Category Archives: Thai/America

Siwaraya Rochanahusdin.

This morning I was in conversation with a friend about the physical and mental aspects of life. I was telling him that I do what I do (even when stressed out and having lack-of sleep) because it’s not who we are now or today that define us, but what we do that helps shape the future. Very Shakespearean, no? Anyways, the post below was initially written for a Thai-Thai/American diplomacy trip my friend, Siwaraya, took a couple of months back. In her short but concise blog, she hints at the inconsistencies of physical attractiveness and cultural legitimacy within the community—as seen through the eyes of a Thai/American child, and now Thai/American woman. What I gathered from Siwaraya’s words is that what quintessentially defines our legitimacy and cultural belonging are not necessarily what our peers or elders tell us is correct nor is it the absence of cultural precision, but more so, how we map out and redefine the inclusive path our community can and will take in the future.

“You see that thing they’re serving on a platter? Now what are we going to have dessert or disaster?” – Keri Hilson
 
My clothes are strewn about the floor of my room and my mind is cramming all details down pat. It’s a week and some change to Thailand. Four of us were selected from applications to nationally represent our second generation brethren of Thai America on this leadership trip to Thailand. I want us to shine and make our cohorts proud. We’re the inaugural program. We’re culturally mixed with our ethnic Thai roots and growing up in America. Emotions and thoughts twirl in my mind and heave against my stomach.
 
Suddenly, I flash back. Classical Thai dance performance at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium – 3,700 seats.  I’m the darker skinned four-eyed gangly tomboy towering a head over my fair skinned genteel nimble peers. They’ve been dancing since age 5. I’ve had a solid 5 weeks of prep. I step onto the stage as one of the ‘aunties’ snatch my glasses off in an effort to have me blend in and be pretty. And, in seconds, I careen “beautifully” off stage.
 
Cut to present day. I’m trying to balance propriety of my outfits with practicality of the tropical humid heat. My Thai itinerary for the trip has scribbles of English translation with words such as “princess angel (princess sirindhorn)” “parliament” and “dine”. How hard and much should I hold to my progressive thoughts or push forward and up the traditional lessons passed down? We’ve been told a tv news crew may cover us ‘like reality tv.’ Will my presentation be professional yet personal enough (but not too personal) for the university students? I’m wondering if I’ll master the steps to this dance in time.
 
And, I realize…. in dance, the most important thing I can do is lose myself in the moment. There’s no sense in fearing the little voices of what people may or may not say. My experience will never be Thai enough. My experience is not quintessentially American enough. I’m here as me with all my failures or successes. Let this tide of possibility overrun and overflow abounding with life.  Then, no matter what I do – it’ll be worth any fall.
 
Dedication: The Undeniables and Nong Snap


Virada Chatikul.

“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.


Pahole Sookkasikon.

Awhile back, Josen Diaz wrote her letter (below) and noted that a part of inspiration came from me. I, in turn, was greatly inspired by her words and her work. Her phrase, “I see you” touched me in a way that words could not comprehend; never fully understanding the spaces in-between social complexities and intimiate fragility. And so, in lieu of Josen’s subtle but grasping words, I began my own love letter with her phrase: “I see you.”

“I see you,” is how Josen Diaz—a friend and colleague I respect dearly—began a piece she wrote recently and I felt it appropriate to mimic her introduction.

Awhile back, I came up the idea of using my thesis as a platform to immortalize and construct a love letter to my parents and the Thai/American community. I think the imagery of the love letter exudes something individuals in our community have lost: optimism, intimacy, and the belief that there is something more for the people we fight for. For the past three years, I’ve been entrenched in the Asian/American academic, activist, and nonprofit world. Every day I hear epithets of anger, disillusionment, and even longings for retribution. Especially in the Masters Asian/American Studies and Ethnic Studies programs, for the most part, I would hear “fuck this” and “fuck that.” People would be so angry about the things that have happened as well as trying so hard to be analytical of the past that they would not imagine themselves or the people around them beyond these haunting narratives.

Of course, I am not innocent of these ideologies. Similarly to my colleagues, I am just as guilty of the condemnation and almost self-loathing holes we dig ourselves into. These are the tools and vices we are given and taught. It is the anger that is bestowed upon us by our predecessors that “invigorates” us to do what we do. I was even once told by a professor that to be angry was my most valuable weapon in academia. However this anger is not always the most productive, nor is it the most viable route to take. Take for example my thesis: a critical look at the ways in which the West and United States tried to extend and immortalize racist sentiment and imperialism upon Thailand and Thai/America through propaganda and the arts.

