At The Finish Line: Asian American In Thailand, Part 16

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I consider myself Asian American, or as I like to say, American Asian. The latter description came from digesting people’s perceptions of me. Depending on circumstances, I’m either too Asian or not Asian enough. I just go with Asian American because it’s the title folks are saddled with. It’s the convenient box I check. But I think Asian American means different things to different people. My father and his family made their way to the United States after fleeing China during the Cultural Revolution. My mother met my father during the Vietnam War when he was stationed with the US Air Force in Thailand. Interestingly, I was almost born in Thailand, but my mother boarded the plane nine months pregnant with me so I could be born in the US. Yeah, she’s crazy, but I’m thankful.

Six years later we returned to Thailand on family vacation. My father died in a motorbike accident. Our lives changed in ways I would never have imagined. My mother never remarried but stayed with her Caucasian boyfriend for pretty much my entire childhood. I refer to him as my step-dad, out of convenience. Like my mom, he was from a poor working-class family. When I got older I would jokingly refer to me and my family as “Asian white trash.” Now that I look back, there was something in that. It was never meant as self-deprecation but just my way of recognizing the uniqueness of my family.

My ethnic identity is important to me in as much as it gives me some sort of foothold. I’m part of a tribe, so to speak, but my ethnicity is also not that important in light of the experiences I’ve had. My experiences have left me to wonder what identity really is, and I’ve decided it is a fickle friend.

2) What was your first language? What did you grow up speaking with your parents, especially until your father passed? How much Thai do you understand and speak?Lani

Had my father lived I feel Chinese and Thai would have been taught us, but this is just a guess. My brother and I grew up surrounded by the Thai language but interestingly enough, Mom spoke English with us (even though hers is poor and has not really improved because she had many Thai friends in Hawaii). So I started learning when I arrived in Thailand about five years ago. I have functional Thai, but the goal is to be fluent.

3) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Before that I was in Ecuador, Alabama, Southern California, Oregon, Hawaii, and Colorado. I was born and raised in Hawaii on the island of Oahu. My family moved to Barstow, California when I was around 12 years old. We were in the armpit of America for only 2-3 years, but they were formative years. It was the first time I was a minority, and I felt every bit different. It has seemed my identity would get redefined with each move. Like a potato, I can be cut up and served as fries, or be put in soup, stew, or curry. In other words, depending on the context (the dish, to stick with the analogy), I will be perceived accordingly. I’m still a potato though, you know?

4) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

Very diverse. It was a motley neighborhood due to the vast Asian population of Hawaii and the US military presence on the islands. But there was and still is racial tension, ironically enough. When I was growing up Caucasians often complained about feeling like outsiders and being called haole (Hawaiian for foreigners), especially when expletives accompanied the word. Can’t say that I blame them. Actually, I like to say that Hawaiian culture is a confrontational culture because there was a lot of fighting in the schools. It didn’t necessarily have to do with race, but all the races were involved. This isn’t to say we didn’t get along, because most of the time we did.

And then we moved to Barstow, California – a big change for me with no Asian kids around.  It was also the first time I was confined to the great indoors due to the harsh desert climate and environment. So I fell in love with books and writing during this period. When we returned to Hawaii I was a very different girl. I had become passionate about reading, writing and theatre. These are not “Hawaiian” qualities, like zeal for the beach or mall which back then were all that mattered.

5) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity?

After my father’s death I woke up from any kind of childhood dreaminess. I often heard how much I looked like my father, which made me feel I looked “very Chinese” and made me aware of my ethnicity. In fact, I actually resented it when anyone said it was my younger brother who looked like him because I had become proud to look so Chinese and take after my father. I was Daddy’s girl.

6) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity?

I consciously gravitate towards outsiders or folks perceived as different. When I was 11, we had our first dark-skinned Black student at my elementary school. We had plenty of brown-skinned students, but no one looked like her. Nobody liked her, and for some reason I immediately made friends with her. I remained her friend even when my peers teased her. She eventually made new friends and left me behind.

