On a regular basis, I’m mistaken for being Chinese – as in from the Motherland, China, Chinese. Now, to be fair, I look pretty damn Chinese, but these days it’s getting ridiculous.
When I was a freshman in high school, about 14 or 15 years old, my younger brother and I wandered into a comic book store. It was located between Mililani, our home town, and Waihawa, the dead-beat-town-that-we-briefly-lived-in. We stopped there because my mom would visit her friend’s Thai grocery store. And like every other time, we kids tagged along because she had errands. We usually had to wait a very long time for her to talk and do her business.
As an expat, one of the things I experience is how different governments treat their people, and how my passport country measures up. Until I had moved overseas, I had taken for granted American infrastructure, rules and regulations and our homegrown love for criticizing politicians and government. I lived in a democracy where political cartoons are the norm and SNL skits are revered and expected.
It was Facebook that reminded me that the milestone had passed. Otherwise, I’m sure I would have continued to scroll past this moment, drinking my coffee and eating my banana.
I posted, “I signed up for Intensive Thai, but based on my photo (with my application) I was enrolled in Intensive English instead.”
Now, normally, I’d write a long post about what these 7 years overseas has meant to me, what I’ve learned, etc., but after deciding that I hated half of what I wrote, I’ve settled on writing a list post, in an effort to stir up the punch, so to speak, and force me to distill my years abroad into one tasty beverage.
- Being asked, upon hearing that I’m from Hawaii, “Are you from Hawaii China?”
- Always being asked, “Where are you from?” And almost always being started at, despite looking Asian living + traveling in Asian countries.
- Quickly learning how to say in Thai, “My mother is Thai and my father is Chinese, but I was born in Hawaii and I’m American”.
- Watching locals light up upon hearing I’m part Thai and Chinese.
- Having a Chinese Bible thrust under my nose in a park in Cuenca, Ecuador followed by my British friend’s laughter as she looked on.
- Being taunted on the streets of Cuenca by teenage boys yelling, “Konichiwa,” as I walk briskly home in the dark.
- Overhearing Thais say, “She speaks really good English,” after leaving a red taxi truck in Chiang Mai.
- Realizing that America has its own set of rules, constructs and artificial realities, and recognizing that culture is invisible.
- Attempting to see what is assumed.
- Seeing my mom on her home turf, connecting with her through her native language, and (hopefully) understanding her a little more.
- Getting out of comfort zone, regularly.
- Making friends from all over the world, living and working in an International environment, and being that Annoying American trying on her British accent.
- Having successful (and unsuccessful) interactions with locals using their language. Really having to rely on what I’ve retained and my creativity to navigate my way around (e.g. avoiding meltdowns).
- Learning to be more patient because that’s the way things are on this side of the world…
Growth + goals garnishes
- Living a life that is much closer to how I want to live, through part time work, play and pursuing my passions.
- Finishing that damn memoir, my first book, after years of carrying it around the United States.
- Working on my second book with all its ups and downs of self-doubt peppered with excitement.
- Blogging consistently, writing every day for me, not losing sight of the dream.
- Successfully conquering my fear of driving a motorbike, but definitely not how traffic moves in SE Asia.
- Eating food that I once thought was gross, terrifying, weird and too different.
- Kicking my fears and failures in the gut by getting back into teaching. Namaste. Amen. Big hug for me.
As many expats in Asia and perhaps even some travelers know, being white-skinned is considered beautiful, desirable and essential. This is quite laughable to the Westerner who wants to be tanned. Creams, sprays and salons are dedicated to making us look like we’ve just been to Mexico or the Bahamas. When I lived in Hawaii, I was sometimes teased for looking “too white,” for not getting enough beach time.
There is a blogger I follow on Instagram (I don’t know why, really, I don’t read her blog, but I find her – a curiosity) and she’s posted recently that she LOVES women’s magazines and how she’s obsessed with them. It reminded me of a time when I felt the same way.
I used to be a fan, too. I used to have so many teen and women’s magazines you’d laugh over the sheer volume. It got so ridiculous that I quickly learned that I could donate my zines to the local library and old folk’s homes. I suppose you could have called me a collector because I looked them over and over again and, well, bought them in stacks and eagerly awaited new issues like a dog at the front window.
I grew up watching my mom pour over her Thai soap opera + movie star magazines that I suppose it became natural for me to seek out my own. Although, I did look through hers quite often and I can tell you that the language barrier wasn’t a problem in figuring them out. Glossy extensions of the cover were at the beginning or a middle insert, then gossip columns and interviews, beauty ads sprinkled throughout with erotic-looking romance series and horoscopes towards the end. Call *009 for a kinky chat with big breasted Japanese-looking ingénues were at the back, and why those types of things were in a women’s magazine, I’ll never know.
It started when I grabbed a Redbook out of sheer boredom on a road trip and while it was too adult for me at the time, I was hooked. The habit of flipping through the pages is akin to smoking a cigarette, it’s a ritual that gives a short high and it is an addiction. I mean, how can it not be? You are looking at beautiful women and desirable things. Sometimes, it even smells nice if you like the perfume samples between the pages. And other times there are celebrity interviews, fun stories and facts and stuff about boys – BOYS!
It took years though, certainly well after college, until I realized how reading/flipping through these magazines made me feel. Ever since I was a teen, I was aware of race. I never saw an Asian woman on the cover of Glamour, Elle, Teen, Vogue, Cosmo, Harper’s Bazaar, In Style, Seventeen, Marie Claire and W. Of course, I certainly remember Jenny Shimizu, the only Asian American supermodel to go mainstream.
But other than the exceptional Jenny, there wasn’t much for me to relate to. And for some reason, I paid close attention to women of color. There was one model that was half Asian and half white in Teen that I like the best, purely based on color and looking back at young Lani and I think, “Now there is a girl who wanted a role model.” I was actually very unhappy with the way I looked growing up and I have to wonder how much looking at fashion spreads and flawless women contributed to this.
A lot probably – it took me ages to get over being small on top, short and that I had bad skin. I considered myself too Asian-looking, as well, if you can believe it.
Even now when we’re all aware of Photoshop, and phone aps that make us look ‘beauty’, I feel like many young women (and men!) unconsciously compare themselves to an ideal industry standard. But maybe I’m wrong, it’s very easy to upload yourself on social media and make yourself into whoever you want to be these days.
But growing up when I did, being Asian didn’t feel beautiful and like most young women, I wanted to be desirable. It certainly didn’t help that I was teased for having a flat face, something that I learned later in Physical Anthropology is a rather Chinese characteristic. I must confess during that class, I felt such a startling weight leave my body. I felt relief and, for the first time, a little proud.
I also noticed how many things in these magazines were EXPENSIVE. I’d scoff at the “Under $99” page. The idea of buying a $70 blouse or bracelet seemed incredibly wasteful and outrageous, especially in my 20s when I was struggling with credit card and student loan debt. I learned to be frugal instead, going through mad coupon cutting phases and certainly falling in love with second-hand or consignment stores. I felt no shame in buying dresses at Goodwill. I couldn’t afford to.
Of course, some parts of the magazines were useful (if not ironic) like the articles on having a healthy body image or tricks to snag boys. Those articles gave me ideas on bravery and so I had no problem walking up to a boy I knew from class and asking him out on a date. They always replied, “no,” so then, I had to read the articles on rejection and boosting self-confidence. Vicious cycle.
I’m starting to sound pathetic, huh?
Women’s mags are good for learning aesthetics and studying advertisements, product placement and the psychology of these types of things. Once I started paying attention to how I felt looking at these zines, I started to wean myself off of them. This probably corresponded with figuring out how expensive this little addiction was as well. I also noticed how the British Glamour’s magazine size was half as big as the American version and I thought about environmental waste, too.
