"I am in a taxi in Bangkok. My companion—European, white—speaks fluent Thai, but every time he says something, the taxi driver turns to me with the reply. I shake my head. Pom mai ben Thai. I’m not Thai. Not Thai. He continues to address me, not my friend. I am the passive conduit for this strange tripartite conversation.
I am in Nepal, in the hills west of Pokhara. A village schoolteacher insists that I am a Gurung, an ethnic group of sheep herders and soldiers. I’m from Malaysia, I demur. You sure? Maybe your father was a Gurkha soldier who fought against the Malayan communists. Later, I stare at my face in a mirror for the first time in a week: my cheeks are rosy and sunburned from long days trekking at altitude, my eyes narrowed against the brilliant light. In my eyes, I look like a foreigner—or rather, like a local. Maybe I am a Gurung.
I am boarding a Cathay Pacific flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong. The Mainland Chinese attendants at the boarding gate bid me goodbye in Mandarin, but twenty yards farther on, the Hong Kong Chinese air crew waiting at the door greets me in Cantonese. (Most of the other ethnic Chinese passengers do not get this bifurcated treatment, I notice.)
It has to do with my face. My features are neutral, unpronounced, my skin tone changeable—pale in sunless, northern climates but tanning swiftly within a day or two of arriving in the tropics. My face blends into the cultural landscape of Asia: east of India, my identity becomes malleable, molding itself to fit in with the people around me."