I kind of marvel at my younger self. I certainly didn’t get that openness from my family. My mom was sometimes racist and judgmental against all races that were not Asian. Yet for some reason, my younger brother and I knew better and would usually respond by laughing. We didn’t take her seriously. Her remarks were so archaic. As far as being around people of my own ethnicity, there is a certain kind of comfort that comes with being with your own kind. I used to hate sticking out in any crowd. Then I came to enjoy it, and now, well, I like blending in. After all, I live in Thailand where I merge into the landscape.

7) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

No, it doesn’t work that way for me. With other Asian Americans I have met abroad there is a certain understanding we share for the similar experiences. Many expats form their own little communities. But most of my relationships are unique unto themselves. I also enjoy meaningful friendships across the ages (20s-70s) and with folks from around the world.

8) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest?

I actually feel a sense of belonging in many groups. This makes me easy to relate to or identify with, which is important to me as a teacher and a writer. Although I do think being Asian American helps me belong to the American and Asian communities readily.

9) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

It’s something I’m aware of, but these kinds of things ebb and flow. These days I don’t really have to make much of an effort because I’m an expat (and my Thai family is a few hours away). But here’s a quick example of what I mean. For my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training in Bangkok, my class consisted of a Mexican, Belgian, French, Cambodian, Filipino American, British-Thai, Indian, a third-culture kid (American raised in Brazil, China, and the Philippines). My trainers hailed from Australia, South Africa, and Romania. I’m still friends with and in contact with all of them but one.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

Moving around a lot has given my identity a few solid shakes. When I was living in Colorado, I had a Native American ask me, “What tribe?” I was shocked because I thought I looked so Asian. When I explained my ethnicity, he said, “Oh, I thought you were Najavo.” In Ecuador, I had a Bible thumper thrust the Good Book under my nose. He spoke in Spanish and the book was in Chinese. In Thailand, the people always try to guess my ethnicity. Japanese is a common answer, for the way I dress. Sometimes when I’m walking down the street, people speak to me in Chinese. Yesterday, a new friend asked if I was Korean. And since I teach English, I’ve made a game out of students’ guessing where I am from. So I think I’m just used to people thinking whatever they want to think about me depending on where I am. I can be outgoing or quiet. I think it helps that I like to make people laugh. There have also been times and places where I haven’t had friends and I’m okay with that, too.

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

I don’t know if it is fully possible, but I hope it is possible to be more compassionate and culturally sensitive.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

These questions were hard to answer because HW obviously put some good old-fashioned thought into them! I guess it’s because we live with our ethnicity and race, that we don’t often try to explain to someone else who we are and the conditions that have shaped us. I also think that some of the questions (or the answers!) might make folks feel uncomfortable. Which is not a bad thing, I liked the challenge. Thank you.

Lani at Life, The Universe, and Lani


67 thoughts on “At The Finish Line: Asian American In Thailand, Part 16

  1. This series should be required reading for any expatriate intending to live and work in another culture. It’s useful as a primer in dealing with the melting pots of our current western nations too to teach us sensitivity and respect. While each of the experiences so far have been different there is a commonality that would be useful information. I’ve always attempted to immerse myself in the history, religion and social mores of a country I’m to locate in advance of the relocation. However the talent of listening and observing for some time before venturing an opinion is very necessary. Transplants to another culture will never achieve the status of cultural owners, but they can go a long way in that direction. Having a cultural mentor is so helpful in avoiding slights and mistakes too. Enjoy your time in Thailand. It’s a beautiful country with a rich history and wonderful people.

    • Thanks Ian. I agree, HW has put together a very sensitive and dynamic series, and I’m glad to have squeaked in before the door closed. Following this RACE has also opened my mind to the similarities and range of experiences, too. Smiles from Thailand 🙂

      • Oh, this is you! I commented a few moments ago, asking about your name (so it’s Lani) and if you ever spoke Pidgin as you also lived in Hawaii.

