by Tia Moua
During my junior year of college, I decided to study abroad in Thailand because I wanted to connect more deeply with my Hmong roots. My parents are refugees from Laos and lived in Thai refugee camps, so I’ve always felt a sense of longing for this second home. I wanted to learn more about Thai culture and the Thai language.
I grew up in Spokane, Washington, a predominantly white community where I was stared at, judged, and harassed simply for being Asian. I was made to feel like an outsider and perpetual foreigner when I was called a “chink,” constantly asked, “Where are you really from?” and was shouted at more than a few times, “Go back to where you came from!”
I heard from two of my Asian American college that they really enjoyed studying abroad in Thailand and felt so welcome there. That sense of belonging and inclusion was a feeling I had been desperately searching for my entire life. With the help of my study abroad office at Gonzaga University, I applied to the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) program in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for the Spring 2023 semester of my senior year.
In Thailand, many people assumed that I was Thai too and started speaking to me quickly in their native language. I would have to throw up my hands and explain, “Sorry, I only speak Thai a little bit,” to which they would usually reply with, “Wow, I’m surprised because you look Thai,” or “You speak it so well.” It was an oddly comforting feeling to be mistaken as Thai because in the U.S., I often am seen as and treated like a foreigner. In Thailand, I finally felt like I fit in, belonged, and wasn’t being judged for the way I look. I experienced a sense of belonging that I had been searching for for a very long time.
In Thailand, I finally felt like I fit in.
There were many activities I was involved in during my time in Thailand that helped me feel a sense of belonging, connection to my Hmong culture, and broadened my perspective.
I enjoyed connecting with local Hmong people at markets, at my university (Chiang Mai University or CMU), and randomly while traveling throughout Thailand. I made two good Hmong American friends from Wisconsin, who were part of my study abroad program, and became like family to me while I was abroad. I also got to meet and learn from my uncle who is a professor at CMU. He taught me a new perspective on how Hmong people are part of a larger international Indigenous struggle and movement.
Although my uncle did not formally teach any of my classes, I am thankful I learned from him. I got the opportunity to learn even more about my Hmong culture in a CMU class, “Highland Ethnic Peoples and Social Transformation of Northern Thailand,” where we studied the historical and contemporary issues highlanders in Thailand face. For my final project in that class, I analyzed how Hmong people and other Indigenous communities in Thailand are fighting for Indigenous rights, recognition, and citizenship.
One of my favorite activities was hiking at Doi Inthanon National Park where I watched the sunrise with friends and met a few elder Hmong tour guides along the hike who greeted me like family. I also enjoyed hiking with my friends and a Karen tour guide in northern Chiang Mai and staying overnight at a Karen village. It was fun cooking with a Karen family and getting a hand-tying blessing from the village shaman. I got to speak with a Karen man from the village in four languages, English, Thai, Hmong, and Karen. It was fun learning Karen and Thai from him and teaching him some basic Hmong.
Other activities included visiting Buddhist temples all around Thailand with gorgeous artwork and immaculate details; peacefully meditating at waterfalls and relaxing at hot springs; cafe-hopping with friends, studying together with fun music and delicious food and drinks; relaxing on beaches, swimming, and snorkeling in Krabi, Koh Phagnan, Koh Samui, and Phuket. The water was so clear and stunning. I truly felt like I was in paradise.
Celebrating the Songkran festival in Bangkok was a major highlight for me. The Songkran festival marks the beginning of the Thai new year and it is known as the “world’s biggest water fight.” The festival includes splashing others with buckets of water and having water fights in the sweltering heat. It was so fun, especially on the popular Silom Road. The water represents cleansing to bring good fortune. Appreciation of family is another important aspect of the festival, with many Thai people making their way to their hometowns to spend time with older relatives. Songkran is definitely my new favorite holiday!
Although it can be uncommon for seniors to study abroad during their last semester, I wanted to take this leap and go on an incredible journey. I knew that it would be less daunting to start traveling internationally when I had a support network and guidance from my study abroad program. I loved being able to learn so much about Thai culture and feel like I really belonged there as I participated in different activities, celebrations, and traditions. Now, I am more open to possibilities and seeing where the wind takes me rather than trying to force a certain path.
I graduated on May 14, and am currently taking time to travel throughout Asia for a few months. No school or work – just simply, quietly existing and traveling. I need to do this for myself. I have spent so much of my life living for others and seeking external validation. But now, I can finally say I am working on living for myself more while still trying my best to balance supporting my friends, family and community back home with healthy boundaries. I may even try out the digital nomad lifestyle for a while.
I am really thankful that I studied abroad during my senior year because I was able to celebrate the end of my college journey by living in a new country and expanding my perspective immensely. I am so grateful for the opportunity to deepen my understanding of my Hmong culture, make new friends from around the world, and grow as a person emotionally, spiritually, and culturally.
Tia Moua grew up in Spokane and is a recent graduate from Gonzaga University. She double majored in sociology and communication studies as well as minored in solidarity and social Justice. She spends her free time hiking, creating videos and poems, cafe-hopping, and exploring museums and art galleries. IG: @its_tia_moua and @travel.with.tiaaa
Featured image: Tia wearing modern Hmong clothes in Spokane, Washington. (Photo courtesy of Tia Moua)
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