28 January, 2015

Please Eat This

By Eve Ben Ezra

Eve Ben Ezra is from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She graduated from Lewis & Clark College with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics. She is a 2014-2015 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Mae Moh Wittaya School in Mae Moh, Lampang, Thailand. After Fulbright, she would like to teach kindergarten or mathematics, preferably in an immersion school. Or else she’d like to be a career diplomat. Or maybe a doctor. Or perhaps an astronaut. Her narrative encompasses some of the food culture of Thailand that she’s experienced, and how it is somewhat reminiscent of her Jewish heritage.

I grew up culturally Jewish. This meant that most aspects of my life revolved around food. A big part of my mother’s job was making sure that I was well fed, and I mean this to an extent above and beyond that of the typical mother. If I got a good grade on a test, if there was something to celebrate, the first question that my family would ask was, “What sort of food should we make?” The answer was usually brisket. And mashed potatoes. And also macaroni and cheese, and bagels. Oh, and don’t forget lox, because you can’t have bagels without lox. And hey, let’s throw in some fish, and while we’re at it some lamb chops. Oh, there are only three of us? Well, we’ll put it in the freezer, it’ll be good until your grandchildren are done with college at least. I cannot begin to understand what it must be like to have a meal without leftovers.

So you’ll understand how I can say that I felt right at home when, in my first week in Lampang, I found myself with sixteen pounds of fruit on top of being given dinner every night.

One of the first things they told us during orientation was that Thais loved food. We had somewhat experienced this already. It’s hard to miss a love of food when people keep giving you food. I’m asked frequently, at every time of day, in English and in Thai, sometimes multiple times in a row, gin kao lao, “have you eaten lunch?” I answer, gin kao kha. Sometimes I am then given more snacks, which the Thais call kanom. The word kanom can refer to a wide array of food. Sometimes it is fruit, sometimes it is something that might as well be a second lunch.

There are several aspects to the Thai way of food. The first is the taste, the second is the community and culture. The third, frankly, is the volume. All of these come together to form the beauty that is Thai food. Thailand would not be Thailand without it, just as my mother would not be my mother if not for her paradoxical freezer.

My host teacher in Thailand is a kind and funny woman who I call Kru Yao. We first met during, appropriately, lunch. Sitting across the table from me, she explained the four tastes that Thais like to combine with every meal: sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. She asked me, do you like spicy food? I tell her yes, but probably not as spicy as she likes. She nods her head and then leans in close to me, gesturing that she wants to tell me something.

“Do you know the word aroy?” she asks me. I rack my small list of Thai words and remember sitting at the canteen at Chulalongkorn University one day. I was sitting alone when a woman sat down across the table from me. “Aroy?” she asked. I stared at her. “Aroy?” She repeated. I gave her a confused look and a thumbs-up. She laughed and said something to a boy sitting next to her. He looked at me for a few moments and then said, “is it delicious? Aroy?”

“Yes, I know that word.” I tell my host teacher. “It means delicious.”

My host teacher nods. “Everything you eat in Thailand, you must say aroy mak kha.” I repeat the phrase a few times and she laughs. Aroy mak kha. Aroy mak kha. Aroy mak kha. It’s very delicious. My host teacher tells me again, I must say this after everything I eat.

“What if I don’t like it?” I ask. She shakes her head. “In your head, you can say mai aroy. But never say it. Only in your head you can say mai aroy.” Not delicious.

We practiced, and with every bite of food she would ask me, aroy mai? Is it delicious? Aroy mak kha I would answer, every time. She would ask me, “And in your head you say what?” This continued for quite some time.

This lesson stuck with me, and though there have been few times where I have wanted to say mai aroy (the experience of when one of my students gave me a bag of beondegi, which are steamed silkworm pupae, comes to mind), I have tried to refrain myself. If anything, it has widened the spectrum of what I would eat. Foods that might sound unappealing (like jackfruit, a relative of the very stinky durian) end up being not-that-bad or even good. One of my first days in Amphur Mae Moh, my neighbor gave me a bag of kanom that looked like little breaded shells. I asked her what was inside. Happily, she told me, “fermented beans.”

