Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Broadening Horizons and Changing Perceptions

Several days ago, we got a chance to spend time with another American family living here. Over the course of the evening, we had a very thought-provoking conversation about moving and living abroad and how that changes people.

My friend, the woman of the couple, is someone I probably would never have crossed paths with in "real life" (that's what I call my life back in the U.S.). We are from very different backgrounds. A young mother of three (she is 31 and her oldest is eight years old), she was born and raised in the Midwest. As an adult, she lived close to her parents and hardly traveled outside of her home state. She had been west of her home state exactly once, and has never traveled to any state on the west or the east coast.

Obviously, though, there's an adventurous side to her that made her curious about "what else is out there," as she put it, that made her decide to move her family of five abroad to a place she knew nothing about. When she and her family arrived over two years ago, things were very different from what they're like now. There were no western grocery stores nearby, no Ikea, and even some of the Thai markets where we shop now didn't exist back then. There were no new teachers with families of their own. She was the only stay-at-home spouse with children in their group of new teachers. And, about a month after she and her children arrived (her husband came first to get settled and start his job), there was a major flood in Bangkok that required evacuation. School was closed for a few weeks, and they had to leave their house before they were able to really settle in.

Yet, she has stayed, made a life for herself and her family, and thrived. I don't know that I would have under the same circumstances. She is creative and resourceful. Trained as a teacher, she homeschools her three children, and also had previously started her own preschool and art classes for children in the neighborhood and at our school. I admire her self-initiative and tenacity, two traits I, more often than not, find lacking in myself. 

My friend's family returned to the U.S. for a visit for the first time this past summer, after having been here for two years straight. The visit really opened her eyes as to how her thinking and views have changed since moving here. She couldn't believe that the lives of her family and friends had not changed at all in the past two years - they were still doing the same things, talking about the same things, and complaining about the same things they were two years ago. She saw how small and narrow their lives and thinking were. They had no desire to see the country they lived in or other parts of the world, and they couldn't understand why my friend wanted to live abroad. They were offended if she even suggested that there might be some things about other countries that were better than they were in the U.S. What especially irritated her were their narrow-minded opinions about other countries and people from other countries, especially given that most of them have never traveled abroad, let alone lived in another country.

I remember feeling the same way about my own life in the U.S., thinking how small it was and that there must be more to it than the daily, mostly monotonous routine that was our life. There was hardly ever a sense of adventure or excitement. There were no challenges, no personal growth. I didn't know how life really should be, but I was pretty sure that wasn't it.

What really spoke to me was my friend's question of where she really belongs now. On the one hand, she's obviously not Thai, and compared to the Thai people, she's still American in every way. On the other hand, living abroad has given her a different, more global perspective such that she's now "outgrown" her hometown and the way of life there. I was fascinated to hear a white, American woman question her place in the world. While I have always felt the same way most of my life, caught between being an American and being Chinese, I never would have expected someone like her to be able to relate to that feeling.

I, for one, am curious about how I will feel and act when we return to the U.S. for a visit. Since childhood and for most of my young adulthood, I never "felt" really American, which is to say that I never felt like I thought how "being an American" should feel. The first time I "felt" American was when my husband and I traveled abroad together for the first time, to Italy. It was in front of the Trevi Fountain that I was accosted by a group of Korean tourists, who demanded to know where I was from. When I told them I was from America, they huffed in disbelief and actually demanded to see my passport! I felt very indignant about being questioned about my "American-ness." Why couldn't I be American?! I was and I was proud of it, too. I wonder now if I will feel more American when we return, having lived here regularly facing the same questions about my ethnicity and nationality, but also feeling, living, and being identified as an American.

In that respect, I also sense that the way others perceive me, and the way I perceive myself, has been changing. I feel an affinity with the expats here -- most of whom are Caucasian -- even if I don't know them. However, sometimes when I greet them on the streets, especially when I'm by myself, I get a puzzled look along with a greeting in response. I also get smiles and looks of recognition from the Thai people, and I wonder why. It is at these times that I remember that I don't look like the other expats, and to everyone else, I look like the Thai people. Being here has underscored how American I really am, and made me realize that is how I truly identify myself, so much that I sometimes forget that I don't look like a "typical" American! I am so used to being different in appearance from those around me that I forget that I actually "blend in" with the locals now. It is my husband and -- to a lesser extent -- my son who stand out now. Until I open my mouth to speak, that is.

When I was in the U.S., I was seen -- and saw myself -- as a Chinese-American, an immigrant, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, a wife, an employee, a mother, a friend, etc. Each of those labels came with its own set of stereotypes and expectations, and most of the time, I conformed with the expectations that came with each of those labels, simply because I had been conditioned to do so. Now, here, I can either be mistaken as Thai or seen as American, depending on the other party. I live here, yet I am not an immigrant. By navigating between these stereotypes, I am able to shed the ones that I used to carry with me. Because no one really knows what to make of me, they can't have (m)any expectations of me either. It is quite freeing.

All this has made me realize how entrenched we all can become in others' impressions, expectations, judgments, and views of us, and how those impressions, expectations, judgments, and views can become our own, shaping our lives in ways that we may not realize and may not appreciate. It also seems very difficult to free oneself from those perceptions once they are ingrained in us. Yet, they can also be changed just by a change in one's environment. So very fascinating and intriguing.

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