Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy by Ira Sukrungruang
In this lively, entertaining, and often hilarious memoir, Ira Sukrungruang relates the early life of a first-generation Thai-American and his constant, often bumbling attempts to reconcile cultural and familial expectations with the trials of growing up in 1980s America. Young Ira may have lived in Oak Lawn, Illinois, but inside the family's bi-level home was "Thailand with American conveniences" and the feeling of not belonging in either of these two worlds. Talk Thai provides generous portions of a rich and ancient culture while telling the story of a modern American boyhood with humor, playfulness, and uncompromising honesty.
My mother, when I was younger, used to post The Rules on the refrigerator door. These rules kept me in line, reminded me that I was supposed to be a proper Thai boy and nothing else. Her intentions were to bring me up Thai, even though we lived in a bi-level in Chicago, even though I attended an American elementary school and watched American TV. Her biggest fear was that America would sweep me away, and I would lose all sense of where our family came from, lose all sense of familial and cultural loyalty. Because of this, she created The Rules. Talk Thai was one of those rules. In the house, with my three parents—my mother, father, and Aunty Sue—I was to communicate in no other language but Thai.
Q: How does the setting of the south side of Chicago affect this story? Does the immigrant experience in Chicago differ from the immigrant experience elsewhere?
Chicago was the place of my parents’ greatest joy—the birth of their only son—and the place they felt most exposed. My mother and aunt arrived in Chicago in 1968 and my father a couple of years later. Their lives began again here. It’s like that for many immigrants. You move to a place so unlike home, a place where you do not know the language, a place with different foods and weather. The rhythm of the city doesn’t quite match your internal rhythms. You have to relearn everything; you have to relearn how to survive. For my parents, Chicago was the place with buildings that cast long shadows, where the lake roared like the ocean, and the winter wind whipped fiercely. My parents had to learn how to drive…in snow. They bought an entirely different wardrobe because they realized the clothes they brought with them from their tropical country would not do well here. They had to overcome language barriers, and racism, since their arrival came on the coattails of the Vietnam War.
Still, Chicago wasn’t all that isolated. A great many other Thai immigrants were coming to the city. They formed a community, built a temple, and began marrying and having children, and suddenly, the community began to grow. The Thai Buddhist Temple of Chicago was the key to my parents’ happiness. Even though they were far from their families, far from their native homes, only twenty minutes away were people who were in the same position, who missed and understood the same things. Chicago is one of only a handful of cities with a Thai temple and a large Thai community. That made it a bit easier.
Q: How would you say being a Buddhist affected the way you saw the world you grew up in? How do you think America felt about Buddhism when you were growing up?
Buddhism played such a large role in my life that I really didn’t notice it. I know that sounds strange, but growing up in a Buddhist family, I was saturated in religion. Our language, our threats were Buddhist. My mother told me if I lied, I would be reincarnated as an ant with a tiny mouth. A statue of Buddha was in almost every room. A Buddha pendant hung around my neck. I attended Sunday school at temple every Sunday, where monks taught Buddhism, or as I like to call it, Suffering 101. I knew Buddhist prayers as soon as I could talk. Buddhism was folded into our family culture.
My classmates in elementary school didn’t know what to make of the weird Buddhist boy in class. To them, Buddha was the fat bald guy they saw in Chinese restaurants. I always had to inform them that my Buddha worked out; he was in good shape and wore a pointy hat. I must admit, however, I was jealous of them because of God. Because most of them were Christian, and because most of my younger years I tried so hard to fit in, I wanted what they had. In one of the chapters of the book, I describe Jesus as a Mattel toy everybody had but me.
Q: What does your mother think about the book?
She thinks I make her too funny. Other than that, she says the right things: she’s proud of me and yada, yada, yada. She ordered 10 copies already and promises to give them to her sisters and brothers, who don’t read English.
Seriously, it’s hard to tell what she thinks. She’s quick to communicate about some things, but complex emotions aren’t included in that. In fact, I’m working on another book that tries to examine where some of that reticence comes from: is it Thai? Buddhist? Her family’s culture? Or just one of the ways she survived so long in a country she never quite trusted?