By Ellora Bultema
I had been teaching English online for six months. On my teacher profile page I had a 4.88/5-star rating from 167 students, and, for identity protection purposes, my name was “Elanor”. Additional information included that I lived in the US, that I was between the age of 18 and 20 years old, and that in my free time I liked solving sudoku puzzles and riding my bike. And though I didn’t look like it, students could be rest assured that they would be in the capable hands of an English fluent tutor when they looked at my profile picture with the word “NATIVE” stamped across my very obviously not Caucasian face.
I had been studying abroad in Thailand for nearly three months. I lived in Pathum Thani, a small province just north of Bangkok, where the foreign population was meager and it took, at least, a 45-minute taxi ride to get into the city. So, in an area where speaking Thai was necessary to hold a job, I found myself turning to the world of online English teaching. The company I worked for served students ranging from less than a year old (what they were retaining from this experience, I knew not) to 60-year-old’s with more time than they knew what to do with. I had a strict script to adhere to when starting and ending a lesson, but anything in between required a little improv on my part.
My phone buzzed with a notification informing me that I had one lesson request. I booted up my laptop and was met with the eyes of a teenage boy from Japan.
“Hello! My name is Elanor-san! I’m excited to teach you English today!” I dutifully recited the pre-written introduction I was required to say at the start of every lesson. His name was Kaito, but he insisted that I call him Teddy.
Teddy and I exchanged pleasantries. As we read a list of vocabulary words and phrases for the lesson he had picked out, “Waking Up in the Morning,” I applauded his use of the proverbial expression “the early bird gets the worm,” I taught him the meaning of “make the bed,” and he struggled to grasp the concept of a “morning routine.” As I readied the End-of-Lesson script, Teddy began reciting a different kind of script, one that I knew all too well.
“Where are you from?” (It always began like this.)
“The United States,” I would say.
“No. Where are you from?” The seemingly innocuous question bared its teeth.
In this script, I could choose to feign innocence and reply, “what do you mean?”, but I usually didn’t.
“I was born in China, but I grew up in the US.” I replied, resorting to my typical answer. It was, after all, the next line in the script. It was only when I got to Thailand and began interacting with people outside of my social circles, yet inside of my racial community that the conversation changed.
“Oh, you don’t look Chinese. I thought you were Thai.”
Though I’d never been told I looked Thai before, I was not completely surprised by this answer. I am not a stranger to listening to others pick apart my body and debate whether I am “Asian” enough. The answers to the guessing game of my Asian-ness began to expand. First it was Thai, then Burmese, Cambodian, Bangladeshi, one very erroneous African—but never Chinese. What was it about me that was so not from China?
“Banana” is a slang term for Asians who do not quite fit in one group or the other, yellow on the outside and white on the inside. This refers to looking Asian on the outside, but aligning culturally more with white culture on the inside. And while I’ve done my best to reclaim this word and be proud to be so unique in this way, it also carries a weight that I’m a little afraid of. I am acknowledging that this title labels me as “other.” Someone who does not fit in. An alien no matter where I go.
What I thought would be an experience that would help me feel more connected to my racial identity, studying in Thailand, made me feel more isolated. To know I would never simply belong in America was a feeling I was used to. My race stepped through the door before I did and culturally I had American habits ingrained within me. But to step outside of that realm into the opposite only made me more aware of my own shortcomings. Even though everyone around me looked like me I still stood out, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (Of course, the red hair didn’t help.) I realized that if I walked into a room and didn’t speak I could “pass” as Asian. So, my greetings changed from a verbal introduction to a small wave or nod of the head. I found myself hanging back to observe rather than jumping into a new social situation, analyzing everyone’s mannerisms so I could mirror them myself. I was desperate to keep up the charade for as long as I could. I wondered if all the students who selected me for their lessons looked at my profile picture and felt a little more at ease. Maybe they saw a friendly and familiar face among the sea of white tutors. I then wondered if, after meeting me and hearing my story, if they felt tricked, dismissing me as “other.” It was true, I was not what I appeared. To them, or me, or anyone. I was in disguise.
After my year abroad in Asia, my outlook regarding my place in the AAPI community shifted, or rather I felt even more disparate than before. I returned to my university campus in the Midwest of America and felt like I had wasted my time there. When friends asked me about it, I was at a loss of what to tell them. Two other students from the same college, both white, eagerly told stories of the adventures they had and the friends they made, and I couldn’t help but be jealous. I recognized that race was still at play. In my mind, because they were white, they were treated differently in Thailand. When people looked at them, they automatically knew they were foreign and different expectations were put on them. As opposed to me, who had to navigate the expectations others had of me because I was Asian. I didn’t look foreign enough.
As we enter AAPI month, I see events and infographics and social media posts directed about how to respectfully celebrate and amplify the community. And while they mainly seem to be directed at white people, I can’t help but lump myself in with them. I have a lot to learn and I don’t feel like I’m in any place to claim membership or educate anyone. As many adoptees can attest, balancing between two worlds, a world one is born into and a world one grows up in, has its difficulties. All too often we are accused of assimilating too well, that culturally we are too white. However, adoption reminds me that although I am a product of unique and unfortunate circumstances I am not alone. My differences have brought feelings of shame and inadequacy for not being “Chinese enough” or “Asian enough,” but hearing the experiences of others empowers me to embrace these qualities. I have learned to celebrate AAPI month by seeking out stories and public figures that value the intricacies of the community and, as I continue to write, create, and construct my own stories I will value my voice within the diaspora.
Teddy ended the call and with that the lesson was over. I was left staring at my reflection in the glass of my laptop screen. As if on cue, a notification appeared at the top-right corner of the screen, alerting me of three new requests made within the last half hour, the allure of my “native” status working its magic.
Ellora Bultema (she/they) is a Chinese adoptee. Born in Anhui, China and living in Colorado Springs, CO, they will attend graduate school for Dramatic Writing at Missouri State University this fall. In their free time they enjoy singing to themselves, drinking coffee, and listening to podcasts. They value the ability to make change through collaboration and creation and enriching communities in the process. To learn more about their life check out their blog (https://tiwagor.home.blog/) or their portfolio (https://shortasianman.wixsite.com/ebultema) to see some other projects they've worked on.