29 June, 2016

Blending in: the Adventures of an Invisible Asian American

Amy Bohn was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2013 with a double major in Political Economy and Asian Studies and a minor in Japanese. Prior to Fulbright, Amy was an AmeriCorps after-school instructor at an elementary school in Oakland, CA. Amy is a 2015-2016 AMCHAM-Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Ubon Ratchathani, a city in the northeast of Thailand. In her free time, Amy enjoys exploring the cafes in her city and trying all the delicious Thai snacks. After Fulbright, Amy will move to Japan to teach English and explore the Japanese side of her identity. She hopes to work as a Foreign Service Officer one day.

The Guessing Game

“Amy, you are a Thai girl!” Mae Usa, one of my many Thai "mothers" and host teachers, calls to me from across the office. With an amused smile I accept the compliment, one I’ve heard at least once a week since arriving at Triam Udomsuksa Pattanagarn School back in November. I look like a Thai person, but looks can be deceiving. In fact, I am not Thai in the slightest.

My ethnicity and nationality are a guessing game. Generally, people can tell I am a mixed-race person of Asian heritage, but where do I come from? Once Thailand is ruled out, common guesses include the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Laos, and Singapore. Nice try, but none of those are correct.

My family and I during a childhood visit to Japan

I am a mixed-race Japanese American, born and raised in California. My mother immigrated to the United States from Japan. My father is an American of European descent. Because I am closer to my mother’s side of the family, I identify more with the Japanese side of my heritage. However, in my heart,  I am an American, through and through.

Identity in Crisis
Having grown up in a majority Asian community in California, I never felt that my Japanese and American identities conflicted. Asian-American was the norm in the particular corner of America that I called home. Additionally, for whatever reason, many strangers claimed they could tell I was ethnically Japanese by looking at me. I had always felt confident that my physical appearance matched my identity as both Japanese and American.

It was not until I studied abroad in Thailand in 2012 that I first encountered people who questioned my identity. To my frustration, no one could tell I was American. Strangers kept insisting that I looked Thai or some other Asian ethnicity that was not Japanese. Instead of other people affirming my identity, for the first time I had to defend it on my own. My identity was in crisis.

While studying abroad in Bangkok, I participated in the Wai Khru ceremony at Mahidol University 
with my friend Nit. Wai Khru is a ritual where students pay respect to teachers.

Those scenarios forced to reevaluate how I understood my own identity. I learned firsthand that many people did not think Asians could be Americans. I realized that “passing” for a certain ethnicity was not a matter of fact, because “passing” was contextual and depended on the perceptions and opinions of other people. Most importantly, I discovered that my sense of identity had to come from within. As long as I knew in my heart what I identified as and where I came from, what other people think about my identity should not bother me.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Armed with the lessons I learned from studying abroad in Bangkok, I felt ready to return to Thailand as a Fulbright ETA and further explore the complexing conundrum of being Asian American in Thailand. Whenever I am mistaken for a Thai person, I feel like an “invisible American”. Here are the main implications of being an “invisible American” whether I am out in town or meeting new people for the first time.

- People respect my privacy and personal space.

I can wander around my city, Ubon Ratchathani, alone without being harassed or hassled on the basis of my race. No one stares at me. Strangers do not stop me not to pose for awkward photos, nor do they randomly snap pictures as I walk by. Unsavory men do not call out “Hallo!”. Hawkers do not hassle me about goods I don’t want to buy. This is all because I look like any other ordinary Thai person on the street.

My co-workers and I at a Buddhist ceremony at my school Triam Udomsuksa Pattanagarn
Ubon Ratchathani.

 - Strangers are surprised that I can’t speak Thai.

Too often, I approach strangers for help in my city. To my dismay, Thai people generally seem confused, annoyed, and sometimes outright agitated that I don’t speak Thai. To them, my face appears Thai, yet my language ability doesn’t match their expectations. I quickly learned that if I want my requests to be received warmly, I must speak Thai properly. Not garbled keywords, but actual sentences with a clear attempt at grammar. Eventually, I realized I could also easily tell people in Thai that I’m a foreigner who does not speak Thai well before making any requests. Now, instead of looking annoyed, people seem curious by my Thai appearance and are happy to help a foreigner in need. Not to mention, I get to practice speaking Thai.

 - My nationality confuses people.