      • Yes, a very Hawaiian name, no? Growing up in Hawaii, I was asked if it was short for something else. No, I’d tell them, it’s just Lani 😀

      • Actually, Lani is a Filipino name, too, and if I hadn’t read your interview first, I would probably assume you’re part-Filipino. It is usually but not always short for Leilani or Lailany or however people spell it. Come to think of it, Hawaiian history includes Filipinos settling there from the Philippines many years ago. I am not surprised about Pidgin, then, and their tendency to ask you if Lani is short for anything.

      • I’ve known so many Filipinos and no one has ever mentioned that. Huh! Do you know what it means in Filipino? Because I only know the meaning of my name in Hawaiian.

        And yes, Filipinos in Hawaii go back, probably to sugar plantation days, but I’d have to look.

      • Oh, I may have made it look like it’s of Filipino origin. I just meant that it is a fairly common name here. If I have to guess, it may be from the Americans back in the 40s when they stayed here. But that’s just me guessing.

        “Filipinos in Hawaii go back, probably to sugar plantation days, but I’d have to look.” You are correct. I found that out from TV a few years ago and when I did the Pidgin research, I came across a documentary on YouTube 🙂

  2. I just wanted to say I agree wholeheartedly with the previous comment. The more we learn, the more we seek understand and respect the world around us the greater our appreciation and participation in it will be. I think you will be a blessing wherever you go 🙂

    • I wasn’t sure if you were talking about Ian or me. But I’m glad Ian started off the comments with such a thoughtful remark!

      • I was talking about both of you, but I was picking up and agreeing with Ian point of view 🙂

        I very much enjoyed reading your blog, thank you 🙂

        Have a wonderful rest of the week and keep up the great work 🙂

      • Now it’s my turn to be a bit unsure – if you were talking of this blog or Lani’s LOL! Either way, thank you so much for joining the discussion.

        H Wayfarer

      • Sorry for the confusion!! It’s my age lol 🙂

        I think my comments were made initially regarding Life, the Universe and Lani and also what I read of Ian’s comments regarding her blog and then somehow I lost the plot and tied my response to your work into the mix!! Sleep deprivation and not enough coffee I think 🙂

        Please don’t let this distract from the fact that I very much enjoyed reading your work and have begun to follow you so I can enjoy even more of what you do 🙂

        Have a blessed rest of the week 🙂

      • So sweet. There was no obligation to respond – in regard to this blog. I love that you enjoyed engaging the others and like Lani’s blog. Thank you for the pledge of return.


  3. Reblogged this on Life, the Universe and Lani and commented:
    Have you ever sat down with a thoughtful and sensitive questionnaire on race and ethnicity? I did, and it was challenging and rewarding. It helped me explore and think about these issues and reflect on how I feel about something I live with and yet, forget I live with during the moments of my life.

  4. Hi Lani! Thank you for participating in HW’s project. Your openness and honesty are greatly valued. If you’re OK answering, I have a couple of questions about your experience with race and ethnicity. Over the course of these interviews there have been participants who have commented that their awareness of their race with its similarities and differences were often defined by others’ perspective of them as opposed to some innate knowledge. Could you comment on this concept as it applies to your own experiences? From what you mentioned in your interview, it seems that you fit easily into many cultures with few major adjustments. Do you feel that you were ever the target of hatred, prejudice or condescension as a result of your race, perceived race or language? You mention that you trained in TEFL and currently teach. Would you feel comfortable expanding on why you chose this as a career? It does seem, from your discussion, that you enjoy it, so how did you come upon teaching in general as an interest? There is a great deal of social emphasis focused on seeking and encouraging similarities between races (one big similarity being money) to better encourage acceptance and reduce tensions. Is this a perspective you would endorse and how much effort do you think should be placed on seeking and cherishing differences? If you treasure racial differences then how should they best be appreciated? I ask these questions specifically of you because of your daily professional interaction with many races and languages. Please accept my apologies if any of my questions are too forward. Thank you again Lani for your openness and participation – it has been very enlightening reading your interview.

