. And they needed it, because they were “bumbling idiots,” McKirdy claims.
For Joe Oamen, 34, being a foreigner isn’t exactly enjoyable, and it didn’t take long for him to be driven elsewhere.
The 66-year-old Becky Rabel is just happy to be reunited with the son she hosted in America decades ago.
They’re all foreigners living in Thailand, but their experiences are defined by their individual identities.
Guest contribution by Hallie O’Neill
For decades, trends of cross-national marriages have invaded Thailand, specifically in the Isaan region. These marriages are characterized by an influx of white Western males to the country, most of whom travel to Thailand with full agency in hopes of finding a Thai wife.
According to an article by Kristen Hill Maher and Megan Lafferty, the trend accelerated as a result of the 1950s, during which Thailand was opened up to international lending and the US military. During the Cold War, the US established several military bases in Isaan, which were quickly surrounded by brothels and bars to serve the soldiers. Thailand also served as an official rest-and-recreation location for soldiers stationed in Vietnam, which further emphasized the pleasure industry catering to men.
The remnants of these foreign relations still exist today. In a study conducted in the mid-2000s, it was estimated that 100,000 westerners lived in Thailand, with the majority haling from countries such as the UK, Canada, the US, and northern European countries. Nearly 97 percent of these people were men.
Their race matters, too.
“Most were able to convert their relative privilege as white Westerners into assets in intimate relationships with Thai women and to fulfill their own ideal as a masculine ‘provider’ for a family, even on fairly modest pensions or incomes,” Maher and Lafferty write.
One could call it a new kind of “white flight”: A quest for a comfortable retirement in a generally welcoming environment, where currency stretches much further than it does at home.
This migration trend is voluntary, setting it apart from other movements of people that occur as results of war, persecution, and other violent forces.
The force of this movement, however, is not so much a force of pushing out – it’s a force of pulling in. And Thailand, and the various promises it may offer, is the entity doing the pulling.
Thai society is generally welcoming towards these people. And why shouldn’t it be? Migrant men from America, Denmark, Switzerland, and like countries bring with them money, and this economic boost is smiled upon.
“These guys are a kind of stranger kin,” said Dr. Patcharin Lapanun, a professor of sociology at Khon Kaen University in an interview. She has researched the phenomenon for years. “They [Thai public] know they are rich.”
Just like the many partner-seeking men who settle in Thailand, McKirdy, Stephens, Oamen, and Rabel were pulled here too, simply for different reasons.
McKirdy lives with her husband, 31-year-old Eamon Forslund, and their old college classmate, 29-year-old Stephens, and all three teach at Patanadek School in Khon Kaen. They’re all American-born and American-raised, but McKirdy and Forslund have already lived here for three and a half years.
Rabel, a proud Texan turned immigrant, now runs her own baking business in Khon Kaen after moving here five-and-a-half years ago. She made the move after being invited by a former Thai exchange student to retire near him and his family. She was an elementary school teacher before she left her American life behind.
Prom, her exchange student, lived in Rabel’s house when he was a sophomore in high school and came back again for a three-month work and travel program. She came to Thailand alone, but Rabel considers Prom’s family her own, and they spend a lot of time together.
She doesn’t think about her whiteness much, although she admits she’ll often fight the instinct to ask the rare passing white person if she or he speaks English. She sometimes craves familiarity, she says.
But as a woman – especially at her age – she’s frequently assumed to have little money, a perception that comes from gender stereotypes in Thailand.
“It is hard to get people to wait on me while shopping,” Rabel says. “I furnished an entire house in one sitting, and you would have thought I had the plague. I had to force a salesperson to wait on me.”
Oamen’s experience is quite different. He’s from Nigeria, and he felt rejected almost immediately.
“Thailand is a sweet country to stay in, no doubt,” Oamen says. “But the country is crazy about the way they treat foreigners, mostly non-whites or non-Europeans.”
Oamen came looking for a steady job and eventually a partner – both in business and in life. Earlier in his life, he dreamed about leaving Nigeria and finding success elsewhere. So, when he received an invitation from a family friend to come live with him in Thailand, he excitedly made the voyage.
But in a country with very little racial diversity – with a population of 98.5 percent Thai or other Southeast Asian ethnicity – his blackness became blatantly apparent to him, affecting the field of work he could enter, the types of relationships he could uphold, and the way he moved about the country.
“The only job you can do in Thailand as an African, is you can either be a football player, a teacher, or you can start your own business,” Oamen says.
So, as a college graduate of international relations, he started learning more about the trading business. His friend helped him develop an interest in gemstones, and he found relative success creating a small gem-trading business in Bangkok.