“Oh,” I said. “Thank you.” I realized that she wanted me to eat some, and so I did. If I hadn’t tried some right there, I probably would have just thrown out this strange and seemingly unappealing food. As it turns out, I love the small strange breaded fermented beans. They are much sweeter than they sound, and they make a good snack.

Something quite well-known about Thai food is that it is generally spicy. I grew up in New Mexico, where the state question is: red or green? The question refers to the two types of chili that New Mexicans enjoy in their food. If you were curious, the correct answer is, “Christmas.” New Mexico spicy is nowhere near Thai spicy, and after spending four years in Portland, Oregon, my spice tolerance had substantially dropped.

One of the most common dishes that I eat at home in Thailand is som tam, or green papaya salad. Som tam is made most often with bird’s eye chili, which measures 100,000-250,000 Scoville heat units, lesser than or equal to a Habanero chili. Som tam is made in a mortar and pestle with these chilies, garlic, lime juice, liquid palm sugar, fish sauce, green papaya, tomatoes, long beans, peanuts, and dried shrimp. It’s simple to see the four food tastes present in this dish.

When I order som tam, I am always asked, pet mai? Do you want it spicy? It depends on where it is being made. Often when I first arrived in Thailand, I would answer pet nit noi (a little bit spicy). This often lead to food that was barely spicy at all. One day I decided to experiment. Pet mai? I was asked. I answered, pet kha. I have had varied results with this, from my food being as spicy as if I had ordered it pet nit noi, to watching in horror as handfuls (yes, plural) of chilies were added to the mortar. I’ve noticed something about the way that the Thais eat their food, mixing the four tastes. Som tam is definitely better when it is more spicy, as the garlic and palm sugar overpower the dish without any sort of spice. But if it’s too spicy, as was the case with the plural handfuls of chilies, I find that I can’t actually taste any of the dish. I’ve resigned myself to a somewhat erratic food experience in Thailand, but that’s some of the fun. I never know exactly how my food will taste from one day to the next, and whether or not I’ll be fine or whether or not my host teacher will laugh at me as I cry because my food is too spicy. Of all the adventures I thought I would experience in Thailand, this was the one I expected least of all.

My first few days in my province were complicated ones for me emotionally. My first day, after shopping for some necessities, I remember sitting in my living room and feeling apprehensive about the next day, when I would introduce myself to my school. There was a knock on my door. I opened it to meet my neighbor, Kru Noi, who was standing with two bags of fruit. She introduced herself, and as she pushed the plastic bags into my arms she told me, “For you!”

Since then, I’ve had a somewhat complicated relationship with the amount of food that I am given in my province. As I am the first ETA who has no food restrictions (following two vegetarians and one woman with celiac) my host teacher and other teachers at my school love to feed me. I have cooked for myself exactly twice. And I find myself feeling strangely reminiscent of living at home, with a freezer full of food that will never be eaten. I have two refrigerators, both of which are mostly filled with food. A lot of it is fruit. For about two weeks straight I was given at least a papaya a day. I’ve been given pumpkin, eggs, palm sugar, chilies, peanuts, starfruit, papaya, bananas, passion fruit, longan fruit, tamarind, watermelon, boiled rice, fried rice, soup, egg tofu, mushrooms, various leafy greens, bottles of tea, noodles, and many different kinds of kanom. At one point I had two kilograms of passion fruit, three papayas, a watermelon, and a kilogram of Chinese oranges. There are occasions where I’ve returned from dinner with a neighbor to find a second dinner hanging on my door. While these gestures of kindness are never anything less than appreciated, there’s also quite a culture in Thailand surrounding weight gain and body type. Gain weight I have, which is just one more aspect of this new situation that I have at least somewhat learned to accept.