    • I think when it comes to race/ethnicity we are pretty much defined by others. I don’t think we feel bad or good about the way we look unless others have given us the idea.

      I’ve actually been picked on a lot because of the way I look. As a child I was teased for having a “flat face” and was crushed by this perception. I wished I had less Asian features, would tug at the corners of my eyes to “fix” them.

      I could tell you some stories re: other people’s blinding ignorance towards the way I look, but since I lack the space, the Reader’s Digest version is this: I got over it all. I’m not sure how though. I’ll have to think about that…

      Initially I started teaching because I fell in love with working with children. Teaching fits my life philosophy, too. I believe everyone is a teacher through their actions and thoughts. And no, I’m not a goody-goody 😛

      I wrote a blog post about celebrating differences because I was tired of everyone talking only about similarities. I think it’s important to recognize both…when we don’t, we get into “us vs them” mentality.

      Letting people breathe and express themselves can be a good way to start treasuring differences.

      Thanks for you questions Paul 🙂

      • “I think when it comes to race/ethnicity we are pretty much defined by others. I don’t think we feel bad or good about the way we look unless others have given us the idea.”

        The way you put this simple reality so plainly speaks to me. And I also was teased about a flat face — by two other Korean girls in third grade!

  5. Reblogged this on HarsH ReaLiTy and commented:
    I have never heard of the example of a potato before. That is worth pondering. This is a very “in depth and revealing” project run by HW. Check it out if you get a chance. -OM
    Note: Comments disabled here, please comment on their post.

    • Thanks for the reblog! I had never heard of the potato analogy before either until I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say!

  6. I liked this interview a lot! Gives me more insight. What is her name, though? I can’t seem to find it.

    I’d like to ask her, because I am just curious, if she ever spoke Pidgin, having read that she lived in Hawaii as well…

    • No, I never spoke Pidgin. My mother forbade it!!!! I can’t even pretend, my accent is absolutely horrible. I’m glad you liked the interview *big smile* Thanks or should I say Mahalo? 😛

      • Absolutely. To her Pidgin sounded “stupid” and that’s the last thing she wanted her kids to sound. I think her fear of teaching us Thai was also related, as in, she didn’t want us to have an accent, or speak accented English.

      • You can say Mahalo 🙂 I’m not Hawaiian, though. Filipino, actually. I came across “Pidgin” just some months ago and found out about it when I had to do research as I was supposed to write about it. Well, write about “pidgi” really and it didn’t make sense like that.

        We have the equivalent of Pidgin actually, what we used to call “carabao English” rather than “broken English.”

      • I don’t know yet where the term originated here, but I do remember that it became popular when a certain comedian made speaking broken English popular in the 80s (…or was it the 90s….?). Filipinos like to laugh at themselves so even something like this, they find amusing. In the American era, many Filipinos learned proper English. This knowledge has been dwindling for years (more like decades) so many aren’t that fluent with straight and proper English anymore.

    • Yeah. Perhaps it’s human nature to categorize? I guess folks want to know where to put you on the shelves of ethnicities. It’s funny, that reminds me, people in the US would confuse Taiwan with Thailand. Whenever I said, I am Thai. They are like, “Ohhh, you’re from Taiwan.”

      • I wouldn’t ever connect the two, but there you go. My daughter is adopted from China, and many of her Chinese friends here in the U.S. say she “looks” Korean. It’s a funny thing, this ethnic identity.

  7. I love what you said about awakening from the dreaminess of childhood. That is so true, for everyone. Whether your childhood was idyllic, or full of shocks, as yours was (so sorry about the loss of your dad), everyone awakens and starts to see things from a less foggy lens.

