“NO SMOKING, NO INDIA”: Casual racism in Thailand

OPINION — This piece of paper was given to me while I was out flat hunting.

The lovely people working at Baan Chao Phraya Condo showed me a few apartments, and eventually gave me this list of available units. I noticed the odd remark immediately.

I’ve heard of apartment owners denying people rental contracts on the basis of race in other South-East Asian cities, but I had never experienced it in Bangkok. I have since found out that it really isn’t an uncommon occurrence here. Indians (and brown people in general, or “Khaeks,” like me), bear the brunt of this phenomenon.

Luckily, I didn’t like the apartment.

I also would prefer not to have a racist asshat as a landlord, to be perfectly honest.

I’ve had a few racial epithets hurled at me before. Sometimes in hushed tones. Often disguised as humorous banter. It’s nothing new. When it comes to personal affronts, I adopt a very “mai pen rai” attitude. What gets to me is when racism is institutionalized. When it is quiet and nameless, racism starts to get under my skin.

Thailand is a wonderful country to live in, don’t get me wrong. I feel blessed to be here. Regardless of your cultural heritage, if you’re a decent human being, you’ll probably fit right in. The Thai people are incredibly hospitable and gracious, and Bangkok is a multi-cultural metropolis like no other. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

But the presence of fanatical nationalism within Thai culture is starting to worry me. Compounded by a military government, historical distortion within the educational system and a bat-shit crazy advertising culture, I feel like Thailand is facing a rise in “casual” racism.

An educational poster teaching Thai children English adjectives

T-shirts with Hitler and Nazi references

I had a Thai colleague who insisted on calling me “curry” at work. I’ve had a Thai barber tell me I would probably feel more comfortable getting a shave in Nana because “my people” go there, and refuse me service. I’ve had a taxi driver shout at me too.

Why is casual racism so prominent in this otherwise uncommonly friendly country?

A still from the opening scene of the junta-produced “Thai Values” film in 2014

Thais sometimes defend themselves by saying their racism is not intentional. Others point to a lack of knowledge, context and education in a country where Hitler and Nazi references are often treated as a fashion statement.

A Seoul Secret advert promoting a skin whitening supplement

Casual racism is not just directed towards “Khaek” people, but also to those from China, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. And why would this flat owner be so racist against Indians in particular? Thailand shares so many aspects of Indian culture, including similarities in language and religious traditions. It remains a mystery to me why some Thai people are antagonistic towards brown people.

When asked to comment on the apartment listing, the management at Baan Chao Phraya stated: “This is not the building’s policy. It’s only the perspective of a single apartment owner. It’s only this owner who has a problem with Indian people.

“We are simply the middle man between the apartment owners and the prospective tenants.”

Taimoor Sobhan makes films and smokes cigarettes in Bangkok. He would never be able to live in a non-smoking flat. See his work at taimoorsobhan.com. Follow him @taimoorsobhan

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