In Thai, the guava (eaten while unripe and crunchy so that it resembles something of an apple) is called a farang. Foreigners are also called farang. This had lead to at least ten ice-breaking conversations where I point to a guava and myself and call us both farang and everyone laughs. Sometime in my first few weeks in my province, I was given a farang (the fruit, not the type of person). For some reason, this one fruit was the breaking point in all the gifts of food that I had been given. So I did the only thing I knew how to do in a situation like that. I tried to find humor in it. So I took a selfie of myself and the guava, uploaded it to facebook, and added the caption just a farang and her farang. #Selfieswithfruit.

Since then, I’ve taken many selfies with fruit. I even dragged a second ETA into one. The absurdity of posting pictures of myself looking emotional next to pieces of fruit makes me feel a little better about all of the things that I can’t understand. It makes me feel better, somehow, about the fact that there is no way I can possibly ever consume all the food that is given to me. And it helps me accept that that’s okay. I will never know the complete intentions behind all of the food gifts. I’d like to think that they are given less in the way that a Jewish mother gives food (you’re too skinny, eat or you’ll give me malnourished children) and more that they are a gift of acceptance. I’d like to think (perhaps completely incorrectly) that my neighbors and fellow teachers want me to feel at home here. So they care for me in the way that they know how. They give me food.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sabai Sabai! - Breaking Down the Walls to Appreciation and Acceptance

By Brian Vedder

Brian Vedder is from Niskayuna, New York, and graduated from the University of Vermont with a Bachelor of Sciences in Secondary English Education. He is currently a 2014-15 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Hang Dong School in the Chiang Mai province. Brian would love to continue his education and teaching post-Fulbright, eventually write a book, become a professor, continue to travel and, all the while, work on pushing himself further and further out of his comfort zone. Brian’s narrative focuses on acknowledging, comprehending and overcoming the divide between the Thai concept of “Sabai Sabai” and his lifelong feelings of anxiety and over-contemplation that came with him as he started this life-changing journey.

My name is Brian Vedder – I am twenty-two years old, come from the often-forgotten land of upstate New York, and graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in Secondary English Education. Feel like you know Brian? Probably not. I have two sisters, one younger and one older, and my mother, all three of whom collectively mean the world to me; I enjoy the fast-paced lifestyle of the city, but could never live without tranquil moments of all-encompassing green and pervading sounds of nature; writing and reading are some of my most meaningful outlets and offer me indescribable, self-defining moments of reflection; however, most relevantly, I have struggled with grasping and combating strong feelings of anxiety and my tendency to over-analyze since July 15th, 1992. Growing up, there always seemed to be an underlying set of insecurities and worries that I could never escape – new experiences brought on half-bitten fingernails, stomach aches, obsessive-compulsive habits and impending fears of failure. I knew all of this as I exited the plane on September 26th, 2014, but I had no idea how much it would change in Thailand, even just after a demanding, three-month chunk of time.

Anxiety and stress-reducing habits usually came as a result to my “Type A” personality, always ready to be as productive, as analytic, as equipped as possible. There was a level of control I subconsciously needed to have over situations, be them social, educational, emotional or intellectual, and that made it impossible to thoroughly enjoy, appreciate, relax, embrace or love. These neurotic habits, however, gave me great success in the classroom, a well-deserved reputation at places of employment, fantastic organizational skills, and the image of being well-spoken, of “having it all together.” This was undeniably part of my identity coming to Thailand. I researched the complex language over the summer months, tried to get a sense of what the classroom and education system would look like, and broke down my packing list again and again to prepare for as many unforeseen cultural experiences as possible. On the surface, this probably does not seem like a destructive trait, but arriving to Thailand gave me an entirely new perspective on this “Type A” lifestyle.

“Sabai sabai” is a phrase frequently used in Thailand, inherently meaning that you should be relaxed, that everything will be as it is supposed to be, that the stress and desire to control situations should be left at the door. Small problems will work themselves out and larger problems will be taken care of with the help of others. As to be expected, this motto that many Thai citizens live by did not necessarily jive with the mindset I had adopted as my own over the past twenty-two years. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I was not someone that could often “go with the flow” or change plans on the spin of a dime, and that was not applicable to Thailand. I needed some sort of mental processing, of personal preparation, some time to work through social unease before I could throw myself at an opportunity. I knew as I left the United States that my comfort zone would be eliminated, that my limitations would have to expand, and that I should probably get ready to be intellectually, emotionally, and physically “uncomfortable” if I wanted to be as successful as possible in Thailand. I was right – all of these predictions came true; I did not, however, anticipate the level of struggle and value of the reward that I would encounter so soon after stepping off the plane to the dense, hot air of the Bangkok city life.