    You sound like a well adjusted, confident person, who is doing good work in Thailand. Kudos to you for embracing all of your life’s experiences and harnessing them into a positive outlook and giving back (this is how I think of all teachers.)


    • Thank you. What a wonderful thing to say!!! I am well-adjusted and confident and nice (and modest)! 😛 But seriously, I’m glad I sound as good as all that! *virtual hug*

  8. You are truly a special person. I see from your writing that you are a nice person. I’m a Californian liberal soul. Living in Wine Country and raised in San Francisco… Cheers to you!

    • Cheers to you, too. The next time I have a glass a wine, I will have to remember your kind words, and silently toast you back…

  9. Being of Irish extraction, I shall commit the sin of stereotyping and disclose how much I enjoy potatoes. A decidedly intelligent and insightful set of responses, Lani. Thank you.

    • Hahahah. Well then, I better clarify that I shall never be instant potatoes 😉 so we don’t “over-sin” – Thank you for the compliment! I love compliments!

      • Compliments are the gravy of life. *Wait? Was that mashed potato Freudian slip?*

        Super contribution, Lani. You look great as a sci fi character, BTW. Remind me to tell you of my TESL Istanbul pack mule story one day.

  10. Wow… from Hawaii to Barstow! Now there’s a jump that will only be understood by folks who have been in both places. I’ve spent several nights in Barstow over the years as I have travelled into the Southwest. I don’t think I would like to live there. (Sorry Barstow.) And to think that is where you became passionate about reading, writing and theater. Enjoyed your blog. –Curt

  11. oh, this is a great post! it’s so interesting to read about your background and see how it has shaped and changed you. i’m khmer-american and when i’m in cambodia, people also speak to me in chinese or thai, assuming that i’m either. so i can totally relate!

    thanks for sharing!

  12. So have you caught your breath, Lani? =) Your childhood bio and the peek into your parents’ lives are fascinating – not to mention heartbreaking. Seems the hard knocks and all those moves forged some steel in your bones. It is just lovely to see how you’ve managed to stay flexible and positive. Your lovely giving spirit shines in your blogging and interactions with bloggers. I’m glad your foot caught the closing door =) and that you made it in. Apparently many others were as well. You’ve thanked me enough. I appreciate your time and energy in the series. You’ve had such an interesting life – I see a lot of posts in it. =)


    • That is a really nice way to have your childhood explained, and I appreciate your insights. Sending much love from this side of the globe, xxoo

  13. Thanks for sharing a piece of yourself, or your whole main self, Lani. Hawai’i playgrounds as confrontational. Ok. That’s new to me. But then, I didn’t go to schools with majority non-white students. I’ve been to Hawai’i twice –Big Island, Kauai and Maui.

    Being there felt dimly like….being in Vancouver BC except minus the tropical flowers and palm trees, plus the whole underlying Hawai’an cultural history. It’s because of the predominant Asian-influence in its residents, activities, and issues. I loved Hawai’i…and New Mexico (Southwest native influences etc.) because both states for me are quite different than the rest of the U.S. in terms of the ambiance, underpinning cultural history.

    The sudden loss of your father must have been a shock and took a long time to get over. But most likely you have memory of him which is important.

    I have been mistaken /asked if I am Malaysian or Filipino on several occasions. Maybe I cycle a lot in the sun or something. 🙂 A sister of mine, has been asked if she was First Nations (Canada’s term for native Indian). I know that most likely I could never be mistaken to be Japanese nor Korean. Don’t ask me why because I haven’t even totally figured out the visual differences.

    When I had a job interview in Canada’s Far Arctic, territory of Nunvaut (yes, I was flown up there for an interview. In middle of January, got stuck at airport in a snow blizzard), for a few minutes, I felt strange recognition with the local Inuit..that centuries ago we were derived from the same stock…when the Bering Strait between Russia and North America didn’t exist.

