I’ve lived and traveled around Asia for many years and my friends would ask about my experiences living as a Black American in rural Thailand. I hear this often and it doesn’t bother me when people ask because it’s a legitimate question. Living as a Black American ex-pat in Thailand was a very positive experience and it definitely worked more in my favor than against me.
Moving to Thailand
I lived in Atlanta for seven years before I moved to Thailand. In 2012, I accepted a position with a Thai-based developer to help build the first wind farm in Thailand. I didn’t have any expectations because it was my second time overseas and I was staying for only six months. I don’t even think I researched any information before I went. The corporate office was in Bangkok but the project was about 4 hours north in Huai Bong, Nakhon Ratchasima. This area, also called Esan (Isan), is mostly sugar cane and cassava root farmers. The company provided me with accommodations at the Banrai Jomthong Resort, about 15 minutes from the project site. They also gave me a 4×4 truck to get around as needed.
The project ex-pats were mostly Americans and Europeans. I was the only Black person, as usual, which didn’t bother me at all. I attracted a fair bit of attention, especially being in such a remote part of the country. Many people assumed I played futbol or was a rapper. Once, I was eating with another ex-pat in Korat and people started gathering and looking through the windows. When I looked to see what was going on, I realized they were staring at me. My waitress said Nigeria vs Japan was in town for a futsal match and they think I’m in town for the game. This was incredibly funny to me and my friend! Even our waitress assumed I played soccer for the Nigerian team. My friend joked that he would act as my manager and we should run game on everyone.
Black vs Dark
I became aware of the Black vs dark views held by some Thai people after my friend, who was a Thai girl, told me people treated her differently because she was dark-skinned. The longer I lived there, the more I could see what she was talking about. I can’t recall any time I’ve been mistreated because I was Black, but I have noticed that Thai people treat each other differently. Thailand is very much about social status and how people look and think of them, more so than other places I’ve visited.
Some Thai people associate the darker complexions with a lower income or social status because you probably worked as a laborer in the fields or outside somewhere. They view lighter complexions as being more educated or working indoors away from the sun, which means you probably came from a family with more financial means than others. Many of the face creams and products have lighteners and whiteners in them so dark-skinned people can look lighter. Once while at the work visa office, my face was photoshopped to look lighter because the lady said my skin was too dark, which I found more funny than offensive.
Dating in Thailand
I’ve dated Thai girls and have Thai girls as friends and I’ve never had any negative issues because of how I looked. They would explain to me that some Thai girls like Black American guys but not Africans. They told me that in Bangkok, some Africans are seen as drug dealers and criminals, so they’re looked down on. However, they look at Black Americans differently because they speak good English and had a different style. They told me many times that they like my style, which I never really found out what that meant. My friends and I attracted so much attention in the bars and discos that most girls wanted to hang out and were drawn to us. I’m sure this is the case with many foreigners and may not have been because I was a Black ex-pat.
Traveling around Southeast Asia
I visited all of the surrounding countries in Southeast Asia during my five years of living in Thailand. Bangkok is a major hub in the area and many discount airlines offer short, cheap flights only a couple of hours away. I was able to spend time in Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. I’m not a fan of the tourist spots so when I venture to foreign countries, I try to seek out the best possible photo opportunities. I believe being a Black man works to my advantage in many of these situations.
People would approach me and tell me it’s crazy how the USA treats its Black people. Sometimes people would invite me into their homes and out to the nightspots that only locals go to, away from the tourist spots. In Luang Prabang, Laos, a few guys would pass me in the streets and say “Original King, Original King”. I can only assume its because I’m a Black ex-pat and they know the history. Another time in Nepal, a man stopped me saying he knew I was a Black man because his friends that looked like me in the 1950s and ’60s would sing “We shall overcome”. He was smiling ear to ear and was very happy to see me. He actually started singing the song for me.
Bangkok was different than in rural Thailand. In Bangkok, the police harassed me on more than one occasion because they thought I was African. Once, I was walking with a friend and the police pulled up and started searching only me. They had me against the wall and searched my pockets while they told her how pretty she was. They left me alone when they saw my Thai driver’s license and heard us speaking American English. I doubt this would have happened back in rural Thailand. Police also would hassle me at roadblocks in Bangkok for no reason. Once while leaving my hotel, the police searched me at a roadblock. I could tell they thought I was from Africa by the way they were talking to me. I told the officer, in Thai, that I live in Esan. He also was from Esan and he let me go without any further problems.
My experiences may differ from the average Black ex-pat or tourist because I made it a point to learn the language and understand the culture. After I signed my contract extension past six months, I knew I would be there for a while, so I learned as much as possible. Learning to speak basic Thai helped when speaking to locals in the shops and haggling at the night markets. Most of the people at work spoke English so I didn’t need to speak Thai as part of the job.
I was able to get to know the Thai people better because I spoke more Thai than the average tourist or ex-pat. My teacher even made worksheets with specific examples using my name. Also, the dialect of Thai I learned was different than the Thai most foreigners spoke. In Bangkok, people were surprised when I spoke that dialect of Thai. I would tell them I lived in Esan and I just learned whatever kind of Thai people spoke around me. I think of it as if a Thai person learned to speak English down south with a heavy southern accent. Imagine how crazy that would look and sound, well, that’s basically what I sounded like but the Thai version.
Moral of the Story
Moving to Thailand was probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life! It was my first time living and working longterm outside of the United States. I learned a language in a dialect not commonly spoken by most foreigners and I helped build the first wind farm in Thailand and the biggest in Southeast Asia. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of my journey as an ex-pat and global traveler. I’ve since been back to Thailand several times since moving away and the experiences I had as a Black ex-pat fully submerged in Thailand will stay with me forever.