Remote Year Month Six: Remembering How Fucking Asian I am in Chiang Mai

Thailand is where I think I had the most divergent experience from the group. For context: I was one few People of Color in our Remote Year cohort and the most visibly and culturally Asian in the group. 

I’m surprised there wasn’t more friction in the year, but when you’re forced to live together with 30-some-odd people as your only people for a year, the dynamics change quite a bit. I am glad to say now I have matching tattoos with a bunch of people I would never have been friends with in real life in America. I digress a bit but feels poignant when I’m looking over the notes I wrote for this a year later finding myself getting more caught up in if Wuhan is a Chernobyl moment for the CCP than the impeding global pandemic.

What I learned on Month Five of Remote Year in Chiang Mai was how fucking Asian I still am, and I am. How I feel so tied to this continent, even when in this country I have very little real relationship with. Before I went to Chiang Mai, I spent my first Lunar New Year in Taiwan. I was really feeling the vibes, of the journey home

After a month in Hanoi, which very much feels like part of the Sinosphere culturally – it actually feels like Taiwan of the past; Chiang Mai is a different animal. Thailand, unconquered and uncolonized, except perhaps by themselves. Kishore Mabubani’s writing on his love affair with Southeast Asia mirrors my own.

Southeast Asia feels like a porous cultural transition zone, with influences from all over Asia, especially the combination of Indian and Chinese, but Thailand holds steadfast to its own culture and identity. Thailand was never colonized , in contrast to its neighbors, and that is evident despite being overrun with Western tourists now, there’s a different feeling there. A lack of inferiority complex and brazen addiction to tradition not found in its neighbors and especially in contrast to my own Taiwanese upbringing, always longing for a “pure Chinese” culture, Japanese culture, and American culture, etc. You can feel the reverence for tradition everywhere in Thailand, especially in the aesthetics. 

 

In Chiang Mai, I felt the most acutely aware of how your lived experiences and background make you different. How differently you’re treated, in a good way. And how you look at the world with different eyes. I know a lot of people get annoyed at how touristy Thailand can feel, but that’s a bit of snobbery White nonsense there as well and distinct discomfort from Western people. It’s like they want things to be backwards to enjoy it and have it feel authentic and special to them, whereas I’m like, the Thais and anyone else are allowed to be rich and have nice things too, and I’m not out here judging if their tourism industry has figured out that hustle to the fullest. White tourists tend to be looking for the wild wild east at fire sale prices, as if people don’t have to live there and want to live as well as everyone else. 

There’s also a huge Mainland Chinese tourist presence, so I felt like in a way a lot of the more highbrow tourism was catered to me versus the backpacker crap for White people, although I definitely was treated better than the Mainland Chinese because of my demeanor and American-accented English and just being able to say I’m Taiwanese, but it was also that I haven’t lost the gestures that are universal to us as Asian people. An internal language spoken by us. I felt so at home and welcome. 

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What a delight finding that Thai people love this in the AM too, but the tapioca in the soymilk was a clutch move I never thought of.

It’s hard to explain such a high context and nonverbal culture to those on the outside, but for those months in Asia, it was so easy to find an easy affinity with people and even the same ways of arguing with each other. In those months in Asia, I felt like parts of me long buried, reconstituted themselves. To feel so deeply and spiritually connected to the Buddhist paintings and stories and ancient traditions in temples so culturally different from my own, but sharing long ago common roots.

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Even now back in America for half a year now, I find that a lot of traditionally Asian American touchstones don’t really vibe with me anymore. I emphasize more now with how bewildered Asian immigrants probably look at us Asian Americans, it’s probably like looking at a walking talking uncanny valley doll, people the same eyes staring back at you, who eat the same food as you, believe in some of the same things you do, but are still so different from you. I know a lot of Asian Americans feel alienated in Asia, but that’s not my experience.

I’m a western Asian for sure through and through – and that’s how most people read me, definitely at least at first, but my heart is firmly rooted in Asia at this point. I’m Taiwanese-American, and live in America, and I know a lot of people don’t like this perspective, but our hearts are in Asia in traditions history that go back thousands of years rather than a generation of American-ness and Wonderbread what I see as shallow identity based mostly on shared oppression. It’s just not enough for me.

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I wrote that I “Resolve to fight. Believe in my perspective” in my notes for February 2019. If there’s anything that I have changed from pre-RY Bessie to now, is that I’ve really doubled down on who I am, even the parts that others and myself find sometimes contradictory, bewildering, and uncomfortable. Thanks Chiang Mai welcoming me to connect to your culture so I could rediscover my Asian diaspora self.

Diaspora Tales Part 124341

I thought I lowkeyed American all weekend in French Canada and avoided anything awkward until I got in the Uber to go to Trudeau Airport.

Guy is chatty and asks, “Why are you leaving town with the good weather?” Apparently it’s been a miserable chilly Canadian summer. I reply, “Well, I was just here for the weekend and am going back to New York.”

