Jaed Muncharoen Coffin, author of A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, explores with us the dukkha of bi-racial identity.
Last spring I was at a cookout in Down East Maine when some of the older folks started talking about politics. At the time—and maybe nothing has changed—lots of people in Maine couldn’t talk about our current president without also talking about the fact that he is a black man. One woman—she was white and in her seventies and she grew up in this part of Maine and has never left and maybe never will—said something that I, the only biracial and not-fully-white person in attendance, have never forgotten.
“Well I just wish he’d make up his mind,” this woman said. “Does he want to be black or white?”
Of course my first impulse was to tell this woman that she was racist and ignorant and had no idea what it means to come from two cultures, or to feel as though your blood pumps in opposite directions, or to experience that strange rising guilt each time you commit too wholly to one culture—because doing so is to turn your back on every one of your brown ancestors and relatives. But since I didn’t want to spoil the air I did what I usually do when I’m confronted with similar situations: I kept my mouth shut.
But later that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about what that woman had said. No longer angry, I thought to myself: All right. Maybe she wasn’t being racist or ignorant. Maybe her question came from a place of genuine curiosity and confusion. Maybe she really does want to know how to talk about someone who doesn’t fit into the typical categories of identity. And at just about the point that I’d forgiven this woman, I owned up to the fact that there was a similar question living inside of me. To express it, I will borrow her exact phrasing:
I wish I could just make up my mind, I often think to myself. Do I want to be white or Asian?
Now, after lots of reading and thinking upon the topic of race, I nearly understand (and usually agree with) the pristine logic that refutes the concept of race as an absolute human category. At a biological level I understand that more genetic diversity exists within a culture than exists between cultures (and therefore it is quite impossible to make genetic generalizations about a “race” of people who are enormously different, no matter how much they look alike). And conversely, I understand at a sociological level that no matter what color our skin is, and no matter how our eyes are shaped or how our noses arch or don’t arch, we can still take on the gestures and accents and world views of people who look nothing like us. Race then, from an intellectual standpoint, is an arbitrary category that has brought to this world mostly pain, tragedy, and the deepest forms of suffering. If we must denigrate a people, then we must do so based on their cultural practices. And cultural practices, as we all have witnessed in our own lives, are not just impermanent and fluid, but wildly dynamic and rapidly changing.
What I’ve found, though, is that this intellectual understanding of why the concept of race does not matter will not fully account for the emotional experience of why race does matter. I guess what I’m saying is that regardless of how committed I am to seeing the world through the proper lens (in my case, this lens is often a Thai Buddhist one), I—like the woman whose words I have not forgotten—remain captive to the laziness of my own concept-making neuroses. My mind, whether I like it or not, is prone to be a Type-A organizing machine that likes to force a fluid, trans-linguistic world into rigid and often binary categories and distinctions. Even when I’m acutely aware of my judgment and prejudice, my mind seems to crave this activity as though it were one of my mother’s delicious Thai dishes. Papaya salad, perhaps.
As an American born Leuk-Krung (in Thai, this term translates directly into “Half-Child”) this penchant of my mind has left me with a difficult problem of self-identity. I don’t lament this condition, or pity myself, or feel that I have in any way been dealt an unfair hand in life, but I will say this: the natural instincts of my mind (even my modern and pretty liberal and globalized mind) is not particularly well equipped to address what it means to be biracial, or as the Thais would call it, a “half-child”. Growing up in Maine, I often pictured my biological self as a white body infused with a drop or two of Thai-ness. On the other hand, during my many, many visits back to my mother’s village in Thailand, I have often had the sensation that I am primarily Thai, and, were it not for the Vietnam War and my parents’ incidental meeting, my accidental white-ness would account for no part of who I really am. In this way, the term leuk-krung is quite apt: I am half this and half that, or, as the half-black poet Shane McCrae has written, I am “one neither one”.
I can easily trace the origins of where this condition began, because I have been brought up in a culture that has exoticized Asia into The Far East (as opposed to The Proximal West, I suppose) and The Mystical Orient (in opposition to The Rational West?). While living in America, the beloved land of my ancestors (or half of them, at least) has been played back to me—not just by Disney, but also by well-intentioned media—as a romanticized and oddly conceived Xanadu, rife with broken-English wisdom and artistic expressions of poverty. And so my notions of what it means to be Thai often move in opposite directions: in some cases, I see my Thai-ness as a genuine but justly banal fact of who I am; in other cases, I find my distant “other race” to be quite mysterious and exotic.
Spiritually, the Buddhist traditions that my mother has passed down to me from her life in our village—traditions that extend themselves into the way we eat, the parsimony of our spoken language, the quietness and obedience of the children, the graphic death rituals and wild superstitions—I have also known through a paperback copy of Dharma Bums, through writers like Alan Watts and Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsburg, and through college professors who delivered the noble truths as a simple set of philosophical axioms that should entirely transcend the culture from which they emerged. These two Buddhisms, in my experience, live on different planets, and often my memories of my mother’s Thai Buddhism find closer companionship in the old Catholic Churches of Mid Coast Maine: the high ceremony and ornate rituals seem equally serious and the depth of belief and faith in salvation similarly teem from the praying hands of the handkerchiefed French ladies in the back row pews.
