When I first moved to America, I was incredibly excited. I was going to a liberal and educated environment. In Thailand, I attended a privileged international school, with a huge expat community. I am fluent in English. I did not think I would have any trouble fitting in. The short story is, I was wrong. On the second day of NSO, a hall-mate refused to say my name properly. When I tried to correct him, he said he preferred his version which whimsically changed from “Mumei” to “Meemy”. My roommate, unknowing that I was in the room, called her mother and told her she felt uncomfortable: “Thailand is sketchy, and we don’t know what her family is like”. During freshman year, a friend flirtatiously told me that I am the “exception to my race” and, “to take it as a compliment, I usually have a rule for Mayflower descendants only”. A Non-American peer told me I’m not like the other Asians. I’m the “cool kind”. I am both repulsed by and compassionate to the tiny part of me that felt flattered.
Sometimes my friends eat the Thai food I cook, and I am warmed. Other times, the ingredients used repulse them viscerally and I am quietened. I’ve learned there are many ways to silencing. My sophomore year, I had a pixie haircut. At a fraternity party, of an organization of mostly White-American men, a brother tried to kick me out because he thought I was a “little Chinese boy”. We fought, with him threatening physical violence, until we were pushed into the bright light of the porch outside his house. He realized with horror, I was, in fact, a “little Chinese girl”. When I reported this to sorority members, they laughed and told me not to take it seriously. No one took this boy seriously! He’s the class clown and was also sooo drunk. I mentioned to closer friends that I have never felt attractive in all-White Male spaces. I was told “it’s just in your head”. I felt frustrated by the cheerful friendliness of my mostly White-American sorority sisters who support diversity but made me feel, at times, like an exotic token to parade at social events. If I am “cool”, please let it not be because I am from Thailand.
A boy to whom I was linked in a biracial coupling with has described me, out of affection, as a “lotus flower and jungle cat”. He called me “cute and ethnic” when I wore a headband. Let us be real — it was not my headband, but my physical features. His ex implied she felt unintimidated because “Asian girls aren’t pretty”. He excused her comments as “jealous pettiness”. Unlike her, my jealous retorts will never translate into the stinging pain of racism. When I tried to explain this he said, “I don’t see your race. I just see you.” While I am more than my race, my race is also me in a wonderful, wholesome way. I wish everyone saw that too. I do not want us to be color-blind. The world is too colorful for that.
This does not just happen in America. Growing up in Thailand, I became accustomed to Caucasian tourists speaking to me with broken English in a tone of benevolent pity. I then watched them act in inappropriate ways because “in Thailand you can do whatever you want” and their looks of shock when I rebuked them in perfect English. At the age of fifteen, Caucasian men would ask me if I had a penis “just to make sure”. During my study abroad in Edinburgh, I was chased down a public road by four young men shouting “ching-chong”. When I told them to fuck off, they recoiled briefly at my fluency, only to become more aggressive with gibberish they assumed sounded Chinese. I ran and escaped onto a bus, heart racing and shaking in fear.
These instances, and many others, remind me daily that to some, and even to those closest to me, I am not always Mymai. I slip in and out; and when I am out, I am the Female Asian. I am the Other, and unbelonging to the country I live in. On top of it, I can also be insulted by this Otherness in my own home. It is inescapable. There is no getting on a plane away from it. I am ashamed of the unkind strangers and the kinder friends. But I am also ashamed of myself. I have looked down quietly too many times.
Perhaps this sounds like a whiny laundry-list to some, but I wish to express deep-rooted resentments in order to convey the magnitude of the issue. I share these small stories of every-day incidents to create a reaffirming space for all marginalized people, who share or do not share my background. I am thankful that the recent elections extracted out into daylight what has always festered and simmered. This now allows us to openly hack at its ugliness. The rhetoric of the U.S. elections finally eliminated a pervasive self-doubt that I was “self-pitying”, a notion bolstered by various forms of silencing. The discomfort and anger from racism, even among those you consider closest to you, is real. To my friends who I considered too different to care about elements of my identity, I am sorry. I was scared. In the stages of internalizing to assimilate, I ruled you off. I stamped you as “White” and therefore, unable to access all of me. I do not write now as a passive aggressive demand for awkward apologies or to have you amplify your outrage and bewilderment on my behalf.
Because more importantly, I have shared these stories to convey the complexity of intimacy across marginalization. Systematic racism has always been present. Yes, even among the liberal and educated. The power of oppression is such that I spent years in America calling myself close to people while hiding away components as intrinsic and important to me as breathing. Loving with internalized racism is not a simple thing to navigate. The sorority sister who laughed at the “Little Chinese Boy” incident also rallied huge numbers of people to a Vagina Monologues performance I was part of. The boy with the jealous ex surprised me with a trip to the best Thai restaurant in New York when he caught me crying with homesickness after a Skype call to my mother. Many of my friends who have unknowingly offended I have also shared my happiest and coziest times with here. The freshman year hall-mate who mocked my name is now a close friend. I held him when he sobbed for the LGBT community the morning after the elections. In that moment, I learned again that things are never irreparable. We have to sit by each other, even if hesitantly but warmly, and listen. And listening means asking questions too.
As I write this, I am aware of my privilege. I understand that my story is one of many different kinds. I want to understand more because I am not exempt from prejudices. This will not change those with determined hatefulness, but we must do our best by beginning with what is closest to us. Three years since moving to the U.S., I am still excited to be here. Very recently, my White-American best friend and I finally had an honest conversation on race to free our beautiful friendship of resentment. It was not till then that I truly opened up to someone here. The conversation was triggered by a pungent dish of Thai fermented anchovies and her asking me to say something in my mother tongue for the first time since we’ve known each other. She is asked, often, why she “only hangs out with 2 Asians”. You know who you are, dear friend — and I love you so much for helping me carve a home here again.
To the many high-school friends who are now also immigrant minorities, our conversations have felt like a physical relief to the body. They are so many, of all backgrounds, who have been diminished in ways subtle enough to make us believe in “good enough”. Good enough is not good. It is not easy to tell your loved ones they have hurt you, let alone for a reason as heavy and twisted as racism. We must have faith in difficult but important conversations. We must love our friends enough to trust them to listen, and hear them too. This is how we dismantle a toxic and living system. We must love beyond our internalized aggressions together.