How not to make a freckled traveller feel welcome in your country
I have an abundance of freckles. Growing up, I knew some of the other children found them curious or abhorrent, as they stared at my skin or alienated me during playground games. My mum comforted me when I cried, telling me (as she still does to this day) that I am blessed with beauty spots that make me unique. When I was younger, I’m sure that neither she or I ever imagined that I might encounter similar reactions from some of my adult counterparts when I grew up.
During a backpacking trip to Thailand when I was in my early twenties, I began to notice that local Thai people were stopping in their tracks to stare at me, and the penny finally dropped when a small boy spotted me coming out of a shop. Pulling on his mother’s arm to draw her attention to me, he proceeded to compare his own arm with mine, giving his mother puzzled looks until she whispered something in his ear and they hurriedly walked away from me, looking back over their shoulders fearfully.
Later that day, after refusing to let my seemingly repellant flesh prevent me from enjoying my time in the country, I headed out for lunch to a local café. I had only been seated for a few seconds when a young waiter came over, presumably to take my order. I say presumably, as he didn’t quite get that far.
I watched as after glancing briefly at me, his expression quickly turned to one of horror as he looked me up and down and witnessed the full extent of my affliction. I continued to watch him open-mouthed, as I struggled to accept that somebody paid to be polite to customers was capable of being so downright rude. After dragging his eyes away from my body he focused them on my face long enough to ask me if I was ‘sick or something’.
‘I beg your pardon, what did you just say?’
‘Uh, I say, what matter, you sick, you got cancer, cancer of skin?’
Good grief, had I heard him right? Then he had the audacity to lean across the table and rub at my outstretched arm, in much the same way that you might rub at a dirty mark on your skin, I was only grateful that he hadn’t moistened his fingers first. I recoiled in disgust and walked angrily out of the café.
That incident, amusing as it may seem in retrospect, really knocked my confidence and had I not have wanted to explore the rest of Thailand, I would have been content to have stayed holed up in the hotel room for the remainder of my trip, rather like a holidaying hermit. As it was, the next morning I decided to be very brave and venture into a district of the city less frequented by tourists, and wander around the markets there.
I boarded a bus and although it was almost full, I managed to locate a pair of empty seats towards the back, settling myself down for the half hour journey. The bus made countless stops and despite people getting off each time, the same number of people were getting on, making it a frenzied scramble for the few spare seats. I watched with increasing horror and disbelief as not one of them could bring themselves to sit next to me, and the seat beside me remained empty for the entire duration of my journey. As the other passengers’ eyes burned into me, I began to realise that they must think they could catch something from me. For a brief moment I wondered if this may have been how a leper might have felt, alone and ostracised by society? But of course I wasn’t suffering from a debilitating and deadly disease, I was just freckly for goodness’ sake. Did these people really not know the difference?
Those reactions to my freckles continued throughout my stay in Thailand, and I suspect that had that not have been the case, I would have found great beauty in the country and remembered the people who had treated me with kindness and respect, rather than being left with a lasting memory of having been made to feel like an outcast.
My freckled skin has always drawn attention, whatever country I’ve been in, but never have I experienced quite such a dramatic reaction as I did all those years ago, and hopefully I never will again.