A candid conversation on culture and identity with Thai American cofounder Leland Copenhagen
Look. AAPI month is complicated. For society as a whole, and for me personally. It’s not even clear which acronym to use. Who all are we grouping together? What makes sense? If x is in the group, what about y? This line of questioning exposes a flaw in the whole logic of the month in the first place — with such diversity of cultures and experiences, how could you possibly group us all together? It’s like the month is another reminder that the AAPI experience is something other-than The American Experience. And yet…it is different. It’s this very conundrum that makes me avoid the topic altogether.
It also brings up a lot of deeper identity questions and insecurities that I’d frankly prefer to continue avoiding.
I’ve often said I don’t really relate to the overarching Asian American banner. Thai American feels more comfortable of a fit. Other times, I read a story and think ‘yup, that is SUCH an Asian thing to do.’ The truth is, I don’t have a single, steady viewpoint on it. It shifts with the nuances of every context. It is this instability in position that makes it so difficult to write about this month. I fear coming across as hypocritical, not being informed enough, not taking a stance, not taking the right stance, not being Asian enough, trying to claim more Asian identity than I have a right to.
By nature of my mixed heritage, I have complicated feelings about my place in all of this. I am the son of a Thai-born, immigrant mother and a Jewish father of Russian descent. I was raised in a small, overwhelmingly white town in Maine, as one of only a handful of Asian students in my entire school. (My sister Etta, being 5 years younger, held the responsibility of diversifying the next wave of students). I’d then visit my Thai family in San Francisco, my fully-Thai cousins in this big, diverse city clearly having a very different, “more Asian” experience than me. My mom was the only one of her siblings to marry outside of the culture. Family conversations were all in Thai, and I grew quieter over the years as my fluency and comfort-level speaking Thai declined.Going back and forth between these two worlds, I’ve never felt I had a claim on either. Instead of feeling I belong to both cultures, it often feels like neither. I’m definitely not white, but my ethnicity is just ambiguous enough that I’ve received far-ranging “guesses” (fun game…) that are not Asian, either. I’ve never felt “Asian enough” to firmly situate myself within the AAPI experience, but I’ve certainly never been white enough to dodge the “where are you really from” question.
So what DO I have the right to? To talk about, to relate to?
Second generation, ‘the children of immigrant parents’ — well, just the one parent though, so maybe that doesn’t apply to me? I sometimes see other founders of AAPI brands and think oh, they’re *really* Asian (unlike me?), they must have two Asian parents. I’m only half-Thai. I’m only half, I’m not whole. My name certainly doesn’t sound Asian, are all other mixed-heritage founders taking their father’s last names?
The guilt and judgment I feel when responding that no, I haven’t been “back” to Thailand since I was 5. Like that makes these people have more claim to the culture somehow, having spent 3 months there. Trying to explain why like there’s a singular reason. What about my upbringing in a white community getting called “Rerand” would make my adolescent self eager to double down on my cultural heritage? How could I go with my family, and face the shame of not being fluent in Thai anymore? Of being such an obvious cultural outsider? But how could I NOT go with my family and shun them like that? And what about my mom worrying about how dangerous it is, how it’s different for “us” to go there than it is for other tourists? I could actually claim Thai citizenship and have a Thai passport, but then I’d be detained and forced to serve in the Thai military. Is this fear why my sister has gone, but I haven’t? Without citizenship though this shouldn’t be an issue….right? Did you know my mom almost wan’t allowed re-entry into the U.S. once, because of her dual citizenship? (Yes, as a U.S. citizen).
Easier to just not go at all.
Easier to just not say anything at all.
There are no simple answers to these questions, but it’s time I change my response.
Truthfully, if it weren’t for AAPI month, I would likely continue my pattern of avoidance. Instead, the month holds up to the light all that needs examining not just in society, but in myself. It asks us to look closer. It demands that I look closer.
Providing “my take on AAPI month” is a personal excavation that's taken me years to break ground on. As the founder of Yai’s Thai, I have felt pressure to speak up, to prove my “Asian-ness.” But I am trying to change the feeling of pressure to that of responsibility — responsibility to find the courage to claim my identity. I’ve had the opportunity to connect with others whose unique experiences have helped me to see that I do have a place in the AAPI community.
Having a designated month helps cut through the noise, it’s a chance to focus in on the vast range of experiences of being Asian in American, to listen to others, to listen to myself.