So I ended subscriptions and eventually stopped buying them all together. Then I became one of those folks who goes to Barnes & Noble and stands by the mag section perusing them for free. And the great thing was I started checking out other sections besides “Women’s Interests” and eventually learned to skip the magazines all together and study the bestsellers lists and get my hands on some books.
To be clear, I used to read books and magazines, but now I don’t read women’s magazines. Occasionally, I’ll look at them at airports or when a friend has a copy, but I don’t feel the pull like I did and the magic has certainly worn off. It’s made it easier to not covet unnecessary beauty products, designer brands, feel nonexistent and that the world revolves around celebrities.
It hasn’t made me less girly though, just more myself.
Do you read fashion magazines? What do you think?
Despite the fact that I’m an expat in Asia and I hear broken English all around me, and struggle to communicate just as much as the next foreigner navigating these poorly maintained roads, I don’t speak broken English. And this isn’t because I’m an English teacher and I have my nose in the air, it’s simply because I was raised by an immigrant mother and my “intellectual” brain didn’t think for one minute that I needed to adapt or change my speech so she could understand me better.
In fact, my brother and I found my mom’s poor pronunciation often hilarious. Sometimes, we’d torture her, egging her to say the word again and again and again.
“Say ‘purple’ mom, say, ‘purple’ again!”
My brother and I would repeat the process, ending in fits of laughter. Until, of course, she got pissed at us for making fun of her.
Then there would be the other variety, in which I’d be neck-deep in confusion wondering what exactly my mom was asking me to get from the laundry room. I remember my teenage brain desperately trying to understand her, but each time she said the word, I’d be quagmired, confused with no hope of getting it. Naturally, the discussion escalated.
“You want WHAT?!”
Sitsaw. For cut, Lani! For cut!
“Oh, scissors! You want the fucking scissors! AHGGG!”
Don’t ask me again, why she didn’t teach us Thai. We struggled to communicate at times and looking back that just seems like a very family thing to do.
She did know the difference though between proper and broken English as she specifically told me not to speak pidgin. Most people in Hawaii speak pidgin, which is technically a creole language, and one that was, interestingly, developed on sugarcane plantations as a way for Americans and immigrants to communicate. So Hawaiian pidgin was influenced by many languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Hawaiian, and is a lot of fun to speak, too.
But to my mom’s ears it was the sound of the ignorant and the under-educated. She forbade us to speak it. Although, last April when I returned to Hawaii after 5 years away, I was awestruck by how everyone spoke pidgin. It’s like my ears picked up everything, but when I lived there I guess I didn’t filter it out as any different or distinct. Surely though, pidgin was spoken just as much when I was growing up as it is today. I don’t know!
It wasn’t until I was out of the house that I realized how little my mom understood – and how much her English abilities had plateaued just like my Thai did when I was living in Thailand. Her broken English also fine-tuned my ears allowing me to decipher what many Asians are struggling to say when they speak English. It’s actually a pretty damn helpful skill to have. I mean, after all, broken English is arguably the most common language in the world.
So when I’m confronted with that “OMG. We are going to have to start signing in sign language” moment, I notice I slow down what I’m saying as naturally as possible to allow the listener to catch up and process what I’m saying. I also do this in the classroom to a lesser degree and am very much at ease repeating myself. (Oh, the irony!) I almost never reach for broken English. And the only reason why I know this is because after noticing many folks around me doing it, I started to think about why I didn’t.
When we were living in Thailand, my b/f thought it would be funny (he watches WAY too many prank videos) if he pretended to talk to me like I was his countryside Thai girlfriend. You know, talk to me the way you hear so often, too often, foreign guys do with their local girl. Talking at them like they talk to them – or worst.
“Me want big burger now.”
I’d give my b/f the dirtiest looks and try not to laugh.
Then he’d throw in some Thai to go with his caveman speech, “Pom chob gin bur-ger.”
Did they notice? Did they roll their eyes and talk about how atrocious it was that he was talking to me like I was an idiot? It was too hard to tell, but I’d always tell him to quit it.
Do you speak broken English?