The first month in a new land brought with it several changes all at once. You are now meeting, learning and adapting to nineteen other bright, outgoing English Teaching Assistants, assimilating to cultural, environmental and food-related norms, re-conceptualizing your hourly, daily and weekly routines to adapt to a fresh set of personal needs across the board. To be honest, as much as I tried, there was no amount of training I could have done to help myself adapt to the smorgasbord of new experiences at hand. After this first month, you leave the comfort and familiarity of Bangkok to move to your own specific province, filled with its own positives and drawbacks, with your own school, family, friends, amenities and resources. Again, nothing can really prepare you for the twists and turns of this rocky road ahead.

The “sabai sabai” attitude has the most relevance in the month of November, when you are adapting to and discovering everything about your school, your host family, your town and your new life. I came in to the school schedule with a pretty developed plan-of-action, having mini-lessons and a long-term idea in place, but was immediately jostled by days off, shortened classes, impromptu cancelled periods and general lateness for one reason or another. Yes, “Mr. Vedder” was perfectly suited to the student teaching expectations in Burlington, Vermont just six months ago, but he was a fish out of water in his Thai classes come November. Not only was my perception of both short-term and long-term scheduling off-beat, but my thoughts of English proficiency according to grade, age, or culture were thrown out the window. Each class was unique, with its own behavioral and academic challenges, and I could not outline a deep, stimulating project or thorough lesson plan without first having a sense of who I was looking at. “Sabai, sabai,” right? Let’s just say Mr. Vedder was definitely out of his element at this point. Starting from scratch, I had new sources of motivation and meaning-making in the classroom. Student smiles, loud bouts of English vocabulary and conversations, interactive back-and-forth commentary and rambunctious greetings became my daily fuel in the classroom. The self-expectations and self-predictions drifted away, and suddenly I was having more fun in the classroom, growing goofier and more successful as days went by. Teacher Brian from America who over-planned and often lost sight of the use of staying positive and “weird” in the classroom had undergone a transformation. Suddenly, I realized the desire and motivation to come to class did not pertain to how much of my English they understood, or how thought-provoking the lessons were, but how at-ease they felt balancing productivity and entertainment, how happy I was to have a class, how thrilled I was that they were happy to see me. Once I let go of trying to teach an entire language in fifty minutes, of turning their confused faces into ones ready for to travel to the faraway land of America, everything flowed easier and progressed smoother. For someone that came in ready to discuss complex morals and American/Thai cultural differences, starting small and living through the educational “sabai sabai” did wonders for me as I moved through this first month. 

There are several other instances that happen while abroad, when you least expect them, that ultimately demonstrate the “sabai sabai” attitude all on their own. This is when, minutes before, you are instructed to give a speech to all of the parents at a school assembly, or when, at a moment’s notice, you are expected to entertain a full house with your vocal cords and open up a session of karaoke entertainment, or when your teacher asks you to be at an event at 8:30, but does not show up until lunch time, when buses are an hour late, when traffic jams change your plans on the fly, when food poisoning hits or when stores are closed for no obvious reason. This is when you must choose a meal randomly off a menu and throw caution into the wind, when you rely on frantic gesturing and scattered miscommunications until you create some sort of cultural bridge, when you defy physical sweating capacities, when electricity goes out at school all day, when Skype calls fail repeatedly and when you, as the foreigner, are put on display for all to see. 