Many people are reluctant to believe that I am an American. Thai people definitely understand when I say it in Thai, but they look confused and ask me why I look Asian or they refuse to believe me. Foreigners, including other Americans, are also skeptical. Too many times, foreigners have insisted that I can’t be an American, that I must be Thai because they overheard me speaking a few broken phrases. People don’t want to believe me because I don’t look like what most people think an American should look like.

People always want an explanation. I tell them that my mom is from Japan and my dad is an Americans of European descent. Some people obviously only accept that I’m American once I tell them my dad is white. I want people to understand: it doesn’t matter where my parents come from or what race they are. America is a country built by generations of immigrants from all over the world. I’m American because I simply am.

- Sometimes people treat me with less respect.

Most of the time, cases of mistaken identity are harmless and can be easily smoothed over with a smile or a simple explanation. However, sometimes people blatantly treat my friends and me differently based on how they perceive our races.

For instance, one of my ETA friend’s school director exhibited a clear bias for white Americans when meeting Fulbright ETAs at an English camp. Although 5 Fulbright ETAs, including me, gathered to teach at the camp, the school director stated in his opening speech that only 3 American ETAs were teaching at the camp. My friend’s host teacher stepped in and had each of us explain our ethnicity to everyone to make it clear that all 5 of us were Americans. After the opening ceremony, we finally met the director. Although we all introduced ourselves as Americans, the school director spoke only Thai to the ETAs who looked Asian while switching to English for the ETAs who looked white. On top of that, the school director lavished the “white” ETAs with questions and compliments while outright ignoring us “Asian” ETAs. I felt frustrated that the school director treated my friends and me so differently even though we were doing the same work.

Although bitter feelings linger from such interactions, I try not to fixate on them. Nothing I do will change such people’s behavior. Thankfully interactions with such people are rare. Instead of focusing on a few negative interactions, I think instead of all the people who have treated me with kindness and respect: my host teachers, my coworkers, my students, my neighborhood shopkeepers, the Fulbright staff, my fellow ETAs, and the many Thai strangers who helped me when I was lost or travelling alone. Compared to the handful of prejudiced people, so many more people have been friendly, welcoming, and accepting of me. These are the people who make my Thailand experience a positive one.

What is an American? What is a Thai person?

My experiences in Thailand not only allow me to better understand my own identity, but also challenge my perceptions of what it means to pass for American or Thai. While interning with the Ministry of Education in March, I attended an English speech contest organized by the British Council and the Ministry of Education. The best students from the top high schools and universities of Thailand were nominated by their schools to compete. Whether they were presenting to the judges or casually chit-chatting between rounds, a majority of the students spoke impeccable English the entire time, many with British or American-tinged accents. They wore the same style of school uniforms as my students in Ubon Ratchathani, yet they were so confident about speaking English. They contrasted starkly with my students, who freeze when trying to speak English with me and switch to Thai instead.

My fellow AMCHAM-Fulbright ETAs and I hanging out at Sukhothai Historical Park (clockwise from the left: me, Elaine, Ia, Edie, Crystal, and Dee).

If I had not already known they were Thai high school and university students, those students could have been from anywhere in the world. The way they behaved and talked, from their level of vocabulary down to their intonation, reminded me of my classmates from high school and university. In the cities of California where I grew up, the majority of my classmates were of Asian descent with immigrant parents, and still we were all Americans. These Thai young adults could have passed for Americans too.

Then it hit me: the idea that people should look, act, or talk a certain way to be from anywhere was ridiculous. At the same time, I also realized that it was not that outrageous that no one in Thailand could tell I was not Thai.

Final Thoughts

As a mixed-race person, I think often about identity and what it means to “pass” for a particular ethnicity or race. Race clearly plays a role in how Thai people and foreigners in Thailand think about “American-ness” and “Thai-ness”. It’s hard not to take it personally when people outright reject your identity. Though I tire of constantly explaining why I am Asian and American, I’ve become better at remaining neutral and not holding it against people. After all, it’s not completely unheard of for a Thai person in Thailand to seem as Westernized as an Asian person who grew up in America. At the very least, I know that by being in Thailand and being known to my community, I am in a unique position to open people’s minds to the different ways race, ethnicity, and nationality intersect.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous07 July, 2016

    The school director 's behavior represents the views of the majority of the people living in Thailand.