Game immediately recognizes game, and we get into one of those overly personal and political conversations that only two strangers from a diaspora would suddenly have without hesitation. He immediately brings up how he and his buddies use to like to go to NYC for the weekend, but Canadians don’t travel down as much anymore, especially him because he has North African heritage. He doesn’t want to deal with being harassed at the airport. He talks about how even his White Canadian friend got harassed by Customs Border Patrol for three hours. They made her give her Snapchat and Facebook passwords because she wouldn’t give her opinion about Trump.

He talked about how in Canada you can’t get away with saying all the racist things that people say in America. That after the mosque shooting months ago, Canadians didn’t let people get away with being so hateful. There’s a pride in it, but I can tell it doesn’t salve everything. He’s sharing this undertone of distress with me because in a weird way we’re all in this together. He explicitly says he won’t let people say bad things about “people from China, Japan, and Black people, etc.”

This turns into a conversation about his cousins in France, one of course who is married to a White French woman who said “All these Arabs are savages” despite being married into a family of them who have extended extreme generosity to her.

He explains, “All the news on TV poisoned her mind. She’s out of touch with reality.”

We all know what it’s like to have one of those in our close circles. We agree that minorities have it worst in France out of the Western countries, and how laughable France attributes so many problems to immigrants given how few of them there are when you compare it to Canada and the United States. We talk about how France calls them “2nd generation immigrants.” Neither of us would tolerate such a laughable label, we’re both native borns, not immigrants. 2nd generation Canadians and Americans, yes, but we’re not immigrants. And regardless, you should treat immigrants like people and let them contribute. He says, “Yes, there are bad people who want to cheat the system,”  but counters the net contribution to countries far exceeds that and are not the roots of the social ills in the places we live.

We talk about how people were brought over because all these countries needed immigrant labor, and now they don’t want us anymore now that they’re not doing so well. He told me a story of how he drove a “racist American type” who was proud Tesla was Made-In-America (fuck yeah?). He totally destroyed that guy’s day by showing him Google search and informing him that Elon Musk holds Canadian citizenship and came from South Africa to Canada before going to America. He talked about how America’s toxic nationalism reminded him of France sometimes, he doesn’t like to travel to France and America and I suspect outside of Canada much these days.

At some point his phone rings, I see an image of lady in a headscarf with that sensible not-over-the-top-like-Americans smile I notice Canadians do and a cute kid. It occurs to me he totally reminds me of the Cantonese and Filipino guys in another life in SF. Culturally rooted and responsible, a Morrocan-Canadian Daly City dude. Aspirational and hardworking, but with that slight unease of figuring out how to be man in between two cultures probably telling him very different things. The kind of guy who will talk about his feelings to woman like me because he knows I don’t judge and get it. If I wasn’t so obsessed with airplanes and moving around, I’d have ended up with someone like him in another Cali life and be the picture that flashes on the phone in another anxiety filled diaspora conversation in another life.

I talk about who I am, and how I hang onto a Taiwanese identity, though we both have that vague unspoken anxiety knowing he doesn’t speak Berber that well, and I don’t speak Chinese as much anymore these days either, but feel our place and that of people similar to us are in a precarious position, where we’re at, and in places like the UK, France, Australia, and beyond. We’re mutually stewing in our unease about our relative and conditional privilege. Way early into this conversation, we’ve dropped our “proper North American English” speaking voices, him speaking in what I can only call Drake-music-video-Canadian-English with a touch of French accent, and me with dripping with a non-White Cali enunciation.

We end up in a conversation about crab mentalities, bad homies, and good homies. The fucked up things that happen when you try to stay loyal to people in your crew and your small community. It’s overly personal, platonic, and calm at the same time, the only conversation two diaspora folks living in this time could have. He talks about how he wants to get into real estate, but his friend was trying to sabotage his success, and how Canadians don’t travel that much because taxes are so high. I talk about how Americans don’t travel because a lot of them are too poor to do it at all because it costs so much to do out outside the coasts. He mentions even though Canadians don’t travel, they don’t share our insularity because they aren’t so nationalistic. I talk about how much I hate everything happening, that two countries exist in mine, but he knows all that already.

It occurs to me in this short window of time, I’ve probably had a more personal conversation with him than White people I’ve known for years. You only talk like this with the ‘special White friends’ (google Special White Friend Americanah) and Facebook posts to spare yourself the emotions of possibly having someone discount the convo or reveal to you they basically think your culture is backwards.

When I get out of the car, he says, “You’re welcome back anytime to Canada.” It breaks my fucking heart, because I know I can’t say the same, even though we’re weirdly all in this together. Fuck the fucking Le Pens and Farages of the world. I tell him we’re trying to get of Trump, but I know that isn’t happening in the near future. This is what it is now.

At least in some moments, we have each other.