All posts by Bohemia Chronicles

A dip in the gene pool

Today’s post is brought to you by the Lion King and the wonderful sky Mufasa quote “Remember who you are.” My dad is still very much alive, but how cool/annoying would it be if your parents could contact you via clouds and sky. Beside the point. One thing that I have realized while living in Thailand is being in a homogeneous community is weird. I’m aware that there are people of different ethnicities, races, and backgrounds here. But I live in central Thailand, in a community that is all Thai. Except for one of my students who is mixed with French. Just him and I, we are the two that don’t match all the others. The unmatched socks. But whereas he is a black and white sock, I’m one of those crazy polka dot striped socks that people buy as a gag gift.

Explaining who I am in the states is fairly easy, if not just slightly frustrating.

“Hi, I’m Shannon Murphy. Born in Puerto Rico to a Puerto Rican mom, but my dad is German and Irish hence the “Shannon Murphy””. That’s how it’s been for an odd 24 years. Ask me how I identify and I’ll likely just say Latina nowadays, especially in Thailand. But I realized I did that for simplicity purposes. What changed? My grandmother recently did a DNA test and turns out while she is 100% that B****, she is also more Portuguese and French than she is Spanish and way more European than she is anything else. Which is odd, cause the traditional Puerto Rican is Taino, African, and Spaniard. In my head I’m saying “okay so we are much more European than I thought, that’s cool whatever. Grandpa is clearly of African descent so we aren’t full colonizer yet.” But wait, any African that grandpa has is diluted by the time it gets to me and any of the German and Irish I have completely outweighed the Taino and the African. So that means my bloodline is full of…colonizer. (cue the dun dun duuuunnn music) Furthering this confusion, I recently emailed my father trying to figure out if he knew who the first Irish person in our family was to come to the states, he responded back saying, “Not sure, but we might not even be Irish, my great granddad who was supposed to be Irish might’ve actually been Italian and was just raised by an Irish family and adopted their last name.” What? My name is Shannon Murphy and you’re telling me I might not even be Irish. Whatever, I still love Guinness and Jameson.

Now the mostly European blood is not the worst thing to ever happen. But if you know me, I am a gung-ho anti-colonialist person. I hated Columbus before it was cool and was calling the Manifest Destiny and Pilgrims out on their shit early on. Hell, half the reason I chose Thailand for my Peace Corps service was because it wasn’t really colonized. But what this turns into is a slight identity crisis. I have become more aware that one part of my gene pool is responsible for enslaving and trying to eradicate another part of my gene pool. That’s why I always clung onto being Latina, being a Latina was an embracement of this internal struggle, and that community understands it. That Spanish isn’t really our native tongue it was the language that the Spaniards put down our throats. That our last names weren’t from our family but rather identifiers of who owned us.

At what point in my service did I remember that I was mixed? The family unit. I spent the day printing out photos of all my family members all the way back to my great-great grandmother, which is excessive yes, but I figured my class would be impressed by the fact that I could find a picture of her. But as I printed out the picture which was her immigrant identification card I sat for a bit and thought of her. I didn’t know her. But I thought “What would Agatha think, her descendant being a mutt of a human. Born in Puerto Rico, raised speaking German and English, only to forget the German and replace it with Spanish. Then this mutt of a child moving to Thailand.” The only German traits I have left is being able to say Scheisse and drink beer regularly, sometimes my German will show itself in my obsessive bouts of cleaning but those are far and few. Agatha left Germany with my great-grandmother and her other children when the Nazis were beginning to come into power, so I hope she’d be accepting of a severely interracial descendant. It’s time like these where I wish I could just time travel and get the answers myself cause looking at a picture of Agatha and going through our family tree doesn’t exactly give me a lot of personal answers. Although it gives me a connection to them, just by knowing their names I feel closer to them. I spoke to my mother while looking at the family tree and I said “I found my future child’s name, Wilhelmine, my 4x great grandmother.” Suddenly my family and roots seemed tangible. Something that as a mixed person is very rare.

