By Anna Treesara
“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.