An American in Thailand
One of my favorite episodes of The Office is where everyone goes to Chili’s for the Dundees. It’s a completely ridiculous episode, as are most, with every character being rewarded for something that they don’t really identify with. What I find amazing is how everyone stays so long, despite the situation being so profoundly uncomfortable. After a lot of snarky comments, blank stares, and inappropriate jokes, we are then presented with the following incredibly iconic line:
The characters in The Office seem to move as a unit. There’s something about their forced proximity and the stories that come out of it that’s been speaking to me more than usual over these past few months.
Moving to Bangkok for a month was honestly a dream come true. I remember coming here as a kid and only doing touristy things. I’m talking the works — elephant parks, crocodile farms, floating markets, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. At that time, Bangkok was a place where magical things happened.
As I grew older, Bangkok became a temporary point of access to the west. A lot of the shopping that I’d associated with America came to Thailand before it came to India — so Bangkok was where we shopped. Of course, the deals both in and outside the malls were mind-blowing.
Soon we had reunions in the city, and group trips around the Thai capital. We had drinks and laughs with old friends on rooftops, and saw movies to escape the sleepy summer heat.
Because of the numerous trips I’d taken, and the variety of activities that we’d engaged in over the years, Bangkok became almost like a second home. It was a place of simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity, and still is.
What was different this time around was the company that I had. This was my first time being in Thailand without my family, which meant that I had lost some of the crutches that I’d always had when traveling. Being with people your age, however, also has its own perks — especially when you’re all living together.
Our cohort has a total of 15 ETAs, including myself. They’re absolutely incredible. They’re passionate about connecting with people around the world, and taking on challenges. We’re all here to serve as English teachers and as cultural ambassadors for the United States for the year.
I have to pause here, because that last point is where things get a little intimidating.
Being an American-born person of Indian origin has always left me in a bit of an identity crisis. My first ten years in the States very much shaped a good part of my personality, values, and opinions. That being said, I can’t (and don’t want to) ignore the inherently Indian part of my upbringing. From rituals within my household to trips to India, and from finally moving to India and switching between speaking Hindi and English more often than not, my Indian-ness is, and will always be, an integral part of who I am.
Applying to serve as a cultural ambassador for the country I was born in, my country, was a very weird process. The duality of my culture seemed to taint the “authenticity” of my American-ness inside my mind. In fact, my mind immediately tried to figure out how the program defined “American-ness” and whether I actually fit the bill.
Post-acceptance, I found myself trying to think of how American I could make my classroom environment. It was a strange self-inflicted pressure that came from an identity crisis as old as me. I thought back to the holiday-themed craft projects that I’d done in elementary school. I thought back to the songs I sang with classmates, and the movies that we watched to teach us about key aspects of American culture. Without prompting, part of me took my Fulbright acceptance as a cue to temporarily mute — or even erase — the Indian-ness from my American experience.
I knew little about the rest of my cohort when I boarded the plane in Bangalore in September. I did, however, know that I was the only one flying in from India, and the only one who didn’t have their immediate family in the United States.
Landing in Bangkok and waiting for the rest of the cohort gave me a lot of time to continue to swim in these mostly toxic thoughts.
The next morning, I found myself talking to individuals that had dedicated months of their lives to traveling around the world and taking in as much cultural diversity as possible. I met individuals that asked me questions about living in India in an attempt to understand me better, and not to formulate falsely-informed generalisations about my motherland.
We soon met members of the previous cohort for sessions on teaching tactics, surviving in Thailand, and — I’d argue, most importantly — diversity. I had, before the diversity meeting, taken note of the other POCs (persons of color) within my cohort and our predecessors, but never really processed what that meant beyond the scope of our sheltered groups. During this meeting, I heard some very strong individuals speak out on how hard they had to work to defend their own American-ness, because their physical appearance differed from the stereotypical image of an American citizen.
I remember feeling my stomach sink as I pictured the conversations ahead of me, especially since I would be following two white individuals in my own province. I hoped that the limited Thai I had at my disposal wouldn’t force me to shy away from even attempting to explain an incredibly important concept:
“I am American and Indian. I am both. Not all Americans look the same. That’s why America is beautiful.”
I few days later, while talking to a fellow POC in my cohort, I calmly admitted to wanting to avoid topics of Indianness in my classroom because they would be too hard to explain. I remember exchanging a look of empathy with them, and then immediately feeling ashamed.
If you read my last post, you know that deciding to come to Thailand was overwhelming in every possible way. The change in scenery also proved to be a change in so many other parts of my life. I didn’t realize until that conversation that I was perhaps changing more of myself than was necessary.
The truth of the matter is that the United States are eclectic, and a crazy, beautiful mess of cultures that mush, mesh, and mix into one another to create something truly unique. It’s become more apparent to me, over this month that part of my duty as a cultural ambassador for the United States is to respect and advocate for my parents that immigrated to the States for opportunity and a new kind of life.
In light of some the atrocious hate crimes happening around the world today, I feel an even stronger need to advocate for people like my parents and myself. It is my duty to share that the American experience of my family is just as authentic as that of a family whose ancestors sailed over on the Mayflower in the 17th century.
Being American is about feeling connected to the United States, and that’s something that can come from anyone.
— So Apeksha, why did you start this post with a quote about Chili’s? —
I have to hand it to Fulbright Thailand, for picking such a phenomenal group of individuals in this cohort. Our experiences, backgrounds, and passions are all so different from one another, but we all share this powerful love for understanding and learning that makes me feel so warm inside.
I will not go as far as saying that this month has resolved my identity crisis, but I will say that my cohort has given me the safe space I need to work through it. I’ve had some of the most incredible conversations while in Bangkok, and I’ve felt truly profound support from individuals that I didn’t know a few months ago.
That’s where I start thinking of The Office. Bangkok, in a way, is kind of like Scranton, Pennsylvania. Circumstance brought us together in this sort of isolating, random part of the world, and it’s here that we existed in forced proximity for weeks. This proximity drove us to travel together, explore a bustling city at late hours of the night, and trust each other in the midst of unfamiliar situations.
One night in particular, while dancing our way through a street, my mind paused. I looked out at my giggling and sweaty friends and felt the strangest sense of calm. I can say for certain that previous walks through these streets left me anxious, confused, and hesitant. That night, however, I felt safe. I somehow knew where I was going to turn when bugs found their way into my food, and who I was going to call when I would lose control of a class of eight-year-olds.
Since we’re not in the States, and we weren’t in a Chili’s restaurant, I can’t exactly quote Pam, but I will say this:
In the midst of chaos,
I felt peace,
In the company of the previously unfamiliar,
I found a home,
And I felt God in those streets,
at 11:39 pm on a Friday
This blog, medium.com/@aatal, is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of Apeksha Atal and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations