"Face(s) of Asia"
Sawadee krap, Ajan Aki! Sabai dee mai?
Sawadee ka! Sabaidee, khob khun ma ka. Sabai dee mai?
Sabaidee krap, ka pom. Gin cao mai?
Such was the typical starter conversation I had with my two government-run hospital drivers that I saw every Tuesday and Thursday for five weeks. Don't worry – I wasn't being taken in for emergency medical care. Rather, after I finished my first semester of teaching the Intensive English Program at Payap University, I took on the assignment to teach conversational English to nurses at a hospital in Mae Rim, a town slightly north of the city center of Chiang Mai. The task had its challenges; breaking down medical jargon and “translating” them into believable situations using lay-man vocabulary – when I myself have only really visited the doctor's for my annual check-up and have limited knowledge of emergency health procedures from a past hospital TV show addiction (think Scrubs and House) – proved to be a feat. However, the relationships I built with my nurses were well-worth the occasional struggle. Their cheery disposition and insistence of feeding me copious amounts of iced coffee and tea made me excited to come teach. Additionally, because of its relative distance, the hospital offered to pick me up and drop me off every day I taught. This resulted in two fifteen to twenty minute English conversation practice sessions with the drivers while traveling in the beaten-up hospital ambulance van.
One of my drivers was particularly enthused to practice his English with a native speaker, and always took the time to talk about a wide range of topics. We talked about music, Thailand, American action films, food, and his past experience of working in the police force. Despite the variety of subjects we touched on, he always reminded me of two things: that he wanted to improve his English so he could travel and see the world, and that I could easily fool any Asian into thinking I was from their country with my looks.
Funny how even after those five weeks, those two conversation points became ever present in my day-to-day life.
Faces of Asia
Towards the end of my stint at the hospital, my drivers asked me what I was planning on doing after classes were over. I tried to sketch my two-month travel itinerary as best as I could in Thai, explaining that I was planning on going to Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Both of them expressed awe. Neither of them had traveled outside Thailand before. While the youngest of the two drivers surprisingly had no desire to leave his “small country” of Thailand, the eldest – the same one who was excited to practice English with me – expressed a desire to go globetrotting after saving up the money to do so. He explained that he wanted to see the world with his young son, particularly because he felt that it was important for his son to “know the world” and to learn from the experiences. Even without having traveled much, my driver believed that going places, meeting people, and exposing oneself to different cultures not only encouraged learning, but also helped enrich our lives.
Prior to my year in Thailand, my only exposure to being in Asia was Japan. Many, if not all, of my extended family members still live there, and when I was younger, my family and I made nearly annual trips to see them. During those times, I immersed myself back into the culture that I caught small glimpses of at home; I spoke more of the language, ate more of the food, and behaved more like the people. Over time, though, life became busier and visits became further parsed out. When it got to the point that that I could no longer afford to go back to Japan every year with the family, I – at that moment – felt little enthusiasm to return to and explore the country that held much of my family's history. Despite the fond memories of my numerous trips and the fact that I was born and spent the first year of my life there, I wanted to take the time to go to places that, I thought, felt less “familiar.”
Of course, a very silly then-twelve-year-old Aki made a very silly assumption: that after seeing one part of Asia, I had sort of seen it all; if I were to go elsewhere in the continent, I'd be bored because it'd be like Japan. Luckily, a growing curiosity of the world, especially through the scope of human rights, reintroduced me to the Asian sphere a few years later (when I also had some sense knocked into my head). I then experienced a semi-Asian-American identity crisis during my semester abroad in South Africa, which pushed me to dig deeper in my studies of the Asiatic region (when, at that point, my predominant interests rested in the African and European continents). Eventually, the number of books, documentaries, and articles I read and saw about the area could no longer quench my desire to revisit and explore the place I had once put so distant in my mind. Such interests peaked even more so once I arrived in Thailand, thanks to many engaging conversations with NGO workers, filmmakers, missionaries, and journalists. And so it was decided that during my two months of summer vacation, I would take the opportunity to travel as much of the Southeast Asia region as possible (or as much as my wallet allowed me to) so I could get a better grasp of this part of Asia's culture and history. In the end, I broke up my journey into two legs: the first, to Vietnam and Cambodia with a dear Grinnell friend and fellow 2011 graduate, Ngoc; and the second, to Malaysia and Singapore, by myself.
