On Diversity, Let the Guessing Game Continue

My dear family, friends, professors, and advisors, I’ve meant to update you, but I do apologize for the delay. To catch everyone up to speed, I am teaching English at Muangchalieng School in Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai Thailand. Every week, I teach a total of 18 classes at three different grade levels (7th, 9th, 11th grade) with 40 students per classroom. I meet every single student once per week. The transition from completing orientation to teaching at my host school has been a bit of a roller coaster ride these past couple months. Despite the cons, there are so many great stories that I want to share, but there’s this one thematic story that stuck with me since day one and I feel the need to share it with you.

Diversity – Who are you? Actually no, “what” are you? And where do you come from?
During our first week of orientation (early October), we all had to get a Thai sim card and phone number. Except the question was…how? We just arrived. We can’t speak Thai. The only thing we learned was where to get them. A challenge much? Yes, quite frankly. If we weren’t meant to do this,  we wouldn’t be Fulbrighters, right? Alright, challenge accepted.

Early that same week, some of the ETA’s managed to brilliantly get their phones working except me. So here I was, one sunny Saturday morning, walking out from our dormitory to the nearest mall–MBK. MBK is not like the mall you’ll typically see in the states. This shopping center is filled with top brands and high label items, but don’t be fooled!–most items are mimicked versions of the originals. I’m talking brand labeled bags like Michael Kors and technological devices like Apple iPhones. Every floor is categorized by departments: accessories, clothing, food, technologies, etc. There’s no such thing as fixed prices (unless shown), so you must bargain. Usually, it’s best to bargain 30% of the price given (at least that’s what I was told). Not saying you can’t find any good useful items here, but I would go elsewhere if you’re looking for something more “original.”

Anyhow, I was told that True Move (phone service company) works best in Sukhothai, so that’s where I headed when I got inside MBK, except I got lost immediately. The only directory this mall had is the information desk, but of course, I can’t speak Thai, so I figured [from the other ETAs] since all the technology shops are on the fourth floor, maybe True Move would be there. To my dismay, I was wrong. Frustration got me even more lost. (It’s quite amusing now when think back). After 45 minutes of walking around helplessly, I finally went up to the information desk to ask. To my surprise, the desk lady spoke English! Oh darn, how I wished I would’ve known that. That would have saved me from hustling around crowded halls and shoppers. True Move was hidden next to the restaurant on the main floor across from the entrance door I entered. Great. Today’s going to be a great day regardless of the outcome, a PMA thought to myself.

I went straight to the desk worker when I got to True Move, and asked if she spoke English. Whew, Lord baby Jesus was definitely on my side when she said “yes, a little.” That’s better than nothing at all. She introduced me all the service plans and promotions they have, and we selected the best one. Recurring 30 Days unlimited data for 399 baht [before tax] it is! That’s about $12 if we’re speaking USD. For text and call, I will have to “top-up” and charge extra baht to my monthly plan.

She pulled out a small package containing the sim card, and asked for my iPhone. I gave it to her. And while she was installing my sim card and new phone number, she asked,  “So, what are you?” I gave her a confused look, and responded, “What do you mean?” “Are you Filipino?” she asked. “No,” I said. Then she asked, “Are you Japanese?” I chuckled in amusement and replied, “No.” “Chinese?…” This guessing game continued until she asked all the major countries in the region. That was when I smiled and said, “I am American, but my ethnicity is Hmong.”

Her response to my statement??… A confused look. Similar to the one that I gave her when she first asked me what I was. She then asked, “You are American? But you look like me. [Face, hair, eyes, complexion-wise]. You do not look farang.” I responded, “Well, not all Americans look like farangs.” Farangs are referred to any foreigners who do not look Asian, usually referred to Caucasians. I continued and said, “There are more diverse groups of people in America than what you typically see in the media. There are Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics, etc. ” She nodded in astonishment, and handed me my iPhone with the installed sim card. I thanked her and left the shop.

To this day, I still get asked these same questions. “Who are you? Wait, what are you? You look Thai, but you don’t speak Thai, why? Where are you from?” This guessing game never seems to have an end. But that’s okay. Some people may find it offensive, but as for me, I choose to feel the opposite. I think of these guessing games as opportunities. They offer me the opportunity to educate–not just about America, but about my personal heritage and culture, too. The more these questions are asked of me, the more appreciation I have for being who I am. I am Hmong American. I love who I am and I can’t be any more proud of it.

Let the guessing game continue.



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