Asian American · Writing Memoir

Who am i?

2009 Doi Inthanon
2009 Doi Inthanon

Being back in Thailand means a lot of things. It means I’m eating amazing food again and seeing my friends that I missed when I was in Ecuador, and now missing my friends who are in Ecuador. It means putting Spanish on the shelf and taking down pasa Thai, dusting it off and playing with an old and familiar language again.

It means dealing with the heat, taking several showers a day, sweeping the floors several times a day and keeping a diligent eye on crumbs and the ants, several times a day.

Being back means moving to the river of traffic, as my friend Denali puts it, that surrounds the Old City. It means conquering old fears too. Old fears. I like that. Things that used to scare me, don’t anymore – like traffic and asking for help. Like hailing a songtaew, getting lost (okay that still scares me) and riding a motorbike.

I remember when I was in college and people would mistake me for being Japanese and how offended I used to get. Because my mom told me that I looked SO Chinese and wasn’t it obvious to everyone? But here in Thailand, I am Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese, Thai, ben kohn American.

I used to feel strongly about my identity, to my ethnic makeup, but when you are Thai/Chinese on the outside, and American on the inside, why bother? As more and more Asian Americans or ABCs visit Chiang Mai, Thai folks will have to gawk less. They will accept a little more that there is a world full of Asians who sound just like me.

This is not to say that I am not proud of being Chinese and Thai with a little bit of Russian thrown in. And this is not to say I’m not proud to have been born and raised in the beautiful state of Hawaii. It just means that people are getting a whole lot of mixed in, and who you are, is truly whoever you want to be.

There is a Japanese-Thai bakery that I’ve been going to, and today I had what seemed to be the usual run of the pork floss conversation. (*please note that the following takes place in Tinglish)

Are you Japanese?
No. I’m from Hawaii.
Really? Oh! You look Asian.
Mae is ben kohn Thai. Paw is ben kohn Jeen.
Really? (She said really a lot) Mae ben kohn Thai. Paw ben kohn Jeen?
Ka. Kohn Thai kit I am Jeepoon.
Because of the way you dress. Did your mom speak to you in Thai or English?
English only.
Really? I think if your mom taught you Thai you would get the Thai price. But because you don’t speak Thai, you pay more. [You should say] Sawadee ka. Ahnee tow rai ka?
Ahnee?
This is. How much is this?

Today though, instead of simply thinking how nice the woman was, and how I will return to the bakery, I lingered on the woman’s question. Are you Japanese? I smiled. Suddenly I felt very flattered. I admire how the Japanese dress. I think they have an amazing sense of style and to be mistaken as Japanese made me feel good. Perhaps my hair in pigtails, large cushy slippahs, and the colorful necklace from Ecuador gave me a funky vibe. Chai mai ka?

I’ve also written ad nausea about my experiences as an ABC in a South America, in North America and Southeast Asia, and I’m so over it! 8Asians posted an article I had written years ago (thank you 8Asians!) and it invoked quite the discussion which got me thinking about how I used to think.

I used to think it would be hard to go to Taiwan, China, Japan or Korea because I would be constantly mistaken as one of them. Sometimes I felt caught off guard when Thais would speak to me in Thai and the thought of being consistently spoken to in Chinese, Korean or Japanese seemed overwhelming.

Of course I’d fit in too. Some times I would fit in, and other times I would not and that is everywhere, so why did this bother me before? Heck, I’ve had people assume I knew Spanish and Chinese when I was in Ecuador. My friend Meg laughed when a guy thrust a Bible written in Chinese under my nose.

So I think I’ll just consider myself part of the Asian Soup Mix because heavily identifying with one particular group, as history has shown us, can get us in a lot of boiling water.

Isn’t it funny then, that I came to Thailand to learn about Thai culture, the language, to get in touch with my roots, but that I feel less Thai?


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