    • I know what you mean about the Native Am connection. I felt that way when I lived in the Am Southwest. It is a special place. You’ve gained even more points for recognizing that! 🙂

      Each Hawaiian island is definitely unique. Where I was born and raised, Oahu is very different than the places you visited. Maui is considered the “white” island, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kauai is too. I remember Kauai had a more “hippie” vibe, and the Big Island is its own lush garden. Very provincial.

      My brother once told me that we (Asians) can’t tell the difference between Caucasian ethnicities so why would we expect them to tell us apart? I thought that was an interesting insight coming from my younger brother, and it helped me relax a bit over the whole ethnic identity thing.

      Thanks for sharing Jean. I love hearing about your experiences, too.

  14. Hi Lani..Thank you for your BIG OPEN HEART …I am a newcomer to blogging and to your site …Diana directed me here…and I am so glad she did…I currently live in Hawaii and came here from California …originally Michigan…My daughter who is now 21 moved with me here… when she turned 12. (After one year with her father) ..

    I am a English Irish German Dutch …and Alyson’s father is Portuguese …Giving Aly an interesting upbringing.

    She had lived with her father one year after the divorce.. In an all white old money neighborhood… Receiving some backlash to her Portuguese background and last name “Cabral’ ….which her father soon found out with darker skin was going to difficult to find work ( he had moved to Cummings Georgia in hopes of working 5 more years and early retirement …after the high cost of living in California)
    All that changed …leaving Alyson not knowing where her father would end up next … So Off to Hawaii she came… thank goodness!! as she came with open arms to this melting pot…

    Yet there were challenges …as a gifted student and her skin being as white as mine… I was not sure how she would fit into the public school system here… You can imagine when someone who thought I was Portuguese met me over here …it was a little shocking to here the word “Haole” about me…”Alyson skin is very light as well” So I chose to spend what money I had on private school for her here.. She got the melting pot …without as much discrimination .. As Hawaiians were the minority at her school.. I remember though her Hawaiian best friend said to her “how come all you whites look alike”? Now that was funny…

    Being here 10 years and having now worked with many local women and men…it is a lot easier.. As I am considered local white now …

    Alyson thinks always of what she can do to bring people together.. Especially being Ambassador of engineering at her college… Her main professor was Chinese and he took her under his wing… Seeing her possibilities to have all cultures work together… Now graduating and going into her corporate life.. I am positive her background ..will help herself and others in the future …bringing all cultures together…I thank you so much for sharing your background.. You are amazing !

    I will check out your blog further Heart to heart Robyn

    • Thanks Robyn. Yes, Hawaii is such a dynamic place, isn’t it? I don’t feel like we belong to the US at all. This is one of the big reasons why I have a hard time accepting our government’s “one size fits all” education plans.

      When I was there last, I was working at a public school and helping out with the English as a Second Language program. Hawaii was experiencing a huge migration of peoples from the Micronesian islands (and they don’t really have a common lang, too many atolls and such). As you can imagine, this created a lot of challenges for Hawaii’s school system.

      Regardless, I am extremely grateful to have been born and raised in Hawaii. It’s special. When I left for college and folks asked, “Where are you from?” and I said, “Hawaii” Their eyebrows shot up and they said, “Wow! Why are you here?” 😛

      Thanks for opening up, too Robyn. I’m looking forward to checking out your blog now. Aloha nui nui.

      • Thanks Lani…you are connected…and both of us have gratitude for these islands…looking forward to more from you as well ! Heart to heart Robyn

  15. Lani, you are a brilliant writer!!! I thought that was you, looking at your pic. Then when I saw the name at the bottom of the post I said, “Hey, that’s Lani!!!” It’s funny, D I was hoping you would do an interview with Lani, I thought she sounded so cool with her responses to your comments on other posts. Also, because she has such a cool name. Hehehe. This one is going on my page as a reblog, I love the deep beautiful reflection in your writing style, Lani. Many blessings and all the best ladies. Shazza 🙂

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