Most of these situations are applicable to traveling in general, but the respective attitude of “sabai sabai” is one specific to Thailand. I came in to this international adventure ill-prepared for the shifting and shaping of everything all at once, automatically inclined to attempt to control or rationalize or “fix” various conditions when, in reality, the only thing I could do was choose my own response – “pick my own adventure,” if you will. The anxiety of trying to predict certain situations and prepare for everything was how I got myself into trouble, and I disposed of this perspective as soon as possible; so many things are left to chance, so many situations only able to work themselves out, so little pre-thinking I could do to decide what song to sing at karaoke, or how to react to the giggles at sweat stains after sessions of animated pedagogy, or how to process emotional chaos when familiar supports were nowhere to be found. 

There is a level of unexpectedness and spontaneity to Thailand that I was in no way ready for, but, then again, there was no way that the old Brian could have been ready for anything “on the spot.” I used to be someone that asked dozens of questions before deciding whether or not it was worth the risk to jump, that had to decide just how wet I was willing to get before throwing myself into the pool of uncertainty, that had to over-consider life before living it. Life lost its fun for a little while; it became too calculated and controllable and supervised and certain, but, at the time, I had little notion this was happening. Changes started in Thailand within the classroom. I could never be certain students would show up, or what lessons would work, or how to best handle the boys in the back using class time to speak frantic Thai and put each other in furious headlocks. This change continued sporadically as I realized I would never be able to always know where I was going, what I was eating, when I should get off the songtaew, what a teacher would offer as a weekend plan, when I could expect to sing, or play soccer, or sleep in my own bed, or when I would find someone to speak English with again. Thailand became a set of individual situations that I could in no way control, research for, mentally prepare for or understand until they had already happened. 

The fact of the matter is that in order to overcome areas of my life that I had spent so long organizing and pre-planning, I had to have that option removed. I had to be forced to live in the moment, to take bullets as they were shot and smell the roses as they were offered, or I would have found a way to circumvent it. At first, there were parts of me that could not comprehend the concept of “sabai sabai,” and simultaneously encountered feelings of frustration, confusion, and misunderstanding – I was too attached emotionally to previously constructed plans or ideas. I could not have plausibly understood how to be flexible and adaptive after twenty-two years in the United States until placed in circumstances where there was no other choice. This is why I am so unbelievably thankful for Thailand. Inside and outside of the classroom, I experience so much more appreciation and enjoyment in life even just after a few months. The teacher in me adores the smiles in my classroom and the gradual language acquisition equally now. The traveler in me enjoys the pain of too much spice and the satisfaction in successfully communicating my choice of meat and vegetables as much as a juicy cheeseburger from Wendy’s. The overly-reflective, all-too-inquisitive young boy inside of me now values the moments of frantic karaoke, of botched attempts at Thai, of cultural faux pas during the struggle to assimilate and the reconsideration of everything I consider “normal.” In every uncomfortable, tense, uncertain or distraught moment, there lies a nugget at the end that I take away with me as a token to my survival and continued, back-and-forth learning. 

Brian Vedder, the young man from upstate New York (still often forgotten), has not completely changed. He has many of the same values and passions as he did four months ago, he often thinks too much and analyzes events long after they are said and done. He still has problems with his fingernails and wonders for lengthy periods about the future. He has made unprecedented progress, however, in dropping his commitment to plans and expectations, he has learned to feel immense gratitude for the smaller moments, for the smiles, the tastes, the unanticipated conversations and the spontaneous journeys that turn out better than he could have imagined. He is no longer over-focused on himself, but on a culture, a place, a time, and a moment; he still thinks about the what-if’s, but not with so much planning, weight, or commitment to it, and more so as endless intellectual and emotional possibilities. He does not measure his success in how much English he can squeeze into a fifty-minute period, but how much fun he can have beside students as they work through advances, setbacks, and questions together. He has stopped looking at how fast, efficiently, or easily he can attain a goal, and more so at whether the goal even exists, what it represents and the sacrifices he is making right now for that one goal. 

This could be viewed as a travel journey, as one that could happen regardless of the country, but I disagree. The pervading, relaxing concept of “sabai sabai” has left me with more joy and less strife than I gave it credit for in the beginning, and the growth since that acceptance has been off the charts. Having finally figured out how to break down some of the walls around me, I am now feeling the Thai culture more fully, adapting and reacting more flexibly and appropriately than ever before, and I do not think there is any transformation more important to my life as a twenty-two year-old man than this one right here, right now.