In the beginning, my studies centered on defaming and debunking the narrative of Anna Leonowens and how horrendous her stories were to the Thai community. However, as I dwelled deeper into my research, I came to understand the facts behind her legend(s). Leonowens was initially a woman named Anna Harriet Emma Edwards of Anglo-Indian blood. She was a single mother and concocted this very amazing individual—Leonowens, the English Governess—to protect both herself and her children in a Victorian world which would have cast them aside. Although my research is heavily structured around theory and pages upon pages of arguments against Victorian literature, sexploitation, and subtle racism against the Thai and Thai/American community created by the adaptations of The King and I, I came to terms and understand who the woman behind the façade actually was.

So my research evolved and adapted to this newfound revelation. I understood that there is beauty in her story just as there is beauty in the identity formation of Thais in America as well as other communities in America. Instead of holding displaced anger within, I re-visualized my initial argument and rewrote my paper to include an underlining poeticism that I would hope my family and friends would discover. From my study on the evolution of Anna Leonowens’ narrative, it came to pass to further include a self-reflected account of my parent’s life in the U.S.

In the opening to my conclusion I wrote: “As a child, my father used to tell me stories. They were personal accounts of how hard life was in Thailand and how harder it was for him to come to the United States. He would sing me songs about his dreams, my mother’s ambitions, and the shared promises his friends and many Thai immigrants had while making the trek to this apparent land of opportunity. My father, probably the love of my life, would tell me chapters upon chapters of these stories about endless dreams and uninhibited goals. However, these tales of personal ambition and conquest slowly became filtered and altered by the reality of the Asian-immigrant narrative in the U.S.” My parents gave up a lot to survive in the United States. They gave up the world they knew, the friends and families they loved, and the land that gave them uncompromised senses of belonging and security.

Here, in the United States, my parents worked hard beyond measurement. Through worn bones and tired faces, I would see them. I would see them hurt in pain; worry about how much next month’s tuition bill would be; their mortgage and expenses; as well as how much longer they would have to endure maintaining a self-run restaurant. But my parents’ struggle is no different than the struggle most of our parents’, our relatives, family friends, and our communities have gone through. Their story is just one more chapter about the inconsistencies and disparities that welcomed many, when so many dreamt about opportunities that were promised when embarking towards the west.

I do not know if I can properly articulate what it means to be Asian/American, nor can I fully encompass all the stories of my parents as well as yours to depict what it means to be Asians in America. However, in her book on the Hmong-refugee experience, Kao Kalia Yang wrote it best when she said, “And the adults kept saying: how lucky we are to be in America. I wasn’t convinced. I saw them walking in the snow drifts, their backs bent, their hands curled to their sides. I felt the humiliation of not knowing English, and a bubble of hurt began. But when I saw how hard they all worked to keep us in school, to put warm food on the tabletops, I could not, no matter how discouraged, say: This is not enough. This is not the life I had wanted for myself or you in this country or any other. We’ve come too far for this. Haven’t we?” This isn’t enough and there is more. Looking beyond our society and people’s past mistakes and blunders, another world is still very much possible.

Amongst my cohort, professors, and friends, I am sometimes known as the cheerleader. I want people that are within my world and even beyond it to know that amazing things are possible even if they are coated with tinges of hate and memories of pain. Regardless of the cultural troupes or identity markers that define us—race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender, academic standing, and much more—we are viable bodies to create difference for those we care about. We can be angry and hungry for justice, but that anger has to be a productive instrument to re-imagine the terrain of our people. I think and believe the key to change is in how we fight—in how we fight for one another.

In this small rant and ramble, I am not sure what I am truly getting at, but I do know that there is validity in my voice and my choice of words. Truthfully, in many aspects, the world is a fucked up place but it doesn’t have to be. I believe that what needs to happen is that we, as contemporary Asian/Americans as well as communities of color and/or marginalized, must look to our histories and (as journalist K.W. Lee states) “the voices of our ancestors” to remedy past mistakes and the hardships we damn ourselves in. In this and this small naivety, I suggest that the same (and at times, blind) optimism our parents gave into when migrating out of their homelands, is the same optimism we give ourselves and our futures. It is a clean slate—a belief and hope that the world holds unimaginable piles of opportunity for you and for the people you love.

Returning to my parents, I never really understood their story, or how hard they worked until I finally reflected back during my first semester in graduate school. I came to realize that my parents’ sacrifice carried me further than I could ever imagine—farther than limitations of the U.S., deeper into my cultural history, and shaping my future.

And so I see you. I see all the ghosts which haunted us. I see all that you’ve sacrificed and the dreams that still linger overhead. I see all the ways—the numerous ways—in which your dreams and love for me are unconditional and more brilliant than any star in the sky or academic degree I could ever earn. And just like I see my parents, their struggles, and the lives they have formed here, I understand yours—you who are reading this now. In hindsight, this is not only a love letter to my parents and my community, but a love letter to you. This is a love letter urging you to be loved, and to be remembered as immortal as love letters can be. This is a love letter to remind you to be strong and be brilliant. This is a love letter for you to dream big, and moreover, dream forever. And like Josen whole-heartedly suggests and I pushed, this is a love letter to remind you that, “I see you and you are seen.”