It's Complicated: Growing Up "Mixed Asian" in America

“Oh! You’re half Thai? That’s why you’re so dark!”

I’ve heard this from everyone no matter where I go. I’ve heard it from random ajjumas while studying abroad in Seoul, from my professors in Hong Kong, and even from some of my closest friends back in Utah. While it’s true that I do identify as half Thai, I get my tan skin from my Dad who’s from Hong Kong. My mom, Thai-Chinese, is fair. So fair, that some people have claimed she uses products to alter her skin, but in reality, all she uses is lotion.

I used to just laugh comments like these off, attributing it to ignorance, but recently this assumption that my relatively tanner skin comes from my mom has been irritating me. It’s as if one second people see my face and assume that I’m 100% Chinese, and the next second, because I have tan skin, it suddenly makes sense to them that I’m half Thai.

I know they don’t mean any ill intent, but it just feels like people pretend to understand where I’m coming from, when they really don’t. Perhaps another reason why I get irritated is because I feel like I’m not Thai enough. As an ethnically mixed Asian American, I not only attempt to navigate what it means to embrace both “Asian culture” and American culture, but also try to balance both my mom’s Thai heritage and my dad’s Hong Kong heritage.

Growing up, I had the privilege of spending every few summers in Thailand. I got to play with local kids, eat khao man gai in the AMs with the locals, and attend church with my relatives. I felt more at home in Thailand than in Salt Lake City, where I was born and raised. However, I’ve still always had a disconnect with my half Thai identity.

At home, I grew up with Hong Kong entertainment, I speak Cantonese, and I know more about the history of Hong Kong than I do about Thailand. Even in college, I spent a semester abroad in Hong Kong, instead of Thailand, and now know what it feels like to have studied and worked in Hong Kong.

All this to say, compared to all that I know about Hong Kong, I know nothing about Thailand or Thai culture. Sure, I can cook Thai food, navigate my way through Bangkok, and say simple phrases like, "Poot passa Thai mai koi dai" which translates into my Thai isn’t that good. 

But was I really raised half Thai? So, the reason why it hurts when people look at my skin tone and label me as an "obviously" half Thai, is because of the irony that I don’t even know Thai culture as much as I would like.

But this post doesn’t end there. While I am the child of immigrant parents, my parents are also the children of immigrants. My mom is Thai Chinese and my dad is Hong Kong Chinese; my mom’s family originates from southern China, while my dad’s family originates in the north.

Growing up I was really balancing four distinct Asian cultures while also trying to fit in with everyone else around me.

For the most part, learning about my dad’s cultures and traditions has been fairly straight forward since that’s what dominated our house; plus, with my dad’s province being so close to Beijing, I was able to learn the history in my classes.

My mom’s culture is a totally different story. As a Thai Chinese woman, she proudly identifies as just Thai when talking to most people in America, but in Thai and Chinese communities, she’s kon dejiu, she’s Teochew. My mom’s love of Thailand and Thai culture might be why I grew to love Thai culture so much, but she’s also proud of her Teochew culture

What is Teochew? Teochew is considered a sub-ethnic group within the Han Chinese ethnic group. Teochew has its own art style, operas, dancing, food and language. While I didn’t grow up listening to Teochew operas, I did grow up eating the food and hearing the language—especially when I got in trouble.

I distinctly remember realizing in junior high that my Chinese culture is really different from the Chinese culture of other Chinese immigrant families around me. The biggest difference seemed to be the sense of camaraderie amongst all Teochew. My mom could walk into a restaurant in Thailand or even in Utah with mediocre service, but if the waiters were also Teochew and she said gaginang the mood would instantly improve.

Gaginang—it’s a phrase that essentially means we are the same people. It amazes me how Teochew all over the world identify with this. What about me? Am I allowed to identify as gaginang?

While it might "make sense" that I’m half Thai due to my tan skin, it’s not that simple. I am the child of immigrants who are also the children of immigrants. Both my parents had to go through the struggles of reconciling different cultures and for my mom, being Thai Chinese doesn’t change the discrimination and biases she encounters once people discover that she’s from Southeast Asia.

I am still learning what it means to be Thai-Hong Kong-Chinese American, but that doesn’t mean others get to dictate what “makes sense” and what doesn’t about my identity.