We've only been here for a month, and I already need two hands to count the number of times Thais have expressed their surprise that Mali is, in fact, not Chinese. I'm thinking of having a t-shirt made for her that says:
[Translation: Excuse me, I am not Chinese]
This isn't the first time this has happened. Waaaaaaaaaaaay back in 1996, when Mali and I were newlyweds, we attended the Lao-Thai branch in Murray, Utah (the branch actually met in the building that I grew up going to, but that's another story for another time). My home teaching* companion was a retired Thai police officer who had moved to Utah so his children could attend American universities and interact with more members of the LDS Church. Anyway, one day as we were driving to a home teaching appointment, he said to me, totally out of the blue, "Your wife is Chinese, right?"
*Note for non-Mormons: "home teaching" is a program within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where men in the church are paired up and asked to regularly visit the members of their congregation.
"No, she's Lao," I assured him.
"Right, she was born in Laos, but her parents, or her grandparents, they came from China, right?"
I responded in my horribly mangled half-Lao/half-Thai. "No, Mali is one-hundred percent pure Lao, through and through, right down to the pa dek (fermented fish sauce--it's a Lao thing) running through her veins."
To this day I don't think he was convinced. The fact remains, however, that Mali is, as best we can tell, 100% pure Lao. Her parents have provided me with all the genealogy they have in a written form, some of it going back as far as five generations, and all of those ancestors hail from what is today geographically, ethnically, linguistically, and any other "callys" you can think of, Lao.
If you have read this far, then you are probably wondering why it would be such a big deal, and I'll boil it down to one word.
A couple of weeks ago Mali went to the open air market near our house with our neighbors. Our neighbors told us that their fourteen year-old daughter always gets better deals on the fresh produce than they get themselves, despite the fact that she speaks no Thai. In fact, she doesn't say anything when she goes to the market. It's probably at this point that I should mention that this girl is one-quarter Japanese, and you can tell that she has Asian genes. She looks easily as Asian than her mother, who is half-Japanese. The Thais absolutely adore the mixed-race look, so this works to her advantage.
Okay, so Mali goes to the market to watch our neighbor's daughter in action, and sure enough, she gets five mangoes for 100 baht. Okay, pretty simple. Mali steps up a few minutes later, and chats with the seller in Lao, there are some questions about Mali's origins ("Uh, are you Chinese?"), and then she sells Mali THREE mangoes for 100 baht.
Okay, maybe it boils down to two words.
Mangoes and bicycles.
One Saturday Mali went out to look for a bicycle for both her and the maid to use for errands that are just out of comfortable walking distance range (for them this means anything more than a five minute walk--I have a really skewed concept of what constitutes a "comfortable walking distance" so I should probably just be quiet about this). So she went to the local bike shop where some other people in our neighborhood said they sold decent bikes for really good prices. Again, the question is asked ("Uh, are you Chinese?") and after the vendor establishes that Mali is from the United States via Laos, the price of the bikes amazingly went higher.
Now let me be very clear: I am not accusing the Thais of being racist. I prefer to think of it as Thai business savvy. Because the price of just about everything is negotiable, you really can't blame them for trying to get the most money possible for their goods. And you have to understand that throughout Southeast Asia in general and Thailand in particular, the Chinese have a reputation for being, well... rich. Most Thais are very aware of who among them is of Chinese descent, and the corporate boards of most--if not all--large, successful Thai businesses are replete with Sino-Thais (as well as former generals and retired politicians).
Essentially, in my mind, it boils down to this: the Thais are looking to maximize their profits. That is entirely rational economic behavior (at least I think it is--it's been over 10 years since I took Econ 110), and in Mali they see a potential Chinese customer. While one might initially suspect her Lao identity might actually score her the local's discount, the fact that she's from America tends to actually hurt her even more, and right where it counts, too--the pocketbook.
The moral of the story? Let the maid do the food shopping. Now all we have to do is get her a bicycle.