7 things I learned as an Asian Volunteer in Asia
May is Asian American and Pacific Island Heritage Month, or so people tell me, but I never knew that we had our own special month because I've always identified as just a regular American.
In 2010 I applied to the Peace Corps and in January 2011, I departed for Thailand as a community-based organizational development Volunteer. I had never studied anything related to Asia — religion, culture, food, international relations — and could probably not have told you anything about Thailand except that it had really nice beaches. Yet that was where I was headed for 27 months, accompanied only by four bags and a blank slate.
After spending more than two years living in Thailand, here are seven things I learned about myself and from the experience of being an Asian Volunteer in Asia.
1. I blended in... really well.
Upon arriving in Bangkok, the very first thing I noticed was that everyone looked like me and I looked like everyone. I had never seen so many Asian people in my life. All of a sudden I could blend in. Whereas white Volunteers were pestered to buy trinkets at the market or to take a tuk-tuk ride, I could just walk right by.
2. But I was also ignored.
It wasn't intentional but while white Volunteers were swooned after by students, teachers and counterparts, always being asked for pictures and autographs (it's a Thai thing), it wasn't until I told people that I was Korean that I was treated somewhat the same (Thais love Koreans). Nevertheless, the whiter you looked, the better treatment you'd get – although things looked up when I'd start speaking in fluent English, I was never considered a "real" American.
3. I was perceived as the go-to group translator whenever Volunteers went out.
My Thai language skills weren't too bad, but there were definitely other Volunteers that were better. Did that matter? Nope – being Asian, I was always the go-to translator whenever we would go out for food. Servers, taxi drivers and bus drivers would always try to speak with me first and sometimes only addressed me.
4. Everyone thought I was Thai (or Chinese when I went to China, or Indonesian when I went to Indonesia, or Cambodian... yeah, you get the picture).
Whenever I would go meet someone, whether at another Volunteer's site or in Bangkok, everyone assumed I was Thai and would talk to me as if I were a native Thai person. Only after seeing the dazed and confused look on my face would they realize I'm not Thai. I would then tell them that I am Korean and, well, the swooning from teen girls began (see #2) — it was a nice 15-seconds-in-the-spotlight feeling. Wash, rinse and repeat in every country I visited as well.
5. I paid the Thai price for almost everything.
Thai attractions sometimes have two prices, one for Thais and one for foreigners. Sneakily, though, the Thai prices would be in Thai and use Thai numbers rather than the European system so foreigners didn't know they were paying more. Usually Thais can get in free to certain attractions and, since I looked Thai, I was able to get in with my coworkers or friends without having to pay.
6. I was able to bridge the gap between being a Volunteer and "Thai."
While in Bangkok, Volunteers were sometimes considered expats by other foreigners, but I was also "Thai" (see #3). The beauty of being Asian American was bridging that gap. I had Thai friends who I would hang out with sometimes instead of other Volunteers. Sometimes being with fellow Volunteers was what I needed. Having some Thai language and cultural knowledge, I was free to mix and mingle without being singled out because of my race. Cross-cultural integration FTW!
7. I learned to love myself as an Asian American.
Your service is what you make of it, regardless of whether you're white, Asian, Black, Latino/Latina, Hispanic or any other race or ethnicity. While I had to work a bit harder to convince some people that I was really an American, or to connect with students, my experience was just as fulfilling as any other Peace Corps Volunteer's experience. I learned that my qualities as an Asian in Asia afforded me different experiences, both challenging and simple, than other Volunteers, and that's okay. Every Volunteer has his or her own challenges and successes that cannot (and should not) be compared to other Volunteers. Being an Asian Volunteer in Thailand was challenging, but it was also very rewarding. I wouldn't be studying Southeast Asian International Relations if it weren't for my Peace Corps experience nor would I have discovered who I am. I want to learn about Asia, I want to experience more and I am proud to be Asian-Korean-American.