I am half Thai, lôok krêung, ลูกครึ่ง and I suspect there are many of us half-breeds running around. It’s a noncount noun thing. To the western mind this term is considered almost insulting, to the other half it’s considered insulting, almost. To my mind, it’s a curious splinter dividing my dance card with identity.
When I moved to the Mainland, (as us locals call it, Islanders refer to the Continental US as such), I received a happy myriad of reactions regarding being from Hawaii. Since people would Ohhh and Ahhh I started to see beyond my foamy shores to get a blue-green glimpse of a whiter side of pride.
This perspective has kaleidoscoped Hawaii as the vacation destination that the airlines billed it to be. Exotic, different, special, tanned, fruity, beautiful, friendly, and cultural in a hedonistic, as tropical goes, kind of way.
It’s funny, I see Hawaii in Thailand. I see familiar vegetation and a touristic voyeurism that stays open 7-11. I hear broken English, or pidgin, and drive by men with their shirts pulled up over their bellies, as if this very act could cool them off. I see ouchie sunburns and Tha Phae Gate as an international Waikiki promenade.
In Hawaii, lôok krêungs are called hapas. This also means “half” but it isn’t insulting so much as simply an ethnic statement. I would never be called hapa though, I don’t look mixed. A technicality. Originally meant for Hawaiians and now used for Caucasian and Asian mixed drinks, I mean, races.
In Hawaii, after the question, What (high) school did you go to? the question, What are you? is the next question sure to follow. So, at a young age I knew what I was, and what everyone else was. I learned there was a hierarchy. And I learned there were exciting variations to people’s ethnic makeup.
I also learned that everyone was a little (an eighth, or ¼) Hawaiian because it was considered cool (not unlike being Native American or Cherokee).
And even though people now find my half-Thai, half-Chinese, and a little bit of Russian, oh so fascinating, it wasn’t that way growing up. Thai wasn’t one of the recognized Asian food groups.
Plus, I identified with my father growing up. Or at least I wanted to identify with him because of my classic Chinese looks. You see, I had it up to here with my mom’s Thai magazines, “music”, religion, friends, and parties. I was a tourist in my own home.
I think that is why folks see me as American Asian rather than the other way around. Although, I got to say, the way you are raised influences you in unseen and insidious ways. Not unlike when we say, “I’m turning into my mother” or “I must have gotten that from my father”. Usually I am quiet on the matter of Asian-ness, being more ethnic (whatever that means) is not something I feel the need to defend.
I mean if language was the only or primary factor then all the foreigners who knew Thai would be considered Thai. Maybe if I rocked that Tinglish accent then that would make me seem more ethnic. Then again my students identify me as Hawaiian. They take pleasure in sharing their knowledge of the Islands with me. One of my Thai neighbors greets me with Aloha.
Sometimes I think I’ll never fit in anywhere. I’m not entirely sure that I want to. There are moments though in which I do slide into the mold depending on the Technicolor picture. It’s an anthropological field report and a writer’s dream. It’s a people-watching parade and tourists taking my picture. It’s an identity free-for-all, wrestling match, spin-the-bottle game where I feel less nationalistic, less Chinese and less Thai with each clock ticking time.
And more like me.