A lesson in American diversity

By Erin Capina
May 26, 2016

Before coming to Thailand I knew that I would blend in, but it really didn’t sink in how well I’d actually blend in until arriving.

Unlike many others in my training group, I could pass as just another face in the crowd, and during training I could easily be mistaken for an actual biological member of my training host family. In fact, one of the first things said about me at site was that I looked Thai.

This has all been a new experience for me since growing up I could count on one hand the number of Filipino kids and Filipino families I knew. In my hometown schools, the number of Asian American kids in my grade was less than 15. Needless to say, I didn’t get many opportunities to blend into the crowd growing up.

While blending in has its advantages (for example, no one’s hassling me to take a tuk tuk ride or buy some trinkets in Bangkok unless I’m speaking English or with other obviously foreign Volunteers), it can also be frustrating. I’ve been told that I “don’t look like an American,” I’ve been questioned about which parent was the white parent (neither of them), my students aren’t really sure if I’m from America or from the Philippines and sometimes when I’ve been introduced to people the newcomers are told that I am from the Philippines instead of America.

I think for many Thai people I meet, the fact that there can be Americans who look like me never occurred to them. I can’t say I blame them when American media is dominated by white faces, so seeing that there are people who look Asian but are really American can be really surprising.

In my first year, I did an American diversity lesson that turned out to be really useful for my students. I intentionally picked Americans who didn’t look alike and only one, Taylor Swift, who resembled people’s expectations of what Americans look like. I then asked my students to place on a world map where they thought the people pictured came from.

No one ended up in America.

After they were done, I showed my students that everyone was actually American. My students were surprised: How could they all these different-looking people be from the same country? I held a mini lesson on the history of immigration to America and explained that while Americans may not look the same or have roots in the same countries, we are still Americans.

I then opened up the floor to questions and let my students ask any question they wanted about America. The American diversity lesson was great because it broadened the worldview of my students by showing them the real face of America is not the same as the America they are accustomed to seeing in the movies. The diversity lesson was so successful that I plan to do it again with a whole new group of students this coming school year.

Erin Capina

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