Should I be hurt that I was told I wasn’t American enough to teach English? I mean, I’m certainly cute enough. . .

My friend who is a teacher at CMU (Chiang Mai University) passed along a student’s information to me since she wasn’t able to take on any more tutoring. After she made the introductions via email, I decided I would wait for her to contact me. After, of course, I had given her my phone number.

Then when I was having brunch with another friend we talked about said student. And she shared the conversation she had just had. Did I mention how small Chiang Mai is? Cause it is *this* small. But not as small as Cuenca was, but anyway, where was I?

My friend: I hear you are going to be learning English with my friend Lani!

Her: Yeah, but I think she is not American enough!

My friend: What?! You need to meet her! She’s American enough!


It’s like a bad acid trip. Not that I’ve ever dropped, but I remember watching a guy being carried away on a stretcher in college and thinking, that looks really f’ed up. Look, I’m not saying stereotypes are like a bad trip, but they don’t feel too good, okay?

I was just getting into the rhythm of teaching and I can’t believe this, but I’m 1, 2? months away from being here for a year. A year. I can’t remember the last time I was somewhere (the same place) that long. I know this because I have to do some professional development stuff at school, and I need to do it before my first year is up.

But that’s the down beat to life, isn’t it? I felt like I got a heavy dosage of β€œyou can’t teach English because of the way you look” kind of thing when I first arrived, and then when I returned, all of that non-sense faded away. In fact, I felt extra special when I was in the classroom because here I was being a role model for my students.

I feel loved by them and still do. I suppose the difference is my kids are forced to work with me on a regular basis because their parents told them so. Any first impressions or cultural beliefs are allowed to dance around the room, grow tired, take a nap and get up again (the impressions, not the kids).

My Thai tutor told me that he fell in love with his first English teacher (well – you know what I mean) and that fed his delightful appetite for the language. And I certainly think a positive experience in the classroom will create a love for a particular school subject. It’s really amazing (and scary) how a teacher can turn someone in or out this way.

Now, I remember when the question, If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? was floating by and my friend Byron caught it and said, Honesty. Me and my girlfriend thought, Whoa. Can you imagine? Everyone had to be honest? Brutal. I don’t think we could handle it. I don’t know if I could. Oh, never mind I could – let me introduce you to the men in my life. . .


Honesty is funny thing, a lovely thing, and a wicked thing. The student in question, no doubt was being honest. I’m not American enough. For you.

Lions, Tigers and Bears! Oh my!
Lions, Tigers and Bears! Oh my!

10 replies on “Not American enough

  1. When I was teaching ESL in Thailand in the 90s, I also got that surprised double-take from students: “YOU are American?? But you look like Asian?!”Um, yeah. I'm American.Somewhat annoying, I know. I'm guessing your student was on the youngish side, since the American=White assumption seems to be more prevalent among younger Thais. Mind you, that's not an excuse or a justification, but an explanation. And its certainly not an assumption held only by Thais either (as President Obama can attest to).There are certain liminalities about the experience of being Asian and being American in Asia. Its somewhat like the mirror image of the in-between or othered experience of being Asian in America. Speaking for myself, I felt that being Asian-American in Thailand provided me with opportunities that I could use to benefit myself in various ways. It opened more doors for me than it did close doors, or at least, it opened the kinds of doors for me to experiences that I valued and wanted. I very quickly recognized that my Asian-American-ness was going to color my experience living there, and I embraced it.


  2. @Mr.T: Yeah, the whole AA thing is very interesting and I feel like I've talked about it a lot and then I kind of forgot about it and then this thing happened.I have had a sneaky suspicion that I am treated differently in a good way but your thoughts on the matter confirm it.I'm glad you embraced it. I enjoy the ninja aspects of it as well as the I Speak English Very Good na ka.@I-Nomad: Funny you should mention that. I had a Cowboys and Indians party not too long ago πŸ˜‰


  3. Hi Lani, this type of thinking is everywhere in Thailand. I remember an American guy in my last school who didn't get hired because he looked too Asian. He had great qualifications and we were desperate for a teacher but the administration said no. They ended up employing a less qualified applicant because he would look better in the school brochure. The problem is that there is too much emphasis on decoration rather than actual substance.


  4. @Paul: You know, from writer to writer, I gotta tell you that after I write something down I feel loads better. It's very therapeutic or it just helps me gain fresh perspective on the whole thing. So. I don't know. It's like letting go of a balloon and watching it float away.


  5. Lani, ditto on the previous commenter's comments. My blond haired, blue eyed American teacher friend bought this very subject to my attention, months ago. (She's now working in China) It appears that being a minority has its advantages here…sometimes.In a warped kind of way I can kind of relate. There's a teacher at my Thai school that looks, well, not very Thai…and I often ask myself…well, lot's of questions πŸ˜‰ Poor thing probably doesn't deserve my internal pondering, I'm quite sure she is fluent in Thai and was probably born here.


  6. @Snap: I appreciate your honesty. I know looks is how we judge folks and form our first opinions. Endlessly fascinating stuff, eh?


  7. Stumbled upon your blog through various Facebook links (recently posted on Team Chiang Mai's wall about my organization's upcoming exhibition at Sangdee Gallery). I feel like I've been living this “other-ness” every day of my life. I'm a Chinese-American who DIDN'T grow up in a heavily Asian part of the States. I grew weary of hearing “no, where are you really from?” years ago. Now I'm living in Mae Sot, too dark and round-eyed for the Chinese stereotype but clearly unable to speak Burmese well or Thai at all. I'm volunteering here but did once inquire about teaching English for pay, and was told “no, we only take native English speakers.” Some farangs seem to believe I'm mixed-race. So I'm confounding people on a daily basis. And sometimes actually feeling bad about other people's misconceptions, which is silly but there it is. On the plus side, a surprisingly high percentage of people all over Asia can speak some Chinese, which gets me out of jams at times. Just opened my Kasikorn account with the help of an employee who attended a Chinese school here in Mae Sot, for example.I believe–but could be wrong–that local people are more at ease around me. They think they “get” me, even though I had such a different life. Some want to practice their smattering of Chinese words. I ask so many personal questions and take so many photos and people generally seem relaxed about it. They're curious about my upbringing, as well. They might not ask someone who “looks” American what their family history is, but they can somewhat relate to mine, as there's wars and immigration difficulties involved.All that said, I feel stupid every time I'm around one of my Irish friends who made a concerted effort to learn both Thai and Burmese and confuses everyone she speaks to while I, the Thai- or Burmese-looking one, just stand there. I guess there's still plenty of time to rectify this, though!


  8. Hi Nancy!I'm glad you found me. And I'm really glad you have added to the AA mix in Mae Sot. I think it's good for people to see another side of Asian.Yeah, I do feel like the Thais, etc, treat me a little like “I'm one of them.” It's a nice feeling but sometimes this doesn't happen so you know, you just take it when it comes.Hang in there my Chinese sista πŸ˜‰


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