Still, he felt his life was incomplete without a romantic partner, another goal for his life he had yet to achieve. He dated around for a while, but he never found anyone who wanted to engage seriously with him.
He began to lose hope of finding love as a Nigerian in Thailand.
“As long as love is concerned, Thai people think that Europeans and Americans have money more than Africans, and as such, the ladies prefer the whites as a priority,” Oamen says. “Some Thai ladies think that dating or marrying a white guy will make them have access to traveling out of Thailand.”
But it’s not as if Oamen wasn’t doing well for himself.
An ex-girlfriend of his once attempted to be his business partner, but after a few weeks, she stole most of his belongings and never spoke to him again. Another ex-partner left Oamen for a Russian man, assuming he’d give her a better chance of someday leaving Thailand. Once she found she was pregnant with the Russian man’s twins, however, he left her with nothing. Only then did she call on Oamen again, asking him to send her money to support her babies.
Oamen attributes many of these misfortunes to his status as a racial minority, and he knows other Africans who have experienced similar obstacles in Thailand.
Dr. Patcharin encountered very few cross-national marriages involving men of color throughout her research, but in the rare cases she did, the trends matched.
“There was one woman who married an African-American G.I., but he came to the village only once, and after that, they moved to the US,” Dr. Patcharin said. “I didn’t even know her husband was African-American, because no one talked about this … Until I went to her house and she showed me the picture of when she lived in Michigan. If it’s silent, this may also mean it’s an issue.”
Oamen thought he found his life partner once, but upon hearing her daughter was dating a black man, the woman’s mother told her Oamen only wanted to marry her so he could open up a company. She insisted that Oamen didn’t have any money to support her in marriage.
“In Thai society, the status between [foreign] white and black people is different,” Dr. Patcharin explains. “In Thai society, the western-looking person, we love this. This is why our social celebrities or famous movie stars are those who look half Thai, half foreign.”
Exhausted, Oamen is now resettled in Vientiane, Laos, attempting to continue his Bangkok-based gemstone business from there. After just a few months, however, he’s ruled out Southeast Asia completely.
“I want to move to a country where no one cares where you come from, who you are, black or white or not,” Oamen says.
So, Europe it is.
“For him, there is a handful of places that will accept a Nigerian transfer,” said McKirdy, who met Oamen on a trip to Laos last year. “Not for someone who’s looking to just be a tourist, but for someone who’s looking to either naturalize or to settle down for a while.”
Stephens, on the other hand, benefits from the ease that being white and being a teacher affords her. Her occupation automatically boosts her social status. But as a 29-year-old single woman, she’s encountered obstacles of her own.
Just like the Western men categorized by the “white flight” trend, Stephens is open to beginning a relationship here. But unlike the men, who usually have a chance at finding love no matter how old they are, she isn’t really deemed as valuable.
“Something I had to try to understand was being white is seen as being beautiful, but not necessarily being Caucasian,” Stephens reflects. “Talking with other people, it seems like the standard for beauty is a light-skinned Thai woman, not a Caucasian woman. People will compliment me on my skin, but at the same time, I still look a little bit weird.”
It takes a certain type of Thai guy to pursue a foreign woman as a love interest, she says. She often feels like others see her as intimidating, and because she’s American, she’s often assumed to be assertive as well, a completely opposite trait to that of the traditional Thai woman.
To top it all off, at her age bracket, many men are already married with kids. The most advances she’s gotten are from married men who want a woman on the side, a lifestyle she is not at all interested in.
Because she’s a woman, there are firmer restrictions on her love life here. Just as Thai women seem to elevate their statuses when paired with a white foreign man – and benefitting from the aura of wealth that brings to them – a Thai man would seem to decline in status if he chose a white foreign woman. The pairing makes him seem dependent on the weaker sex, unable to provide for himself financially.
So, does Thailand really welcome outsiders? Or is the welcoming only applicable to a certain demographic?
“When someone from the outside comes in, there’s not the same consideration of ‘What does diversity mean? What does inclusion and exclusion mean?’” Stephens asks. “There’s not the same awareness and public dialogue about it at all.”
And if the majority of foreigners are white men, the odd ones out are impossible to miss.
The movement of people is a major facet of globalization, and as the world becomes increasingly more globalized, the frequency of people movements should follow. As the current trends show, the demographics of foreigners to Thailand haven’t changed much. As for public diversity dialogue, that may be the only way to increase Thailand’s inclusivity.
“When you’re always the foreigner, when you always stand out … you have to figure out how to plant yourself,” McKirdy argues. “It doesn’t matter why we’re different from each other.”
Hallie O’Neill majors in creative writing and anthropology at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. This semester she has been studying about human rights issues and development issues in Khon Kaen.