APAHM: Learning my ABCs

The following article is part of a series dedicated towards celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM).


Lucy Zhao, 130 YinD

To be completely honest, I didn’t want to volunteer in Thailand. As an ABC (American-Born Chinese), I knew being in Thailand would be extra challenging. I had heard stories of other Asian American volunteers in Asia who struggled with constantly proving their Americanness, being ignored because they blend in too well, and/or feeling frustrated because they had to constantly justify who they were as both an Asian and an American.

And to be completely honest, I was afraid to face my identity so directly in a way I never had to in America. Back home, I easily took my identity for granted. But in Thailand, I’m forced to face every aspect of my identity head on in ways that are uncomfortable, enlightening, revealing, and intimate. Every day, I’m hyper aware of the space I take, the face I present, and the thoughts I speak.


During training, when we first moved in with host families, I was afraid of being a disappointment and not being “American enough.” This feeling reappeared when I moved to site for the first time. I had to establish my presence as an Asian American and make it obvious I was different even though I looked the same as those around me. One of the phrases I mastered in Thai was a sentence explaining that “my parents are Chinese, but I was born in America, so therefore, I am an American.”

But, was I negating the identities of other Americans? Was I denying my Chinese heritage by trying to justify my identity as an American? How could I identify myself in a way that made sense to those around me while still being true to who I am?

I struggled with these questions for a long time. It felt like I was constantly balancing between the delicate line of Chinese and American. Being the only American at site intensified the pressure I felt to represent what it meant to be an American even though I wasn’t really sure myself. For many of my students, I was the first foreigner they had ever met. Yet, I didn’t align with their ideas of what an American looks like.

Even a year into service, I still get asked during class what country I’m actually from as if I was hiding a secret from my students. Others assume I’m half Chinese and half American or Japanese, Korean, Thai, and so on. At first, these assumptions and questions were frustrating, especially because it felt like I had to suppress my Chinese identity in order to be perceived more as an American. But in actuality, these moments are opportunities to teach about American diversity and reflect on what my identity really means to me as well as the history behind it.


Perhaps, it’s because being in another country, speaking in another language, and navigating a different culture has made me appreciate the sacrifices my parents made when immigrating to America. Perhaps, being here in Thailand gives me some insight or encourages me to contemplate the kind of life my parents left behind and how much America differs from their homeland. Perhaps, just having to say over and over again that I’m actually an American puts into perspective how much I took my identity for granted.

Every time I struggle to convey my thoughts in another language, I am reminded of the frustrations my parents must have felt while learning English. Every time I saw my students riding their bikes past fields, I am reminded of the life my mother once had growing up in China’s countryside. Every time a parent expressed to me how much they wanted their children to learn English in order to have greater opportunities, I am reminded of why my parents left the comfort of their home and flew across the world in order to give my brother and I the best opportunities in life.

Thailand has taught me what it means to be a Chinese American, reminded me of the hurdles my parents have had to overcome, and made me appreciate the depth and scope of the identities I embody. It’s brought me back to my roots to remind me of the strong foundation my ancestors have laid out that have allowed me to be who I am today. Thailand has taught me my ABCs.

Read previous articles and contributions dedicated towards celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM).

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