Confronting Thailand’s Sexist Workplace Values as an American Woman
I am an American citizen. I have great freedom as an American woman I am now denied working abroad. One of those freedoms is the right to wear pants to work. The locals tell me I need to respect the culture around and me and do what I am told. In spite of popular expressions like “when in Rome do as the Romans do”, I can’t help but be annoyed by the chauvinistic, racist and sexist mentalities around me.
My journey started in China, where I was forced to straighten my hair with chemicals because my employers said my afro would scare the children. Foolishly, I was obedient to my employer’s wishes and ended up bald because of it. Never change yourself in a way you don’t want to change for a job. I no longer work for that company and I still have no hair. My long luscious locks won’t be back for two years.
Ironically, what I experienced in China was a cake walk compared to what my friend experienced. She left her abusive husband with AIDS in Africa to try and make a better life for herself. While in China, she found herself at a small school that literally tried to scrub off her black skin. The Chinese people around her were so ignorant that they literally thought her black skin were a result of being very dirty.
Currently, I live In Thailand. Because my hair is very short now, everyone asks me if I am a ‘Tom’, which is a popular term in Thailand used to describe their masculine lesbians.
Thailand is the weirdest country I have ever been to because it’s an odd mix. It’s hard to understand the rules of this land. On one hand, they are a sexually free culture, with a red light district, polygamous marriages and lady boys everywhere. They even have a Miss Tom competition, where the most handsome girl wins, yet, I don’t think I have ever experienced more sexism.
The last job interview I went to the director sat back and laughed at me. He called me a boy just because I was wearing pants. To obtain a high paying salary in Thailand, which is still lower pay than a minimum wage job back in the states, I am forced to wear a skirt because it’s polite and women must wear skirts to be viewed as professional. Wearing skirts by choice is fine. Wearing skirts by force is infuriating. I am infuriated in the sexist world I find myself in.
Skirts limit a woman’s movement. Skirts can be rather uncomfortable. Not to mention Thailand gets even weirder with what they consider polite and impolite. It is considered impolite to sit with your legs crossed. People will come up to me at work and ask me to uncross my legs and tell me it’s considered rude to sit with my legs crossed. What could be more impolite than sitting spread eagle in a skirt with hundreds of children around?
This idea of what makes a woman polite in Thailand makes my experience in this world very unpleasant, especially when I’m on my period because tampons are very hard to find here. In Thailand, tampons are widely considered offensive. I don’t really understand why people care how a woman deals with her period, but they do. When I’m bleeding, I don’t want to be wearing a pad, which feels like a diaper and might fall out, because I have to wear a skirt and keep my legs open and this is what Thailand tries to force me to do.
There is no reason men are the only ones who should be allowed to wear pants at work. Wearing pants or not should not be separated by gender. Pants are practical and allow more fluidity in our movement. This is an arbitrary rule enforced by men in Thailand and other countries. Arbitrary rules are not fair, but they certainly exist. We can go somewhere more suited to our taste and just walk away from close minded people and situations or we can try to change the close-mindedness around us.
I started my journey to find freedom. Though I have found freedom of movement and have seen my own inner reservoir grow stronger because it is rather brave to travel alone. Mostly what I have learned about freedom is all the little ways it is stolen by others’ outdated notions. To talk about the blatant racism and poverty I have seen would take up another essay.
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