You Look Thai: Reflections on Being Asian-American in Thailand

Erin Capina, 127Erin

For many white volunteers, living in Thailand is their first experience as a minority, sticking out in ways they never did back in America. This is not the case for me; for the first time in my life I live in a place where I blend in.

One of the first things said about me on my first day at site was that I look like a Thai person. It was Sports Day and one of the teachers was looking everywhere for the American volunteer she heard they were getting. When it was pointed out that I was the volunteer, she was surprised. I obviously did not fit her initial image of an American volunteer. As an Asian-American volunteer I blend in really well.

Recently, I went to a neighboring province to help a Peace Corps Volunteer with her teacher training. Before the program started on the first day, one of the Thai trainers told me he was sorry that he did not greet me earlier: he thought I was a Thai person, not one of the American volunteers.

I still hear the surprised remarks from local people in my village when they learn that I am a foreigner and not Thai. “You look Thai,” they tell me when I say that I am from America. Were there really people who look like me back in America?

In my experience, outside of the major cities, most Thai people lack understanding about diversity in America. Many will never personally meet an American, and fewer still will go visit America. So, their only interactions with Americans happen through American media or through the occasional American man who married a local woman. Unsurprisingly, this leaves many with the idea that only white people are Americans. When my co-workers learned that I was American they wanted to know which of my parents was the white parent (answer: neither), because the idea that I could be American and look Asian was not one they were familiar with. It took a bit of explaining but I finally got them to understand that I am, in fact, an American and not Filipina as they thought after learning that I did not have a white parent.

Interestingly enough, the children in my village seem to have easily accepted the idea that I am American. Many are much more interested in the fact that I have seen snow rather than the fact that I do not look like a stereotypical American. I am curious to see how my being here has altered their idea of who is American, so I am planning a lesson about American diversity. If perceptions have not changed . . . well, I have 18 months to work on that.

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