Living Between Cultures

Words by Emery Thanathiti | Illustrations by Matson Merdler

In America, who I am isn’t the first thing someone questions when they meet me. When people ask, “Where are you from?” most people expect to hear the name of a state in reply.

In Thailand, my father’s country and my birthplace, who I am is the first thing someone attempts to dissect when they meet me. “Are you luk khrueng America?” Are you half American? This is always the first question that is thrown at me.

In Hong Kong, my mother’s country and where I lived for four years before coming to America, I’m often mistakenly introduced to others as an ABC, or American Born Chinese.

I am a mix-ethnicity, third culture kid, who reluctantly left Thailand at the age of 14 to follow my mom back to her home, Hong Kong. I speak three languages. I am fluent in English, and barely proficient in Cantonese and Thai. But I’m not American.

I came to America six years ago, on an F-1 International Student Visa to pursue English, hoping to write and explore theater and film.

Yet, people always attempt to work America into my identity. I feel that, to them, it justified my differences. But to me, it made me feel like a foreigner in places where I should feel like I belong.

So, when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2018, I realized that I no longer knew who I was. I’d sent myself straight to graduate school to—let’s be honest—buy myself more time to figure out where I wanted to end up and what I wanted to do with my life. The question of where I truly belonged upset me so much that I took last fall term off and returned to my roots.

My journey began in Thailand. Three weeks after I’d returned, I found myself on a bridge in Siam, Bangkok. I took a break from a four-hour long shopping session to watch the sunset on the horizon behind skylines. Beneath me, horns blared in fury as cars inched their way down the jam-packed streets of the city. Behind me, chatter filled the air, often accompanied by laughter, as people shuffled from one place to another.

I was by myself, like every other day, with my phone to keep me company. My dad was busy running a company, and my half-siblings were either in school or at Tae Kwon Do lessons. The one childhood friend I had was away studying in Germany, and my dog had died while I was out of the country.

I loved everything about Thailand, from the golden temples to the spicy food that made my tongue numb. But between my out-of-practice Thai and lack of friends, I felt like I didn’t really fit in Thailand.

For the longest time, I blamed it on being mixed and moving to Hong Kong at such a young age. I never really fit into Thai communities in America, and I supposed that was the reason why I couldn’t fit back into Thai culture whenever I came back.

I became envious of some of my international friends from school who seemed to thrive whenever they went back to their home countries. They had friends, they had family and they had dogs. From the outside, it looked like they had everything.

That day, I was texting a Thai friend that I’d met in college. He talked about how America felt different without me around. I told him about how weird it was being back in Thailand.

I never expected him to say, “I felt that way, too, when I went home.”

I didn’t think he would have a logical explanation for what I was feeling.

“Most of our lives are in America now,” he said. “So, when we’re back home, we have nothing to do. No close friends. No role. No job. We’re nobody over there.”

For the first time, I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt out of place in my home country and feeling that way didn’t make me any less Thai.

After Thailand, it came time for me to go back to Hong Kong. My cousin and I sat in the lobby of a Sheraton in Tsim Sha Tsui, after a long day of listening to my great-uncle go on and on about my tattoos, bleached-blonde hair and broken Cantonese. “Your English is good, but so what? You’re not from America, you’re Chinese,” he’d all but yelled. “You think working in America is going to earn you more money than working here? Nei on gau.” (You’re stupid).

I’d heard a similar speech just a few weeks before from my dad when I had told him that what I really wanted was to go to film school to learn to create art that would represent the minorities in America.

“You’re not American,” he had said. “Do you think you could make a movie or write a book and Americans will care? They won’t.”

Through it all, I’d learn just to shake my head and bite my tongue.

My cousin turned to me, her eyes filled with concern.

“Just come home,” she said. “What he said was harsh, forget about it, but we all miss you, and we’re always worried about you.”

There was a point in my life, when I first moved there, where I really hated Hong Kong. I didn’t like living with my mom. I didn’t like being ripped away from my friends and my first crush. I didn’t like the bluntness of the culture; it often felt like the polar opposite of Thailand’s. Most of all, I didn’t like the fact that no one dared to dream. There was just no room for artists like me and writers like my cousin, who is now stuck teaching a group of delinquent high schoolers, hoping that she’ll have time to write one day again.

But for a moment, I considered it. Being away for so long made me realize how much I missed the old tall buildings, the neon signs and the way street vendors would yell at their customers. I spent a crucial part of my teenage years growing up in the overpopulated city and, as much as I wanted to deny it, I missed those days.

So, I didn’t really know why I told her, “I love Hong Kong, but I don’t think this is the place I can succeed.”

Maybe it was because in America I had learned to become liberal, to crave diversity, to dream big, to develop a voice that refused to be silenced and to never settle without trying. Maybe in that way, I’d become my family’s worst fear: “Americanized.”

But I am not, and I do not want to be American.

When it came time to go back to school, I had no idea what to expect. Did I actually manage to find myself? Am I more Thai or Chinese or, dare I say, American? I had no definite answer. But the moment I landed back in America, I felt a sense of ease. My back straightened and my strides widened with confidence. Words flowed effortlessly through my brain and out of my mouth, and I immediately knew I wasn’t going to spend a day being lonely here.

As our world becomes more interconnected, an increasing amount of people have become exposed to more than one culture. The United States, for instance, has over 1.1 million international students. Some come, focused only on getting their degrees, and have no problem fitting right back into their home culture when they’ve graduated. But there are many who, like me, integrated more into American culture and found themselves slowly disconnecting from the norms of their home culture.

Sometimes it’s the way we act.

Waka Inoe, an international student from Japan, said, “My friends always ask me, ‘Are you trying to be more Americanized or more Japanese?’ and I always say, ‘I feel like I’m too Americanized to try and put myself in a Japanese community, but I’m too Japanese for Americans.’”

Other times, it’s our dreams.

Stacy Yurishchev is an international student from Russia who explored her interest in American Sign Language, and now her goal is to work in advertising for nonprofit companies in America, especially those that deal with Deaf culture.

“I could just go home, and with an American education, I could make bank. I could lead a very comfortable life, but I want to stay here because I know that I can make changes here,” she said.

Like Stacy, I began to care about issues that weren’t prevalent back home. Race wasn’t talked about, mental illness was a still a foreign concept, LGBTQ issues were swept under the rug and personal identity wasn’t really explored. In America, on the other hand, we could talk about these things. We could write novels that would be discussed for years to come, and make films that evoke thought. America became important to me for these reasons, reasons that people like my dad and grand-uncle would find mundane and nonsensical.

A lot of my life was spent searching for a place I could call home, a place where I would feel less like a foreigner. For a while, I thought that would be America. Yet the longer I stay here, the more I realize how culturally different I am from Americans, and my student visa won’t last forever. From the movies I watched growing up, the way I dress and the values I uphold influenced by all three of my cultures, I don’t think it’s possible for me ever to feel like I completely belong here.

But since I don’t really fit in back in Thailand or Hong Kong either, where does that leave me?

And maybe that’s why I’ve become comfortable with where I’m at. Not fully being a part of one or two or even three cultures, but living in the space in between. Even though, one day, I might have to leave America for good, with only the ways in which it’s changed me to hold on to.

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