This finding also created a moment of shame for me. I thought to myself about how I so desperately clinged onto being a Latina that I forgot half of who I was. I was raised with a German great grandmother who dedicated her time to teaching me about our heritage and telling me stories about her/our family, and a farm. She would show me pictures of her home in Dusseldorf and I was too young to fully appreciate them. Nowadays I want to find her home in Dusseldorf. I chose to ignore how my dad would joke about the “fighting Irish” and would take me to St. Patrick’s Day parades because that’s how he knew to share that piece of our culture and taking your five-year-old daughter into the Irish Pub is frowned upon although now I am a frequent patron into any pub I find.

Being an American is also tricky, the mixture of cultures makes it so difficult to find the pieces of our heritage that haven’t been altered. There’s more to being Irish than drinking and St. Patrick’s, but my dad and I didn’t know how to get in touch with that so we just accept any cliché concept that comes our way. But again, being Puerto Rican, my culture was accessible at all times. My mother is a full-blooded Puerto Rican and she could provide the music, the food, the norms and all of our other traditions with ease. And it was genuine.

I’m currently not in a place where I can do a lot of research on my genetic lineage outside of looking at family trees but when I get back to the United States or wherever the wind takes me next, I’d like to check it out and see what are the ingredients to Shannon Murphy. For now, I hope I am doing Agatha proud and trying to relearn my German. I’ve got bread and water down. Plus, in addition to my Puerto Rican flag hanging in my class Germany and Ireland have their own spaces. But we’ll have to see if Ireland is going to stay, it might get replaced by Italian apparently, which would explain my love for pasta and wine.

Orale Tailandia

Hispanic Heritage month. I have a love/hate relationship with this notion. First, let’s get on the same page. Hispanic and Latino are NOT the same. Latinos are from certain countries in Latin America and some parts of the Caribbean. Hispanic is any culture that has influence from Spain. So, Spaniards are NOT Latino. And Brazilians are NOT Hispanic. They have Portuguese influence but live in South America thus making them Latino. You can be one, you can be the other, and you can be both. But enough of that. Anyway, I love being Latina and Hispanic don’t get me wrong. But I hate heritage months because there’s always some nutter who comes out of the cracks and says well why don’t “well why don’t white people have a heritage month.” Here’s why. Because the white narrative whether it be American, European, Australian. etc., has always had the white people in charge. I vividly remember my world history classes beginning with the story of white warriors, white scholars, white doctors, and white kings and queens and ending with white men on the moon, and until recent years as Presidents. (Still no Latino or Hispanic identifying Presidents, but we’ll get there.)

The Hispanic narrative when told by a Hispanic is no different, it’s just been buried. Our history through the colonizers lens is shown as Aztecs, Mayans, Incans, and Taínos, all being savages. Slicing hearts out of a still living body and making sacrifices to appease serpent and jaguar gods, trying to figure out fire until the colonizers (Columbus) finds them in their mud huts and ultimately slaughters them. Leaving only the docile, subservient, or Eurocentric ones behind. But that story has it all wrong. Latinos built civilizations that modern technology still can’t explain. Latino culture was more advanced than the white-washed version history gives it credit for. If it wasn’t for Latinos, you’d have no chocolate, rubber, law and order would be far behind and the number zero wouldn’t exist. And that’s just the Mayans. Like women’s rights? That’s Taínos, villages ran with a matriarchal system and the women birthed rulers in pre-colonized Puerto Rico (Boriken), men could only become rulers (Caciques) through the maternal bloodline, and it wasn’t only men rulers there were many cases of female Cacicas, and you can thank them for the hammock and the word “Hurricane”. You can thank the Inca Empire for advances in stonework; did you know that Machu Picchu is earthquake proof? Even after 500 years? Moving on. Have a headache? Cramps? Muscle pain? Thank the Aztecs for your pain medication. They studied botany and understood how plants could influence the body. These advances were all done by “savages”. The strange thing about history is that it can be changed to suit the desired narrative. Hispanic Heritage month gives all Hispanic People a chance to share their story. Our successes. And here in Thailand it’s no different.

