Hoi Kipgen, 129 YinD
See, I always thought I knew what resiliency meant. It’s one of those terms I would often use to describe and define myself growing up. I spent almost all of my childhood as a stateless citizen, drifting from borders to countries, continuously seeking for a safe haven to call home. It wasn’t long before I realized that home wasn’t necessarily a physical geographic location or an address to jot down on a piece of paper, but rather an amalgamation of feelings, emotions and warmth that I felt at certain places and shared with people close to my heart.
Over these past two years, Thailand has become one of those places for me. Everything about this place and it’s people has filled a space within me that I wasn’t aware was vacant to begin with. It has been a fortress in my journey of spiritual and emotional growth, and for that I am forever indebted to this place. Ironically, this wasn’t at all how things began for me. My integration into my community was not an easy one, and was made even more complicated by the counterpart assigned to me by Peace Corps. When we first met in person, she laughed in disbelief. She paused and looked around the conference room to see if someone had pulled a prank on her. She couldn’t believe her eyes – she had expected a “farang” (foreigner) volunteer, perhaps someone similar to the previous volunteer she had worked with. To be blunt, she was hoping for a white volunteer, but standing in front of her was an Asian volunteer who was much shorter and tanner than her. She was fueled by anger, doubt and disappointment – as if her online orders had arrived looking nothing like the advertised picture. I can’t recall how the rest of the interaction went because I decided to hide somewhere in a corner and cry my eyes out. For the first time in years, I prayed for strength and the willpower to carry on.
We arrived at my community after twenty-plus hours of driving, made even longer by stopping at every temple along the way. God must’ve answered my prayers because a fortune teller at one temple told her I was her “good luck charm” and her “long lost sister from her past life.” Upon hearing that, a sense of reassurance overpowered her and she smiled for the first time since she’d met me. Now that I was her good luck charm, she made sure to take me to places, gatherings and events, flaunting her English language skills in public. The villagers would listen in awe and gaze in veneration as she gave her inspiring speeches, applauding and singing her praise.
Every time I was introduced to the people in my village, everyone would ask why I “looked so Thai” and before I could say anything, my counterpart decided to narrate my story, explaining them that my background was from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam – all Asian countries – except failing to mention that I was actually from Burma. Later on when I confronted her about it, she explained that because of the past historical conflict between Thailand and Burma, she didn’t want people to associate me with Burma at all, lest it affect my ability to build relationships in my community. I was absolutely devastated. It was heartbreaking to serve in a country that would stigmatize me because of my family background – something I had no control over. And quite frankly, Thailand has been more of a “home” than Burma will ever be to me. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, and after all she was a Thai person and knew firsthand about Thai people’s sentiments towards people from Myanmar.
However, once I learned the proper terminology and phrases, I re-told my story, re-introducing myself and hoping my community would accept me for who I was. For the most part, my community members were open and accepting. My host father would get excited to hear my opinion on the ongoing political affairs in Burma. It was gratifying to get to share this part of my identity with them after hiding it for so long. However, at times I would hear ignorant and racist remarks from neighbors and other community members. It almost felt like their way of expressing patriotism. It’s interesting, as back in college I took a class on modern colonialism, and one of our assigned reading focused on the link between racism and patriotism and how historically nationalist leaders have used racism as a tool and justification for promoting nationalistic / patriotic agendas among their citizens. I’d be lying if I said racism and discrimination didn’t exist here, because they do in every other part of the world as well.
I didn’t take their remarks personally, but I also challenged these comments and let them know that their stereotypes about a certain group of people weren’t necessarily true. Given my strong relationship with them, they were willing to listen and keep an open mind. This was my reality, but because of it I was able to open up discussions about the various ethnic minorities in Burma/Myanmar, and most importantly about diversity in America, and how it is like a salad bowl (all ingredients maintaining its cultural richness and flavor) rather than a melting pot.
If there is any lesson I’ve learned from my Peace Corps journey, it is the re-definition of resiliency, and what it means both emotionally and mentally to me. I’ve realized that physical hardships tend to be more bearable than emotional ones. I can bike in the heat, sweat profusely and show up to a class and still not be upset about not having a co-teacher, because the smiles and excitement of my students kept me going. However, when faced with obstacles because of my physical appearance, identity, and or dealing with an overbearing authoritarian figure, it became emotionally draining and I was forced to seek out measures to address adversities at hand. Whether it is cultivating self-awareness, practicing acceptance of the reality I faced, observing my thought process through silent meditation, or being deliberate in my actions, I continued to find ways to counteract the challenges I faced at my site.
I’m sharing an excerpt of my experience as an ethnic minority and an Asian American volunteer because not everyone’s Peace Corps journey will be the same. We all face diverse sets of challenges, but at the core of our experiences it winds down to our unfailing spirit of resiliency and strength. In the process of trying to gain an international experience and immerse myself in a new culture, I’ve battled some unexpected challenges that made me question my identity, willpower, and commitment. Nonetheless, these hardships have taught me some of the biggest life lessons on empathy, compassion, understanding, kindness and most importantly owning my own unique narrative despite the odds.
I’ve also acquired some of the key lessons on humility, hard work, and perseverance through the youths that I’ve had the privilege of working with. I am hopeful that they are encouraged in the same way that they have inspired me. I pray that getting to know me personally and the simple fact that I look like them will empower them with the pragmatic awareness that they too can achieve whatever they set their minds to. I’m forever grateful for the kindness (naam-jai) I have received during my stay here, and this place that I’ve come to know as ‘home’ will forever hold a special place in my heart.