Bpen Kon Arai

By Anna Treesara

Anna Treesara is from Chicago, Illinois and graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor of Arts in English Secondary Education. She is a Fulbright 2013-14 alumna who completed her English Teaching Assistantship at Triamudomsuksa School of the North in Phitsanulok, Thailand. After her grant, Anna went on to serve as the Temporary Program Coordinator helping the Fulbright Thailand staff transition the 2014-15 ETAs. This narrative project was initiated by her and inspired by Oberlin Shansi. Anna’s narrative focuses on her lifelong journey of discovering her identity as a Thai-American and solidifying it during her year in Thailand.

Bpen kon arai?” was a question I was asked a lot while in Thailand. This literally translates to “What are you?” but is used to ask, “Where are you from?” or “What do you identify as?” Growing up biculturally, I have always battled with a sense of identity. Today, I can proudly say I am Thai-American. However, as a first-generation American, I was not always confident in my racial and ethnic identity. I believe that first-generation Americans have a unique upbringing that is both wonderful because of certain cultural experiences, but that is also very confusing because it is full of numerous questions, the most prominent being, “Who am I?"

Before coming to Thailand, I grew up in various situations that required me to confront this question. In elementary school, I was the only Asian in a predominantly Hispanic population. I was constantly teased for my appearance, religion, and language. Other kids made their eyes smaller when they saw me and said things like “ching chong,” because they thought this was how all Asians spoke and that it was funny. Aside from this, I was once told that because I am Buddhist and do not believe in God, that I was going to hell. As a result, I rejected my Thai culture and tried to assimilate into their Hispanic culture. I tried to incorporate pero and verdad in my everyday vocabulary because I heard my friends use them. I was desperate to learn bachata and salsa because it seemed to be such a large part of their lives. I went to great lengths to try to connect with these people I called my friends. Nevertheless, it was not enough. No matter how much Spanish I tried to speak or how much I pathetically danced I never quite fit in. On top of this, my friends limited how much Spanish I could learn by refusing to teach me more words and speaking extremely fast so that I would never be able to understand them. Looking back on it now, I realize these people were not my friends. However, as a young Asian-American girl confused about who I really was, I reached out to anybody I could, even those who were the root of my identity issues.

When I went to high school I decided to leave my elementary school past behind. It was time to say goodbye to that part of my life and start fresh. From the moment I attended my high school orientation, I was suddenly exposed to a more diverse population that included other Asian-Americans. Though I felt like I finally belonged, I also still felt disconnected from my Thai culture. Many of my Asian-American friends were Filipino and once again, I found myself trying to identify with another culture that was not my own. I was left wondering if I would ever have the chance to truly understand my culture. As my high school days went on, learning about Thai culture became of less and less significance to me, eventually not being a part of my life at all except for the occasional times I spoke Thai to my parents.

After high school, I chose to go to Bradley University in Peoria, located about three hours south of Chicago. Since Thai culture played a very small role in my life at this point, going to a diverse university wasn’t of utmost importance to me. However, as soon as I stepped on Bradley’s campus, I quickly realized that I was once again a minority, this time in a predominantly Caucasian population. I tried to push this fact aside and the next four years flew by. I put all of my energy into academics, student organizations, and leadership positions, leaving me with little time to focus on my racial and ethnic identity.

During senior year of college, my English adviser handed me a pamphlet about Fulbright and the numerous opportunities the organization offers. I decided to apply for an English Teaching Assistantship in Thailand. I wanted to finally be able to answer the question “Who am I?” I had put it off for too long, and it was time to delve into my Thai culture. I hoped that being surrounded by my relatives, the customs, and language would help me obtain a better sense of identity. Though these things did help me learn more about my culture, other factors made me continue to question my identity.