Group 131 is running with 10 percent being Latino/Hispanic identifying (Mexicans, Colombians, Puerto Rican, and Ecuadorian), and how great is that? Combined with the previous groups we have our own small, strong, familia, which as all Latinos know is everything. Almost hitting the 9-month mark of our time in Thailand we have been reflecting on the experiences. The joys of being bicultural, both American and Latino/Hispanic. We share the joys of showing our sites the electricity in our language, the sweet sounds of our music, the passion we bring to the table and to our work. But we also share our struggles of being not quite American. Falling into the gray zone of being from the colony, or first generation, or immigrant. Explaining why our families back home may not speak English. Why is there an accent when you speak English? Why does your hair or skin look like that? Why is your mother black and you are white? Why is your sister a different color? And I can never forget all the various, unwanted hip, thigh, and leg touches from people at my site. Often making me feel like I’m on the KFC menu. These issues being thrown at us make it hard to not break face. It’s so personal that to answer it in a politically correct way which doesn’t minimize our own culture y la raza is like walking in a minefield.  But somedays when you take a step back, Thai culture is so similar to Hispanic culture. Yai and Abuela are both pinching you saying within ten minutes you need to “Eat more you’re too skinny!” “Eat less you’re gaining too much weight!” but don’t you dare deny that second serving. Both Puans and Compañeros are giving sly gossip in the corner of the lunch room. Y la comunidad and your site will find a reason to party and dance. Pero just make sure you make it to la Iglesia on Sunday and give merits to the monks when you see them.

But introductions are so tricky when you are a (insert race here)-American. I typically find myself introducing myself as Puerto Rican, the sentence when translated from Thai goes like this “I am from the colony of Puerto Rico, the country of America.” To which Thai people give me a confused look because last they heard America didn’t have colonies. The next question runs like “So is she American or not?”  I still don’t know how to properly answer that question without going into a full-fledged history lesson. But so far, the answer has been “Both.” It works better on my students than adults.  The students are the easiest ones to explain my culture to. They enjoy having impromptu bomba beats lessons, they enjoy watching Teacher do her “wild” dances, between the bomba y plena and the salsa I keep them on their toes, they like that my Puerto Rican flag has the same colors as Thailand, and it’s just not a normal day to them if I don’t have on red lips and a palm tree head wrap. They like that Teacher is colorful, loud, and expressive. All things that stem from the roots of being Hispanic. All things that aren’t limited to a month. All things that I share every day. That and maybe an accidental Spanish curse cause somedays all you can say is “PUÑETA”

However, we continue to share these experiences and learn more about our own identities through the questions that our communities ask. The Peace Corps experience has helped us find more pride and strength in our culture, especially when we look back to the United States and see how it is under attack. We stand with our people, even from across oceans, and we continue to share and embrace our culture even when it’s not the designated month.

I’ll call it Post Traumatic Storm Disorder.

Hurricane Maria changed my life in so many ways. Plans A through probably G were effectively f***** when my work, my school, and my home got hit by Irma and Maria in a tropical combo move. A little less than two years later I followed Plan H and joined the Peace Corps. But during that time there was a trauma I didn’t realize I suffered until living alone in Thailand.

Picture it, its my first week in my new house in Thailand and I’m excited as hell. School is about to start; my classroom is ready and my home is coming together. I have a proper kitchen and am no longer subjected to eating whatever my host family gives me. I’m ending the day with my standard bucket shower and I can hear the rain beginning. No problem. In fact, I think “Great it’s hot season anyway, the rain will be good.” I’m probably midway through rinsing my hair when the lights went out.

Flashback. I’m in my home in Puerto Rico. Taking a bucket shower by candle light because my grandpa hasn’t removed the hurricane shutters yet and no light dares to peak in, there’s no light to be found anyways, I’m washing my underwear in the used bathwater because we don’t know when the water will come back and we have a limited supply. Grandpa hasn’t removed the shutters because there are bigger fish to fry. The day was spent trying to collect the pieces of our house that Maria threw and fix our home. A task suitable for Sisyphus. All of the trees are down, they’re blocking a road that serves as a one way in and one way out for some people in the community, we’ve spent all day chipping away at those trees. In my childhood those trees seemed unmovable, constant, but now they lay on the ground, stripped of all leaves, pines, and fronds resembling toothpicks, that’s how Maria treated them anyway. But now we cut at them with machetes, tirelessly. We get our own battle scars in the forms of blisters all over our hands but we can’t stop. No help is coming. Most Puerto Ricans accepted that pretty quickly. Myself and a couple of other younger people climb over them, we are trying to contact the families stuck down there. Their families go as far as they can trying to see if everyone is okay. There’s no communication on the island. All service has been wiped out. My dog slips off one of the fallen trees and breaks his leg. He gets put down later.