The first leg of my Southeast Asia tour de force started in a country I knew little about outside the few footnotes I read in my high school world history textbook. Lucky for me, Ngoc is pretty well-versed in Vietnamese history, so as we traveled throughout the country, she made sure I understood the significance of various people and places beyond the American War in Vietnam and its current socialist state. Such lessons about Vietnam and Vietnamese culture were supplemented with visits to Ngoc's relatives in Hue and Saigon, all of whom were very accommodating of me and my attempts to fit in as best as possible. The long bus and train rides through the lush green forests and cascading mountains served as wonderful moments to reflect on all that I had learned and all that I hoped to know more about the country in the future.
Of all the countries I was going to travel to, Cambodia made me the most nervous. After hearing of a friend's rough first few hours in Phnom Penh, I anticipated having to walk around with extreme caution, possibly throwing my head back every few minutes to make sure Ngoc and I would be alright. However, the country proved to be a pleasant surprise. Despite have had nearly a quarter of its population massacred by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime, the people we met were warm, lively, proud, and friendly. I greatly admired their resilient spirit that was strongly apparent throughout our short conversations about the recent genocide. Despite the apparent poverty, the people approached life with a richness that no amount of money could buy. However, Cambodia still has a lot of rebuilding to do, and the reality of it hit me during our bus ride to Siem Reap to visit the famous temples of the Angkor Wat Archeological Park. The stark contrast of developed city life with the rural spans of rice paddies coupled with the statistic that over 60% of the population still works in agriculture demonstrated the lasting remnants of Pol Pot's failed agrarian social utopia, and that it will take awhile and possibly several generations to fully do away with the legacies of a haunting past.
In comparison to my previous travels, Malaysia and Singapore felt like they were – as my friend would describe it - “Asia lite”. Although city life in both countries had little of the “grit” found in other Southeast Asian countries and much more of the familiar Western luxuries, it didn't detract from the fact that both countries held strong Asian traditions. The interesting contrast, though, was the very visible conglomeration of many cultures, religions, and beliefs all working together in hopes to build a harmonious society. As a solo traveler this time around, I was blessed with the kindness and generosity of the locals, all of whom were eager to show me around and point out where to go and what to eat. The museums, guided walking tours, and chit-chatting with residents fed my curiosity as to how these two countries managed to develop so rapidly. The variety of tasty foods available at the many hawker centers invited me to explore the many cultural roots present in the countries' histories. Yet what impressed me the most was not the skyscrapers or the near elimination of squatty potties. Rather, it was the pride that the locals – particularly those of the Peranakan community – had in their heritage. Hearing their family stories and how they've managed to keep their traditions alive was nothing short of inspiring and extremely educational.
Now having had time to reflect back on my travels, it is overwhelming to realize how much I've learned about the region by seeing and doing over the past few months. The faces I saw, both in the physical and social landscapes of each country, left me with lasting impressions and heightened curiosity to know more. One could even say a new academic and life passion has been budding in the process. Between colonial pasts and economic futures, growing and dying cultural practices, national strengths and dire human rights issues, I still have a lot of information to process. I know that whatever I have been able to process, though, is just at the surface level. There is plenty more for me to explore and soak in.
“Face of Asia”
During one of the first conversations with my English-enthused gray-suited hospital driver, he asked me where my family was from. When I explained to him that I was born in Tokyo, but raised in the States, he asked if I also had any Thai relations. When I said no, he chuckled. “You look Thai, though! Or Chinese! Or Korean!” He then paused for a second before smiling.
“...you are like Barbie! International face!”
The number of anecdotes I have collected from this year of people confusing me as a local or a person of another Asian country has led to my family jokingly suggesting that I change my name. While aki is the word for “autumn” in Japanese, my kanji characters actually spell out something different: 亜希 which means “Hope of Asia.” Leading up to my graduation from Grinnell, my parents and sister claimed that I had some “big tasks” to “help the Asian continent,” but no one specified what I would be doing or who I would be helping in the future. But yeah – no pressure. Now, my family believes I should have been called “Face of Asia,” though I don't think “Agao” sounds as nice.
The confusion hasn't been exclusive to my experiences in Thailand, though. Here are a few examples of the conversations I had while traveling around Southeast Asia:
- An elderly Korean man who sat next to me on the bus to Dalat, Vietnam, asked me if I was from the area. When I shook my head, he rattled off Korea, China, and a few other Asian countries as other possibilities of my place of origin before finally asking about Japan. When I told him he was correct, he exclaimed, “You don't look Japanese at all!”
- While exploring the wet markets with my cooking instructor in Penang, Malaysia, the butcher asked her in Malay if I was Japanese. When I confirmed his assumptions correct, he chuckled and made a comment. My cooking instructor turned back to me and said, “He said you're much darker than the other Japanese people he's met, which is why he was curious. He thought you were Malay.”