Throughout my year in Thailand, I was asked many questions that left me speechless. When I first arrived in Thailand with the other English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) from America, many of them already knew that I was Thai-American. What they didn’t know was that I too knew very little about Thai culture. Many questions started with, “Anna, do you know why…?” and “Anna, you probably know the answer to this…” A part of me began to get really frustrated because I just wanted everyone else to see that I was in the very same position they were in, an American coming to Thailand to learn about the culture through teaching English. However, another part of me was angry at myself because I wondered, “Why don’t I know the answers to these questions? Does this make me a bad Thai?” I had begun to hate myself for not trying harder to learn about my culture when I was younger.

Another question I was often asked in the beginning and still get asked from time to time is, “Are you a luk-kreung?” In Thai, luk-kreung means someone who is half-Thai and of another ethnicity. This question would come up when I introduced myself to other Thais as an English teacher from America. As soon as they took a second look at me or heard me speak Thai, this perplexing look immediately came across their faces. “So why do you look Thai?” and “How do you know how to speak Thai so well?” were among the questions that surfaced. Sometimes, they would answer their own questions with, “Oh, you must be a luk-kreung,” not even giving me the chance to explain. It was as if I couldn’t be both Thai and American without being a luk-kreung.

I also had to deal with these same questions daily at school. Though I introduced myself in front of the entire school as Thai-American and reiterated this within my English classes, I still had students and teachers come up to me and ask me these questions. Was I doing something wrong? Why was I not able to get it across to my school that I am an American because I was born in the United States, raised there, and have lived there my entire life? Why did there always have to be a follow-up? “I’m American, but…” with the long explanation of where my parents were born and why I speak such clear English but have a Thai appearance. It was draining to have to explain the entire story to everyone I met, whereas many of my fellow ETAs were able to answer with “I’m from America,” and that was always the end of it. Why couldn’t it be that simple for me?

Anna with her students and co-teacher/host teacher, P'Maew.
Anna with fellow teachers before a retirement ceremony.

During my travel month, I traveled throughout Southeast Asia with my best friend Stephanie and a fellow ETA Kelsey. Everywhere we went, people would ask us where we were from and we would always say that we were from the United States. However, the people asking these questions couldn’t accept that Stephanie and I were from the States since Stephanie is Mexican-American and I am Thai-American. Instead, they pointed at Kelsey, who is Caucasian, and said, “Yes, she is American…but you two, you are not.” No matter how many times this occurred, it was always incredibly hurtful to be told what I was and was not.

The months following my travel month went by very quickly. The questions about where I was from and what I was weren’t asked so much anymore. I finally had some time to reflect upon my identity without having other people decide it for me. I realized that I am BOTH Thai and American and I do not ever need to choose only one. That’s the beauty of having grown up biculturally, being able to have been exposed to two cultures and identifying with both of them. Sure, I still occasionally got asked where I’m from and people are not satisfied with my simple answer of “I’m from America.” However, explaining my roots in more detail can only help others better understand that being American is a mixture of so many things and it is not only about race, but the individual experiences and opportunities one has in the United States. I may never be able to simply answer the question of “Where are you from?” but my upbringing and journey of identity wasn’t necessarily simple, so why should my answer be?

Through the situations and people I encountered in Thailand, I gained a stronger grasp on my racial and ethnic identity. Without Fulbright, I wouldn’t have gotten dressed up in a traditional Thai outfit. I wouldn’t have learned words from the Pak Neua and Isaan dialects. I wouldn’t have been constantly challenged by both Thais and fellow ETAs. I wouldn’t have grown to understand and love myself for all that I am and all that I identify as, both Thai and American. I can wholeheartedly embrace both cultures. Who am I? I am a Thai who knows how to speak the language, but struggles at reading and writing it. I am an American who likes my independence, but accepts that I need to call or text my parents at least once a day, maybe sometimes more. I am a Thai who respects authority, but have always been taught to stand up and speak up for myself if I disagree. I am an American who will be direct in what I say and things I do, but will often feel and speak with krengjai in most situations. I am a Thai who loves to eat som tum and gang kiew wan, but who also loves to eat burgers and fries. I am a Thai. I am an American. I am a Thai-American.