Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

Amy Zhao

Published Date : Jul 19, 2019

Learning to be a Guest

Amy Zhao is a 2018-19 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Watbotsuksa School in Phitsanulok Province, where she teaches students in Mattayom 1-6. She graduated from Northeastern University in 2018 with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a Minor in Writing. She loves rice fields, Watbot sunsets, playing soccer with students, eating, trying every single 7-Eleven ice cream, and hanging out at the park.

Within the first few weeks of my being in Watbot, I remember my neighbor chuckling to herself and saying, “Yok muan kon tai,” or, “Amy is the same as a Thai person.”

Eating dinner with my lovely neighbor

I got my Thai name my first day in province, while waiting with a host teacher at the bank to set up my bank account. She saw my middle name on my passport, a transliteration of my Chinese name, and asked what it meant. I told her the first character meant home and family, and that the second was a special type of jade. “Can I call you Yok?” she asked. “In Thai it means jade.”

She explained that Yok is a common nickname for Thai girls of Chinese descent, which seemed fitting. It felt exciting to get a Thai name, like maybe it meant I would belong more, had an ‘in’ for assimilation.

I was nervous arriving in town. As far as I could tell there had never been an Asian American ETA there, and never had I felt so self-conscious of looking like I belonged. I cringe remembering how I’d sometimes blurt out to random market vendors in broken Thai that I was American, because I was so distressed by looking like I should be able to communicate and not being able to. (They rightfully stared back at me in confusion, probably wondering why this weirdo foreigner was going around announcing her nationality.)

Slowly, I started to get my bearings, exploring noodle stands, rice stands and coffee stands around town. I always introduced myself twice. Chuu American Amy. Chuu Tai Yok. My Thai nickname stuck and eventually I stopped introducing myself as Amy. In the same way that it is easier for me to remember American names than Thai names, it has been easier for people around town to remember me as Yok.

Bonding with teachers at school over translating messages to a teacher’s family from Thai to English to Chinese

As my language skills improved, I was often praised for my pronunciation. Once, in the car with two English teachers at school, one of them was reaching for the right words in Tinglish to explain why my Thai pronunciation was better than most. “I think it’s because of …” she paused, face scrunched up in concentration. “I think it’s because of… Your Asian blood,” she finished, placing a bizarre emphasis on the word blood. Everyone in the car exploded in laughter. “Pi Kid,” I said. “I think it’s because I speak Chinese, and Chinese has the same tones as Thai… Not because of my blood!”

But either way, some combination of my language, my mannerisms, the way I respond to hospitality and the way I communicate, resulted in teachers and people around town commenting on my Thai-ness. I didn’t mind the comments, especially compared to the other conversations I was having about my identity, the confusion over my Americanness, and people saying I was half Asian when I wasn’t. These were comments made with endearment and affection.

In Thailand, many of the national parks have a foreigner price and a Thai price for admission. For some reason the foreigner prices in Phitsanulok are unusually steep, over 10 times the Thai price. In January, when I was thinking about going to one, I asked a teacher jokingly if she thought I could sneak in under the Thai price. It seemed within reason – I figured my face was Asian and my Thai passable enough. As hard as it is to admit, I was cocky, high off of all the praise I had been getting for my Thai.

So it felt like a slap in the face when she responded plainly, “You don’t look like a Thai person; you don’t speak Thai like a Thai person. You’re not Thai.”

After months of praise on my Thai and getting used to at least sort of blending in around town, this was a hard pill to swallow. But honestly, I needed it.

I think as American outsiders in foreign countries, particularly in positions like Fulbright or other service/voluntourism opportunities, we often place this high pedestal on assimilation. We throw words around like “authenticity,” “community,” “family.” Being accepted by the local community, being able to call them your ‘family,’ feels like a goal, or something to be proud of. And as an Asian American who happens to share some similar cultural traits with members of my community, I had mistakenly begun to blur the lines of guest and member.
Months after the national park incident (if anyone’s curious, I ended up getting in on a discounted price, but not the Thai price, which somehow feels like a metaphor for my experience here), I came across this article by Frank Shyong, Taiwanese American writer who frequents a Korean restaurant in LA. The article is titled “I’ll never be a regular at Koreatown’s OB Bear, but I’m glad to be a guest.”

In a funny way, the article captured exactly how I felt as an Asian American living in this rural Thai community. Shyong wrote about his past five years of going to OB Bear, a local Korean American restaurant and gathering space. He’d tried almost everything on the menu, exchanged “high-fives with Korean aunties over Hyun-Jin Ryu bloop singles and lost [his] voice screaming over Justin Turner home runs.” But the thesis of his article is that though he loves OB Bear and is getting to know its regulars more than most, he himself will never be a regular. For all the Korean regulars, this place is their home, a sacred space where they can gather with their community, and that “in their world, all [he’ll] ever be is a guest” – which actually is an immense privilege.

When talking about the article with a fellow Asian American ETA, we talked about how in many Eastern cultures, guests are treated almost like gods. The host does everything they can to accommodate the guest, often trying to anticipate their needs without being asked. It made me think about this question: what does it mean to be a guest in a culture where guests are treated like family?

As somewhat of an American cultural ambassador in Watbot, Phitsanulok, Thailand, I am learning what it means to be a guest. Growing up in my Chinese American household, I was taught that although the guests are treated with utmost hospitality, in return, there is an understanding that the guest pushes back – they offer their help, refuse too-extravagant accommodations and gifts. They don’t just sit there and receive it all. And so although I navigate Thai cultural norms with as much respect and adaption on my part as possible, my end goal is not to be Thai. That even if certain Thai people remark on my quasi-Thai-ness, I don’t get to take that as an opportunity to appropriate being Thai, as if I’ve won some award for most assimilated. I don’t look like a Thai person, I don’t speak Thai like a Thai person, and I’m not Thai. I’m American, and I look back on that conversation with my teacher with gratitude.

Living in Watbot, being surrounded by Asians all day, every day for the past eight months, I have felt so much pride in being Asian. I see hierarchy and respect for authority honored in special, important, and even sweet ways at school through the respect students pay to teachers, underclassmen bringing so many gifts for the seniors during graduation, and the numerous types of bows and wai’s for different occasions. Even just seeing Thai families love each other with food, physical touch, and indirect communication has been special. This experience of seeing shared Asian cultural norms expressed and affirmed in these particularly Thai ways has been so meaningful and healing for me as a Chinese American.

Students lined up to give gifts to the graduating seniors

Seniors paying respect to and receiving blessings from teachers during graduation

I am a friend, a neighbor, a teacher, a Ban Caf? regular, and a bad soccer player who plays with kids at the park anyways. I am Amy, and I am also Yok. I am an Asian American guest in this Thai community, and I am forever grateful for the kind hospitality that I have received here and which I do not deserve. To be a guest in Watbot has been a privilege.

Making friends at the park!