Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thoughts on a Major Cultural Difference

We are coming back to time to change the clocks back.  Penny keeps asking us if it’s time to change the clocks yet?  We keep saying not yet, but thankfully this weekend is the time.  She wants to see more sunlight, which I don’t entirely understand since she flatly refuses to sit in the sun at all. 

Last summer we tried taking her to swim at the community pool, but it was sunny so she sat under a tent.  She didn’t join the group at her birthday party after a while because it was sunny and so she moved to sit in the only shady spot in our yard, away from all her guests.  Recently, on sunny days, we watch her walking down the street with her coat held in front of her face, effectively making her blind.  All in an effort to stave off the sun.  She explains that in Thailand it is most desirable to have white skin.  She truly believes she can lighten her skin in a variety of questionable ways.  One of the most entertaining was watching a video of her and her friends on the beach in Thailand rubbing sand into their skin with a passion, convinced it would make them lighter! 

I am not sure if it is Penny and her friends or all of Thailand, but there is an obsession with physical beauty and perfection that makes us uncomfortable.  Penny wanders through our house with toothpaste dabbed all over her face to clear her complexion.  She refuses to paint her nails, convinced that they will turn yellow and fall off (mine have now been painted for 2 weeks with no apparently ill effect, but she declines to take any kind of chances with what she terms “chemicals”). 

And shockingly, Penny has endured what we would term rather stringent verbal abuse from her friends at home because she is not considered beautiful.  Almost since day 1, Penny has been killing herself to get skinny—eating very little, working out like crazy—since all her friends at home comment in both English and Thai on her pictures about how fat she is.  Before she came here, one of her friends informed her that her “laugh is as ugly as her face”.  Another informed her that of course she has no friends in America, she is too ugly for people to like.  I’ve consulted with other host families of Thai students who don’t have these issues with their kids, but Penny informs me that this is because their students are quite beautiful and she is quite ugly. 

In our family, this type of thing is beyond what we have been prepared to deal with.  As you all know, Penny’s host dad/my husband is totally blind. Physical appearance never enters into his consciousness.  As I was a person who was picked on mercilessly as a child for my appearance, I find it very, very painful to listen to these stories and try to put them down to “Thai teenage culture” or “Asian culture”.  We have tried a variety of ideas, including long discussions as a family about tolerating these types of things from our peers (particularly when Penny has a double standard about her American classmates—if they so much as look at her in a way she deems unfriendly, she sweeps home in tears for hours!), completely ignoring her behaviors, refusing to comment on anyone’s personal appearance even when Penny demands to know which Hollywood stars we think are the most beautiful, providing her with information about healthy living that is not extreme, telling her daily what a good and beautiful person she is on the inside and the outside, and refusing to comment on what she eats or what she looks like at all.

Penny is now starting to see the end point of her exchange and is excited to return home.  She is not as excited about seeing her family as she is about seeing her friends.  I have to admit, I struggle with this.  It is very difficult to hear her go on and on about having only three months until she can see these people again who we view as “mean” to say the least.  The other night we were discussing it again (Penny has been obsessed with missing her friends and seeing them again since she got here, and it caused some major issues for us in the beginning of the exchange when she would sneak behind our backs to contact them for as long and as often as possible), and I said to her, “You know, Penny, you always had an end date in mind for going back there.  But you may never again see any of the people you have become close with here.  And you are wasting the time you have with them on missing out on people you know you are going to see very soon.” 

She did not want to hear this.  We have talked about getting everything she can from her exchange year.  Penny worked extremely hard to get where she is.  She wanted to earn a scholarship from her mother’s job, and she wound up taking the tests and doing the interviews 3 times before winning a scholarship to come here.  But quite literally every minute she has been here, she has expressed her biggest desire is to just go home and see her friends.

There are kids in her school, kids right here on our street who want to be her friend, who she freely admits have never said a bad word to her, have only been friendly and open and polite and helpful.  As a host family, our number one stressor has been her refusal to work at spending time with these kids and enjoying their time together.  While we don’t let her, she would far rather spend 6 or 7 hours a day on Facebook and messenger with her friends in Thailand who send negative messages her way all the time.

Penny swears that she now wants to return to the US to go to college.  Her younger brother will come to the US next year to attend a private boarding school in Kentucky.  We have talked about having her brother here for the holidays, and I can tell that Penny is somewhat jealous of the fact that her brother will spend time her with us (she’s told us not to buy him Christmas presents!).  We find it very confusing that there are two sides to Penny—one that can’t wait to get out of the United States and another that is dying to stay. 

I can only imagine how confused she must be as well.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this story. I work on a blog about international students in the US, so I've been a voyeur on your blog for a while, and it's been interesting to hear about your and Penny's experiences together. This story particularly struck me, because the comments about beauty are something I've noticed with one of the Chinese students I work with. And the first blog post she wrote for me was about struggling over whether to revise her standards of beauty, as she has always valued pale skin but is currently living in California ( It's hard to get perspective and decide if this is something different than what happens in the US or if it just feels different because we're looking at another culture. I mean, there's certainly an obsession with beauty and celebrity here as well, and there's no doubt that that sort of bullying happens here. In any case, thanks again for sharing and I hope you and Penny enjoy the rest of her time in the country.