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Learning to be Thai

Thailand's Songkran water festival, held in April (Photo: Reuters). Is this part of my identity?
Thailand's Songkran water festival, held in April (Photo: Reuters). Is this part of my identity?

I still remember a conversation I had with my high school friends one day, when I told them that I wanted to study in the U.S.: “I don’t think I’d ever go there,” said one of my friends. “It seems too liberal and dangerous.”

I also remember another moment, when I was at a store with my mother, and she had told the shopkeeper that I attended an international school: “Learning English is a good skill, but I don’t think I want my kids in that kind of school,” he said. “I don’t want them to be Westernized.”

Although I attended an American international school, few of my friends actually went abroad for college. Most stayed in Thailand, a handful went to colleges either in England or Australia, and I was the only one to go to the U.S. The prevailing attitude was that while, sure, the U.S. offered a good education, it was just a bit too far, too expensive, and too different. When one of my friends expressed interest in going to an American college, her parents dissuaded her, saying that they wanted her closer by.

To me, getting away was the exactly the point; staying in Thailand was the last thing on my mind. I had graduated from high school, seen all my close friends leave, and was overcome by the feeling that I was done with it all – that there was absolutely nothing left for me in Thailand, and there was nowhere to go but away.

It wasn’t that I disliked Thailand (although I have been accused of this in the past: in eighth grade I delivered a passionate, though severely misguided speech about how I disliked my native language); it was just that I never quite fit in. I had heard so many times, from so many people (and often with disapproval): “You’re so Westernized, you’re pretty much American anyway.”

Fair enough. Apart from six months in a Thai kindergarten, I had spent my entire education in international school, and at some point, very early on, I decided that English would be my language of choice, the language I thought, dreamed, and spoke in (at least, most of the time). Though this wasn’t a deliberate decision at first – English was the language of instruction at my school - it was something that I eventually came to insist upon.

My assumption that I could be as Westernized as I wanted, as well as expect others to understand this, soon brought me into some strange and, needless to say, uncomfortable encounters. For instance, when I joined a local badminton club and alienated myself by thinking that I could speak English to everyone (I was 12, I should have known better). Or when, in that same environment, I blatantly refused to show deference to my Thai elders (my measly excuse: “They don’t do this at my school!”).

By the time I was in high school, I had experienced enough of the discomfort resulting from these mishaps to decide that perhaps my immediate future lay elsewhere. While so many of my friends and their parents expressed fears of how going abroad would be too different, too transformative, that difference, that potential for change, was just what I wanted. To me, going to college in the U.S., meant that there was an opportunity for a new identity, one that wasn’t so tied to being “bad” at being Thai.

How naïve.

In the first few days of orientation, everyone seemed to be asking, “Where do you come from?” Whether I liked it or not, Thailand stuck with me wherever I went. It was my first marker of identity, especially during international student orientation, where finding out where someone came from seemed like a necessary starting point to a conversation.

I soon realized that I was expected to represent a culture, and a place, even if it was one I was never particularly comfortable with. I was from Thailand, and suddenly that meant something very different in the U.S. I was automatically considered part of the Thai community, where I was expected to help perform in culture shows, attend Thai dinners, and acknowledge and respect the seniors. Then, in classes or hall discussions, my foreignness was constantly being reiterated: my opinions were always, immediately, an “outside perspective,” a view of America from abroad. When I met others, I was expected to answer a number of questions about Thailand, and, more commonly, offer my opinion on which Thai restaurant on Main Street was the most authentic. Again and again, I was being reminded of my Thainess, something that seemed so invisible and almost nonexistent when I actually lived there.

My response was to ignore it all. I threw myself into creating a new identity as a student, and let those reminders of my Thainess fall to the wayside. I lost touch with my parents and my friends back home. I made almost no effort to connect with the Thais on campus, and allowed my Thai to get so rusty that I could barely bring myself to speak it to them. I was a student first, and Thai later.

It was, ironically enough, the experience of spending a semester in Paris, France that rekindled my interest in what it meant to be Thai. In France, the identity that I had worked so hard to forge – that of an American college student – seemed to vanish into thin air.

One of my most striking experiences was when I called someone to inquire about being an English tutor. When the person asked me where I was from, I told her I was from Thailand, but was attending an American university, and had been speaking English my whole life. She responded: No, I’d like to have an American, and the conversation ended there. This was a definitive reminder that where I studied and what I had done didn’t matter; while I was an American exchange student, I certainly wasn’t American.

So what was left?

Being Thai. There were enough moments where being Thai was unequivocal and uncontested, moments where all that mattered was my passport and the lines I needed to get in, the positions and opportunities I was barred from. The more I experienced this, the more I realized that I was Thai, and more importantly, that there was no point in believing that the designation didn’t matter. It did.

It’s often been said that to really evaluate your culture, you have to step outside of it. Going abroad, and feeling that distinct, tangible sense of foreignness, of not fitting in, and even, being discriminated against, ultimately pushed me towards re-immersing myself in the familiar. When I got to Wesleyan, and then later to Paris, I found myself more Thai than I had ever been in Thailand. As much as I was resisting my Thainess, I was also really evaluating what it meant, and finally, adopting it as part of who I was.

After that semester abroad, I booked a ticket to Thailand, and went home for the first time in almost two years. Though I’m still not sure what it means to be Thai, I think I’m getting a bit closer to figuring it out.