For someone in my position, I know the potential pitfall is to feel hamstrung between conflicting forces. My predicament is not new to the margins of American culture. From the stereotypes and tropes of the “Tragic Mulatto” in the history of Black America, to the plight of the estimated 50,000 Con Lai (or half blood) abandoned biracial children of the Vietnam War, the most severe cases of individuals with racial double-identity have shown that our minds cannot easily handle two simultaneous yet opposite versions of who we are (or who we think we are). In my case, to be a leuk-krung is sort of a hip thing in Thailand, and many times my relatives have remarked that I should move to Bangkok to become a movie star, or a talk show host. (I once read that the Leuk-krung status in Thai culture expressed “The perfect blend of Eastern elegance and Western individualism!”) And so I am grateful to feel welcomed by both of my cultures, and am mindful that history has not always been so kind to similar cases. Historically, the “Con Lai”, the “Tragic Mulatto”, the “Happa”—have all been subject to the ugliest ends of what happens when a culture cannot conceive of two races living within a single person.
The other danger is that I’ll become resentful about the consumption of my mother’s traditions by the American cultural appropriation machine. I have spent lots of time in this place, and I will admit: for a place that is so bitter, it can be very hard to leave.
And so in this way, my cultural experience begins to parallel my “racial” experience: at times, I often feel as though I’m in limbo. At times, I find myself lost in a miasma of mutually exclusive definitions and contradictory images of who I am and where I ought to fit. And of course the quickest way I know to cure that splitting sensation is to do something that is very unwise: I choose a side and stick to it and I never look back.
I’m happy to say, however, that though it probably appears that my imminent conclusion is one of defeat or cynicism, I find myself instead constantly striving for—in the language of my biracial, “one neither one” president—a sense of real hope. And where does this hope come from? It comes from the simplicity of the most beginning of Buddhist principles.
Through quiet and deliberate moments of mindfulness, through earnest efforts to attain a heightened self-awareness, I know that the hungry instincts of my category-making psychology can be assuaged. When my mind begins to close like an animal trap around notions of who and what I am—at times a self-righteously different minority; at other times an impatiently homogenous majority—I try to take a second to sit back and to understand this moment as a form of personal craving. This condition, I often imagine, is the dukkha, or thirst, of a biracial identity.
If I’m lucky, proper thought brings me around to an eternally fresh conclusion: that the act of willing my conditional self into an unconditional category is rooted in my longing to achieve a state of impossible certainty. And then a question poses itself (rather quickly): Why do I need this unconditional certainty? Why must a biracial or bicultural person “choose” between worlds? Do I—in the words of the old woman—have to make up my mind?
Not at all.
I’m deeply grateful to live in a culture where I can affirm this position of being willfully not-sure (although, as I’ve also said, mine is a culture, I think, which really encourages one to make up one’s mind). Because the irony is this: as long as I continue to ask myself to make up my mind, to choose a side, to be this or that and not both, I will never make up my mind or choose a side or be this or that. I will be running in circles, chasing my tail, perpetually closing doors while opening others, drawing lines and erasing them and drawing them again and again.
As long as I don’t ask myself to make up my mind—as long as I allow my thoughts to float in our interdependent world of various cultures and peoples and languages—I am free of this gnawing sensation of conflict. The problem—to put it almost too simply—is all in my head.
But I must realize too that this cessation from identity conflict is not something that comes without disciplined thought. There is no pill I can take, or credo that I can carve into my headboard and recite each morning when I wake. My mind prefers to take the easy way out and it will do so over and over again; and so I am left with the harder work of loosening my mind each time it tightens around a rigid concept of who—by definition—I really am.
Perhaps my best approach to making peace with this confusion comes from a simple Thai phrase that I learned when I was living as a monk in the temple in my mother’s village: nang samatit. I suppose this verb phrase is best translated into English as “to do meditation”; however, when I think of the Thai words separately and literally, I feel they offer even greater clarity. Nang: to sit. Samathit: Wisdom.
The next time I feel like I must make up my mind, perhaps I will just sit in wisdom for a few minutes. Because then I may remember that I’ve been here before, and then I may remember that I can be here again. And with time, perhaps I will recognize that I’m free to sit in this uncertain place until I feel like I’m ready to leave.
Eloise Marra says
My own experiences is that I am so many different things I could be almost anything. For example, whenever I go to a Lebanese pizza place they claim I look like their niece, and I've also been asked if I'm First Nations (I am neither, at least not in the last 3 generations). I think visual fluidity in this way gives a person a certain psychological fluidity. I am everyone, and everyone is me. The Us and Them notions fall apart.
Excellent post, Jaed. Maine seems like an appropriate place to lead you into this inquiry: with a name like "Coffin," you've probably got family that goes back to colonial days in the Pine Tree State, and therefore probably have much deeper Maine roots than most of the people who might regard you as an interloping out-of-stater from away. Go figure.