- Ngoc's cousins told her that I looked more Vietnamese than her.
- While photographing the famous Merlion statute in Singapore, a group of tourists asked if I was Indonesian.
- While chatting with some girls in my hostel in Kuala Lumpur, they asked where I was from. Before I could answer, one of them asserted that I had to be from the Philippines.
- I have had several restaurant workers in each of these countries stick their heads out the door and invite me into their place in Chinese.
… and the list goes on and on.
I briefly talked about my initial experiences of reconciling my Asian American identity while living in Southeast Asia in my first quarterly report. Initially, I felt more annoyed than entertained by the episodes of misidentification. I felt that I had to live up to certain expectations people had around me only because I looked Asian (and thus knew how to play “the part”). It was difficult to communicate to the people I met, especially locals, the extent of how American I actually felt, mostly because it was hard to fixate beyond my appearance. While some people understood the cultural tension, others looked at me with a cocked head and confused expression. “But what about your family?” they'd ask, almost in an accusatory manner, as if my parents hadn't done a good job instilling cultural pride and I had abandoned all interest in exploring my roots and heritage at any point in life. The experiences were incredibly isolating and the resentment steepened as I found fewer people to talk about it with. Looking back on those months, though, I mostly attribute the feelings to good ol' fashion culture shock. After all, being in Thailand was the first time I was back in Asia for what seemed like ages. My personality, demeanor, and outlook on life have all changed since then. Things weren't going to appear as black and white as I had previously seen them before; they were going to be more complicated than I could imagine. I only hoped that I had the maturity to navigate through these feelings over the course of the year.
While my attitude softened after the first few months, my travels helped further contextualize and understand my identity in an Asian landscape. On a more superficial level, looking like everyone else certainly had its advantages. Unless I opened my mouth – which then revealed my West Coast American accent – I managed to sneak by unnoticed or with treatment as if I was a local (which, in Southeast Asia, often translates to cheaper admission fares, and maybe one less scam or two). On a more substantial level, however, my fortune of looking like all sorts of locals generated some thought-provoking discussions with people I met on the road. Brief encounters didn't produce much time to delve into full-length conversations – there was usually just a comment about how I did or didn't look Japanese – but while waiting out the heat with a cup of iced coffee, examining a store owner's art gallery, or participating in a cooking course, more meaningful exchanges were made. We talked about the extent to which young people nowadays value (or not value) their cultural heritage, and how one can negotiate the act of preserving age-old traditions while accepting the inevitable life changes that come with modernity. When we moved away from a broader scope to my personal story, I felt the wheels in my head start to turn. Questions of why I didn't maintain my Japanese language skills or why I hadn't bothered to learn much about my family's history have certainly crossed my mind from time to time in the past, but they were always put on the back burner, most likely due to other preoccupations. However, these discussions – and the long transit hours that became conducive to moments of reflection – forced me to begin to truly reevaluate my feelings and priorities in regards to my own heritage preservation. They also made me realize that Asia's continental identity isn't static; it's shaping and morphing in new and different ways just as much as my own identity is changing. It was definitely a reassuring thought. Maybe I can “reclaim” a bit of my Asian-ness, given some time and effort.
I wouldn't say that this navigation of cultural tension has been fully resolved; I know that I will continue to explore and be challenged by it for many years to come. I can say, though, that I've come to be more embracing of the duality, and have even looked at it as a privilege to some extent. The best of both worlds have helped shape me over the years. I'm thankful that being in Thailand – and in Southeast Asia in general – has helped me start to truly appreciate this fact.
Going Beyond Face Value
With my year of service closing up soon, I have been evaluating my options for the future. It'd be silly to say that my time here in Southeast Asia hasn't influenced some of these decisions of what to do. As of now, I've thought about finding another teaching position or job in Southeast Asia so I could experience another dimension of life in this region. Other thoughts have drifted towards graduate school, where Southeast Asian Studies has surfaced as a possible degree or concentration in my continued historical studies. After all, I've only begun to awaken my curiosity of the region, and have barely begun to scratch the surface of the plethora of things to know, explore, and experience. While the possibilities are endless, it has been exciting to watch this new passion for the region grow and develop, especially since I had some initial difficulties with adjusting to life in Thailand. Funny thing is is that if someone had told me a year ago about the life I'm leading now, I would have chuckled, given them a pat on the back, and said, “Sure. Whatever you say.” But that's what makes life fun – the unpredictable nature of it, the knowledge that we gain, the places that we explore, the people that we meet, and the adventures that we have that help shape us into the individuals we hope to become and are meant to be.