What I kept realizing this trip was the conflict between my personal and ethnic identities. We bumped into several groups of Shanghainese people in The Grand Palace, and when I heard them speak the local dialect, I first thought of my mom because they speak in the same way (since my mother is Shanghainese), and because I can understand what they’re saying, it gave me a sense of familiarity. However, I don’t really relate to those people directly because I still don’t know whether I consider Shanghai “home”- I go there once every 1-1.5 years, but I’ve never lived there long-term. At the same time, my grandparents are from there and have lived there their whole lives, so it’s technically “home”. When I bump into Chinese people in Southeast Asia I don’t feel a strong connection to them, and at times, I try to avoid them or avoid being identified as Chinese by the locals, probably because I’m not really comfortable with my Chinese identity. This is something I’ve struggled with my whole life, and don’t really know how to reconcile the conflict between my ethnic and personal identities, but after this trip, I’ve felt a lot more comfortable explaining to people, and a lot more clear on how my ethnic identity influences my personal identity.
Our interview with Evan’s cousin, Ni, taught us a lot more about the relationship between Chinese, Thais, and Chinese-Thais. She is a third generation Chinese who has lived in Bangkok her whole life, and is interested in Chinese history/culture but can’t speak Mandarin and can’t read Chinese characters. When we asked her whether it was important to her to figure out her identity, I could really relate to her answer. She said when she was young, she couldn’t figure out whether she considered herself Thai or Chinese- she used to tell people she was full Thai. However, when her university professor asked about her family background, she realized family history was really important, so she talked with her family and figured out her ancestral roots. When she found out she was Chinese, she felt more Chinese than Thai, because she could always feel that she wasn’t fully Thai. This is really interesting to me, because I used to tell people I was full Singaporean but ethnically I’m half-mainland Chinese. I could never relate fully to the Singaporeans in the international schools I went to, partly because I didn’t really know much about Singapore, apart from the occasional summer visits, where I would do all these touristy things for two weeks and then go back “home”. When I accepted that I was half-mainland Chinese, I started to embrace my mainland Chinese heritage more, but now I’ve accepted the fact that I fit into neither societies and after this trip, I’m actually fine with not fitting in. This is actually the main reason why I wanted to do the travel fellowship this summer (will reflect more on this in my concluding post).
It’s surprising how the Chinese-Thai have assimilated into Thai society very well (much more than the other places we visited previously). The smooth assimilation (partially due to the lack of colonial influence, which meant there wasn’t pressure created against the ethnic Chinese in Thailand), meant that the Chinese-Thai lost a lot of their “Chinese-ness”. For example, very little of Ni’s Chinese-Thai friends could speak Chinese, and most of them only celebrate Chinese New Year, and sometimes Qingming Festival. A lot of the Chinese cultures that were preserved in particularly Jakarta and Manila are not seen here, because I feel like on a scale from 0 to 10 (0 being fully Chinese and 10 being fully Thai), most Chinese-Thai are currently at around 7 to 8, because they don’t really understand their Chinese heritage and choose not to embrace it, according to our second interview with another Chinese-Thai. They’ve also never faced ethnic discrimination because 70% of people in Thailand have mixed ancestry (with the majority being part Chinese). There are also public figures and government officials who are Chinese-Thai. Because Chinese people have fair skin, they are easy to identify and are privileged because of their skin color.
On the other hand, even though Chinese-Thai are not enriched with Chinese cultures, Thailand has recently done more business with China. For instance, the department stores in Bangkok have started to accept Alipay, and in weekend markets, I saw that shops accepted Wechat pay (which is only accessible in mainland China), and this really surprised me. I was a bit confused because the people we talked to claimed that Thais don’t like Chinese tourists, yet they’re developing systems to accommodate Chinese tourists, probably because a large proportion of tourists that visit Thailand are Chinese. When we were on the BTS skytrain, I also saw lots of people buying things on Taobao, further emphasizing that there is a current massive trend in doing business with the Chinese in Thailand.
All in all, Bangkok was a great way to end the whole fellowship, and I wish we could’ve talked to more people, but because neither of us spoke any dialects, it was harder to talk to the older generations. Hearing about people’s personal experiences with moving from China to Southeast Asia would’ve been more enriching, but we’re lucky to have had such a large pool of people willing to talk to us about their family histories.