“We have to be Thai from our hearts – it’s not just you’re born and raised in Thailand and that’s it. You must love it with your heart. Take care of Thailand. Don’t treat it like its something you can sell.”
I was sitting in Bangkok traffic with Pa Plearn (Pa meaning ‘aunt’), director of the Thai Cultural Center. I told her I was collecting responses for a personal project of mine: “What does it mean to be Thai?” This was her immediate reply without needing time to think it over.
My co-instructors and I just finished up six weeks on the road leading a summer immersion course for American high school students: village homestays, rubber tapping, hilltribe hiking, Buddhist meditation, English camps, rice planting. Our last week, I took the students to visit the performing arts department at Ban Somdej Rajaphat University. As they observed a dance class, Pa said to me, “When you’re done with the students, you should come in to practice yourself.” In two months, the Thai Cultural Center back home in the Bay Area would hold its next dramatic production, and I had missed out on a summer’s worth of precious rehearsal time by taking the instructor job in Thailand.
So there I was, sitting in her vintage Benz on our way back from dance practice. What I found most amusing was that Pa rarely drives herself anywhere back home. Yet here she felt comfortable braving the wilds of Bangkok intersections. As I got into the car, I asked, “You’re driving?” To which she responded, “I can’t wait for anyone” – in Thailand at least, I thought to myself. That being said, she ran a red light that day, smiled at the other drivers and said (in English), “Oops. Sorry.”
Pa is in her 70’s. She makes an annual (sometimes semi-annual) trip to Thailand. She’ll fit whatever costumes she can into her luggage to bring back to the center and convinces anyone else flying back to the US to bring more with them too. And piece by piece, that’s how the cultural center – its orchestra and wardrobe – was built over 20 years.
This idolized memory of the center’s founder stands out only because her words came as a breath of fresh air. I’ve been an “off and on” student and dancer at the Thai Temple for over twenty years, yet my years there have done more to reveal human lapses in judgment than gems of wisdom. How rash decisions, mistrust and indirect communication have broken and mended relationships within our small, dysfunctional group for decades – students who can no longer perform with their friends, parents who then refuse to bring their kids to practice, forced apologies for the sake of a performance rather than its performers.
I often ask, “All this, for what?” It’s undeniable that my experiences at the Wat gave me the qualifications I would need to lead a trip in Thailand, especially considering I’ve never lived in the country. But I am certain that my parents never dreamed for their daughter to one day become a trip leader. In fact, my mother was thrilled that I’d start business school once I returned from Thailand. So again I ask, “Why?” Is it so important we learned to sing the Thai national anthem? Is it so necessary we know how to wai and say sawasdee? That we celebrate the King and Queen’s birthdays? I then discovered another painful truth: in a worst case scenario, the answer to these questions is ‘no.’ I know that if they had to choose, my parents would have chosen a winning SAT score over my knowing the Thai alphabet. I know that my parents’ circles, the first generation of Thai immigrants, already sacrificed their home to give their kids an American education, an American salary, an American life, the American dream. My mother once told me that when I was born, she knew she wouldn’t be returning to Thailand as she once planned.
But when that so-called “American dream” was in reach, by some twist of fate, our parents did the unexpected. They built and supported the Thai Temple and cultural center because they refused to believe that sacrificing their culture was the only option and because the call of one’s heritage was too loud to ignore. Once, we had a khon performance (Thai masked theatre) during a funeral. As the music played, one of the uncles said, “I can’t listen to this. Makes me cry and miss home.” That wasn’t the only time. When we practice in the parking lot of the Temple after the Sunday crowds have gone and all that remains are parents, volunteers, community elders, a small audience will gather to watch and applaud the little pocket of “home” we’ve created. For those few minutes, they can forget the daily reminders of “this is not my country” or “this is not my language.” I realized that this is all they ask for – just brief moments that are theirs, when they can breathe a sigh of relief and stop pretending, when they can sing their royal anthems, when they can process around the Temple to the sound of long drums, when they can show their children with confidence and without shame, that this is how you walk around your elders; this is how you greet them, and this is how you thank them.
They held onto their customs because they love Thailand from their hearts. They created a place so that their children would not be lost to them. Last year, when I worked on the Save the Thai Temple campaign, I let myself imagine the possibility of the Temple closing. No more Sundays, no place to celebrate holidays, no place to gather with Thai people. The thought of it caused a pang of emptiness inside me. Our team of 2nd generation Thai-Americans advocated for our community as best we could, but at the same time, there was nothing more uncomfortable than putting our community in the spotlight – on the news, in the papers and in Berkeley City Hall. It was very un-Buddhist of us, but it was necessary, and we knew that if we didn’t do it ourselves, someone else would step in to defend or oppose a community that was not theirs.
I’m years beyond saying that I go to the Wat every week because my mom forces me or because I need an impressive activity for my college application. I guess I can no longer hide from it. I’m addicted to Thai people like they were a drug; I believe in Thai values like they were my religion, and most of all, I love my Thai community from my heart. Is it silly to say that I love it in the way characters fall in love in the movies? With the kind of blind love that defies logic? The logical choice would be to weigh the hours I’ve invested in the Thai Cultural Center against the potential paid jobs, academic performance and social life I might otherwise have. Even if that calculation fell short, I know I wouldn’t stop. This community gives me the confidence and patience to do what I would never do elsewhere – speak in front of a city council, dance in costumes that I know don’t look good on me and disregard my work and school responsibilities for community projects. I understand now this is what Pa meant when she said to be Thai from our hearts: to keep working when it is no longer necessary, when you aren’t even born and raised in Thailand, when you look back on all the time spent and realize you’ve accomplished more than you thought possible. I was a Thailand course instructor. I was a part of saving the Thai Temple. My relatives in Thailand tell me, “Thank goodness you speak Thai. If you didn’t, we’d just stare at each other when you visit.” I hear my mom tell me “I wish your grandfather were alive to see you perform khon.” Because of my community, I am able to see my parent’s homeland as more than a vacation and shopping mall. Because of my community, I have two ways of viewing the world – both of which I call mine, and neither I can let go. Because of my community, I am a better person. I have learned that a culture is only as strong as the people who love it – it is what we each choose to keep and what we choose to change. Yes, this is my unlikely love story – the kind that has triumphed the odds, just like in the movies.