“Your daughter is beautiful.”
“A little chubby.”
“But her face is pretty. She looks like her mom.”
“She looks like a person from India.”
“True. She’s got good skin too.”
This conversation about me takes place as I look directly at the smiling faces of those discussing me. They talk as if I’m not in the room, as if I don’t understand, as if being part-white means I don’t understand Thai. My mother hadn’t made a concerted effort to teach me her native tongue, but I was around it enough to pick up a lot of the everyday language. I might not speak it perfectly fluently, but my comprehension works well enough. Thanks, guys, I think, as I smile innocently back at them.
In America, I am half-Asian. In Thailand, I am fahrung – foreigner (always said with a smile and laugh, so that makes it better, right?). I am classified by my otherness, defined by my whiteness. I am proud of my Asian heritage, but amongst Asian relatives, I feel I am always trying to prove my authenticity. I mimic the accent flawlessly when speaking. Most of my jokes about flatulence and genitalia are expressed in Thai because it’s just funnier that way. I know what to do with lemongrass and how to combine chili, shallot, and lime. I grab a mortar and pestle before I’d use a grater. I have a layer of cool reserve towards non-family, whilst full of conscious gratitude for my family cohesion and deep roots. I take off my shoes before entering the home, and I kind of take pleasure in the fact that my house is the one with the funny food smells that reduce you to coughing, sneezy fits when grandmother is roasting the chillies. I wai (bow) gracefully, sit properly, show deference to elders, and I cook and eat spicy food – because they always ask: “gin ben?” “Do you know how to eat spicy food?”
(“Do you know how to eat spicy food?” is reduced to “Know how to eat?”, as if eating only non-spicy food is, in fact, not eating at all. “Yes,” I say, “I know how to eat.” See chubbiness for detail.)
And still, I am not fully integrated among them. Do others feel this too: within your own family, even though you are loved, do you feel you sometimes do not belong? Isn’t it funny sometimes, how within family, the one place you are loved unconditionally, you feel the strongest need to prove yourself? And for all your effort, pretty much no one notices because 1) they expect it, and 2) they love you anyway. Talk about an exercise in futility. I try to prove my sameness, but what they see is difference. I am one step removed from that part of my heritage. While my cousins just grow up knowing certain things, I must make the extra effort to acquire them: the language, the history, the idioms. I feel sorry I never learned to speak fluently as a child, for now, as an adult, language acquisition is much harder. The sayings, the myths, the ways words are strung together, it all shapes and communicates a unique worldview. And really, most importantly, some of the humor just does not transcend cultural lines. You have to belong to understand. (Meanwhile, what I do come by naturally is the bone-deep need for deep-fried coconut snacks. Again, see chubbiness. Thank you, God, for your lovely sense of humor.)
Whatever distance I have now from this part of my identity, I wonder what my own children will feel. I will strive to pass on the tradition of cooking and enjoying food and conversation together. I will pass on whatever ability to speak Thai I have. And I will teach them the value of respect towards elders and responsibility to family and community. But they will never know my grandmother and the depth of her presence. Tales of their great-grandfather will be muted and second- or even third-hand. And I wonder what words of the blood line will I pass on to them? What stories will make up their identities? Where will they feel rooted? Will they find comfort in garlic and noodle soup, or will they turn instead to burgers and spaetzle?
I am proud of my multicultural heritage. I feel it adds color and dimension to an otherwise ordinary life. But I suspect passing it on and keeping it alive will be a challenge. What should be as natural as breathing will be a struggle for us, as a multicultural family: part Thai, part American, part Norwegian, part German, and part South African. As the varied strands of genealogical influence compete for dominance, I wonder what will persist? And what part of the heritage will fall by the wayside?