              But I am in Thailand now, on the floor of my bathroom. Trying to steady my breathing and my senses and cursing the security team for a fault that’s not theirs. I find my phone and fumble for the flashlight then the doorknob and exit. I accept the copious amount of conditioner in my hair. I wrap it up with another towel calling it deep conditioning. I turn off my flashlight to save battery, trusting my sense of touch to guide me through my new unfamiliar house. Just as I accept the fate of no electricity for the night and sit on my bed to panic alone, the fan resumes its normal hum. I sit and cry for a bit.

“You should spend the winter with your mother. It’ll be nice to see the snow again.” My grandpa sits on the marquesina with his homemade liquor and remaining coca cola. He says the words that have been nagging in the back of my head. I couldn’t abandon home, could I? I couldn’t abandon him. But his tone was not a suggesting one. We spent the rest of the evening gazing upon what used to be a forest. I mention “The trees were so big; I didn’t know there were houses over there.” He says “I forgot about them too. Those trees were from the 70’s” It’s empty now.

Forward to Reconnect, a time where everyone can vent about their experiences and commiserate. I put my moment of panic aside, it’s in the back of my mind now. But then there was a random storm. It lasted no more than twenty minutes but the way the wind howled, it brought me home, to when it was pitch black at three in the afternoon. The hurricane shutter on my window was one of the first to go, so I had a front row seat for Maria. But no, no. I am in Pathum Thani at Reconnect. Not on my Island. That door has shut for now. But it didn’t stop me from sitting in my hotel room that night crying while looking at photos of my family and home before Maria. Back when we were celebrating my graduation, I was sipping champagne and laughing about my fellow classmate who brought rum in a camelback to the ceremony. Back when I was working at my family business, calling the regulars, my friends because they were. Taking shots in the blind spots of the cameras, and “accidentally” opening an extra beer and trying to sneak it to the kitchen, they earned it. But I’m not there. I’m in Thailand. But when times are tough, I think of them, I know they are at home rallying for me.

And tonight, I write because Tropical Storm Dorian is coming, and for a moment I wanted to see its path. It’s only a Tropical Storm so that’s nothing. Maria was Cat. 5 and Irma was Cat. 4. But that path was so similar to the war path Maria was on. Going right over my home, Humacao; over my playground, Luquillo, and over my birthplace in Ceiba. Then I panicked. I was taken back two years to when I was in the same spot, more or less, in bed looking at what would become Ground Zero for Maria. Thinking what would become of my Island.

 No one in my group understands the trauma that was Maria, so I never really bring it up, plus we have all been through things. But there is a pain that comes with seeing your beloved island destroyed that I don’t believe mainlanders understand. We know a hurricane is coming, but we don’t get an evacuation route. We are sitting ducks and just have to prepare the best we can. However, seeing the things, you took for granted being wiped away, like they were never there in the first place. Normal actions and sights begin to feel hazy and you question if this is how it always looked, is this how it always felt? The absolute feeling of despair when you realize, the water isn’t coming today. The electricity isn’t coming tomorrow. Communication will be down for the foreseeable future. And every day the people you love are leaving the island in a mass exodus. Help didn’t come. Whatever help did come came too late and went to greedy hands outstretched, used for another vacation, beach house, or suit. For a moment Puerto Rico was sitting in a pot. Wall Street Vultures and Politicians hoped that when that pot was stirred Puerto Rico would finally sink, becoming the perfect spot for low-tax gentrification and fancy resorts. But that stirring awakened the island and her people. We took our machetes and pulled ourselves back up. In the past two years, we showed the world what strength is and what true democracy can be. We are Puerto Rico strong. We can make anything happen.

For me personally, whenever people mention “Peace Corps is tough isn’t it?” I proudly say “It’s no harder than Hurricane Maria.” Maria will always serve as my summit for difficulty. That’s the harshest thing I’ve weathered so far. In Thailand I finally got my Puerto Rican stamp of approval, a small tattoo of a coqui, on my shoulder so that even when I am far from home my coqui can whisper to me.

 “Soy de aqui.”