I have blond hair, blue eyes and very pale skin. I was born in Texas. I know how to ride a horse and shoot a gun. I’ve been to Disney World. I studied at a private Christian university. Now I live in Nashville, Tennessee. I like vintage stuff. I own a flat cap from the ‘60s, old Leica lenses and a record player.
When I meet someone for the first time, they observe how I look, take these bits of personal information and make an assumption. This is a middle-class white dude who tries to be a hipster but is mostly just redneck. That’s mostly right, but also wildly wrong.
I forgot to mention I grew up in Thailand.
No matter how I slice it I’m a full-blooded Texan, I mean American. 25% Dutch and 75% amalgamated European DNA. So, white.
Except I spent K through 12 in Southeast Asia. I spoke Thai, ate Thai food, had Thai friends. I learned Thai etiquette (wai your elders, remove shoes inside and don’t touch anyone’s head). I became Thai. Granted, my skin color made me stick out as a white guy in Asia. Despite the glaring physical limitations, a Thai friend of mine once told me and my family, “You look like foreigners, but you have Thai hearts.”
I expected a rough transition once I returned to the US to attend college. Fortunately, past visits to family in Texas acclimated me to my passport culture. The move turned out to be mostly irritating in the end. Here’s a conversation I had more than once:
College Texan: “Hi! Where are you from?”
Fresh Off the Plane Lucius: “I’m from Thailand.”
CT: “Tyler! I have family that lives there.”
FOtPL: “Cool. Mind if I shatter your closed worldview with this lead pipe?”
I only thought the last part. I opted to smile weakly instead. My childhood culture emphasized emotional control, passivity over confrontation. When my origins didn’t fly completely over peoples’ heads, some individuals still had trouble registering that information. “Thailand? That’s cool. How ‘bout them Rangers?” I found the lack of interest shocking.
But I got over it. I made friends, went to class and started most of my sentences with, “In Thailand [insert fact].” It never got old! (It did. Very fast. Ask any of my friends.) College was a ball.
My social circles indulged my origin from Thailand, but most of them still saw me as a white American. Anytime someone would reference some aspect of pop culture I was unfamiliar with, I would get an incredulous look and asked, “Did you miss the ‘90s?” Yes. I legitimately did.
Occasionally, I say I am Asian. More often than not someone will roll their eyes and say, “No you’re not. Look at you.” That hurts. Yes, look at my white pasty skin. Thanks for only judging my physical appearance. I look and can act like a normal American, but you can’t deny my cultural upbringing.
Or not. To my dismay, several of my white college acquaintances seem to think that genes outweigh culture. This frustrates me the most. I can never be fully Thai. I know that. But like my Thai friend said, I have a Thai heart. That isn’t something quantifiable with DNA but it’s true nevertheless. So you’ll have to forgive me when I shiv the next person who says otherwise.
Enter the Chameleon
There is a term that defines people like me: Third Culture Kid (TCK). This refers to any individual who spent their formative years in a culture other than their parents’ home culture. Military brats, missionary kids, immigrants and children of diplomats or international businesspeople can all qualify.
TCKs share quite a few traits. They are most well known for high adaptability though most struggle with a sense of not belonging anywhere in particular. As a result, TCKs rapidly form deep relationships with fellow TCKs.
Often, individuals are judged purely by their physical appearance. We assume when a person looks like us, they think like us and when a person looks different, they think different. However, let’s examine the plight of the Asian-American. They look different but think alike. This has given rise to the term ‘banana’ aka yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Unfortunately, white Americans allow a banana’s appearance to become the default definition of the person. They’re Asian and always will be.
Now consider the reverse. Looks alike, thinks different. Now we have a conundrum known as a Chameleon. They confuse the heck out of people. Chameleons in America look white but have drastically different cultural values. White Americans try to pull the same banana trick, you look white so you are white, but they become increasingly frustrated when Chameleons refuse to think or act like a normal American.
I’m a Chameleon and often joke with my Asian friends that I’m an egg (white on the outside, yellow on the inside). It ticks me off when my white friends discount my Thai cultural upbringing and when they assume my Asian-American friends fulfill all the Asian stereotypes by default. But if I’m honest, I fall into the same trap.
Categorizing and logging are humanity’s favorite pastime. Despite all noble intentions, we default to visual markers when labeling. We base most if not all our judgments on perceived nature rather than source culture.
I inevitably slip up and assume an individual’s heritage based on their appearance. Perhaps most hypocritical is that fact that I am so determined to define myself as Thai. The cultural influence is undeniable, but I’ve been in the states for five years now. I’ve adapted. I’m not just Thai, I’m not just Texan, I’m not just white. I wish I could overcome this compulsive need to label myself and everyone around me. Because it is genuinely pointless.
A few days ago I met a Mexican American while celebrating a friend’s birthday at a bar. We were having a good time, but when I mentioned that I grew up in Thailand his face lit up. “Wow. You must have an interesting world view.” It was a validating statement for me. I’ve rarely witnessed this reaction from white Americans. Normally it comes from my multicultural friends and fellow Chameleons. But on the occasions my American friends do acknowledge my background, I’m thankful.
The world with its infinite combinations of genetics, cultures and experiences is vastly too intricate to define with paltry stereotypes.
Let’s embrace the cultural chameleons and make an effort to discover all the flavors of humanity.