It seems inherent that immigration stories must revolve around flight from a home country – due to war, political injustice, threat of death, wretched conditions that force a person to seek a better life, or the desire to achieve the American Dream. There is none of this in Talk Thai. Sukrungruang’s parents left Thailand enticed by jobs. He writes, “Most Thai immigrants viewed America only as a workplace. America provided jobs. America provided monetary success. America provided opportunities Thailand couldn’t.” No harrowing tales of escape or of the horrors left behind. Not even a real desire to be here: “My mother often joked that she started packing for home as soon as she arrived in Chicago in 1968.” This kind of immigrant story, then, must settle around some sense of “the other” – the outsider – and the day-to-day struggles of not fully belonging. And in America, this is easy.
The sense of being an immigrant is strong for Ira, who yearns to find his public place to belong in a strongly patriotic American culture of the 80s, while at home, adhering to family Thai traditions, including his mother’s list of house rules, for which the final rule is: “Remember, you are Thai.” But immersed in American pop culture – “I consumed television. I practiced my English by reciting lines from sitcoms and TV shows: ‘Here’s Johnny’; ‘What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?’; ‘To the moon, Alice.’ I sat a foot away from the screen and sang commercial jingles. Oh, I wish I were an Oscar-Mayer wiener. That is what I’d truly like to be. Cause if I were an Oscar-Mayer wiener, everyone would be in love with me.” – Ira senses this pulling away from his cultural heritage before he even fully understands what it is, who he is, or who his family is: “I told my aunt I wanted to be white. I wanted to be farang.”
This desire for a new identity shifts to a rejection of his family culture when outsiders become involved. For others, knowing Ira’s background was meaningless; all Asians were considered one of three derogatory terms, as Ira’s neighborhood bullies express – “gook,” “Jap fuck,” “Chinky, chinky, chink-eee.” Ira tries to escape the effect these encounters have on his self-perception: “I was scared of those boys. I was even more scared of something my eleven-year-old mind could not comprehend then. I was scared of my Thai-ness…I began to see my family in the way the neighborhood saw us, the way my classmates saw me. We stood out…I didn’t want to be ‘them’ anymore. I wanted to be normal.”
One of the strengths of Sukrungruang’s memoir is his exploration of Buddhism. He goes through his own “crisis” of trying to make sense of his family’s adherence to Buddhism transplanted in the midst of Christian ideologies in his Chicago community. A single, run-down wat (Thai temple) provides a weekly meeting place for neighborhood Buddhist Thais, and is a setting for many of Ira’s stories. In one, Ira witnesses fifteen-year old Melissa question the monk about the existence of God and walk out. Ira recounts numerous exchanges with his young friends about their beliefs in God and his attempts to discuss religion with his family: “Religion bounced around in my head. The more I learned, the more confused I became. Was God evil or not? Why was Buddha fat in some countries and skinny in others? Nothing made sense. Nothing seemed to fit.” This inclusion of religion becomes another of Ira’s explorations of self and sense of “other” within the American culture.
Sukrungruang’s style is well developed in its narrative craft, not just telling a linear story, but weaving back and forth to fill in the family backstory. For example, the family unit is introduced simply as Ira’s parents and his Aunt. It isn’t until much later in the story that we learn his “Aunt” is not even related by blood, but a woman who befriended his mother when the two came to the U.S. to seek employment as nurses. In fact, there is no clear statement from Sukrungruang that this woman is not his blood Aunt, and no lengthy discussion of this relationship. He does this in other ways in the story, such as at one point discussing his secret desire to put a bully’s head on a tee and whack it down their fairway. Nowhere in the story up to that point had golf been mentioned. Later, however, a great deal of time is spent on this – his father’s love of the game and Ira becoming a competitive player. Sukrungruang doesn’t chronologically feed his life story to the reader, but rather shuttles in threads that continue to develop into recognizable patterns of a singular life story.
As much as this is a memoir of “cultural differences,” it is similar to many growing up stories. Most kids can tell tales of trying to make friends in school and how theirs was a group different from others. Ira’s group was a “nerd” crew – the kids who liked comic books and Star Wars, the ones easily targeted by bullies. All the more so for Ira, since in addition to being Thai, he was targeted for being “chubby.” And Sukrungruang isn’t afraid to share this, including the time he was run down by a group of bullies, one who pulled Ira’s shirt up and slapped his chubby belly until it was raw. It’s painful memories like this that memoir necessitates authors be willing to share, but not to dwell on.
For all the pain in the story, there are also moments of great hilarity. Of boys being boys and picking on and pounding on one another, only to be best friends. Of the discovery of a parent’s hidden treasure of pornography and the giant dildo under the bed – which of course one boy just has to chase the others around with. These discoveries lead to new knowledge about growing up. From watching porn to understanding Ira’s father having an affair with Ira’s best friend’s mom. How adults’ relationships can influence the friendships of children, and of the child’s relationship to the adults.
If I had any criticism of the book, it would be this shifting focus coupled with Sukrungruang’s style of telling, but not telling all. Memoirs by authors who consider themselves cultural outsiders in America help readers learn about cultural differences. But as Sukrungruang’s book progresses, it becomes less about these differences, and less about being Thai. But therein lies the rub: As children from these immigrant families grow up, they, too, experience a lessening of their cultural ties, because they become more assimilated into American culture.
There is more I would have liked from Sukrungruang’s book in terms of the Thai culture. There are parts of the story that are dropped in but not explained to the reader. The family relationship with the Aunt who lives with the family just like any other family member. The family’s connection to Thailand – which is only mentioned in the story with Ira’s having visited and his mother having returned after her divorce. And Simon, Ira’s nemesis, whom one day Ira finds in the temple, head shorn, following in the duties of the monks. What is left unexplained in the story raises a question about these memoirs of cultural exploration: What is the responsibility of the author to educate the reader? Readers do expect a certain amount of education from the author in this genre – but how much is the author expected to supply and at what point does the author’s not providing this constitutes a failure of achieving this genre?
I certainly don’t consider this memoir a failure; in fact, I rank it right up there with – and right between – Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen and Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah. I would recommend Talk Thai for its humor, its scrutiny of cultural conditioning, its exploration of Buddhism and Christianity, and for its candid discussion of children’s relationships to friends and family and the effects of a broken family. As with all well-written memoirs, there is much here to be discovered as well as recognized.