Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy by Ira Sukrungruang. University of Missouri Press, 169 pages
People have two desires that, however fervent, are contradictory. They want to stand out, and they want to fit in. I think memoirs of overt dual identity appeal because they crystallize this universal dilemma.
Growing up in the 1980s in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, Ira Sukrungruang was not only Asian but obese. He had that Hebrew first name—his parents had picked it out of a book of “American names”—and an unpronounceable surname. He wore thick glasses, an unfashionable crew cut, and lugged stinky Thai food to Harnew Elementary in his Muppets lunchbox. He dressed like his father, in brown slacks and pink button-down shirts. Little Ira, the Thai nerd, couldn’t help but attract attention from classmates Bob and Danny, Tanya and Tiffany, though not as the superhero celebrity he daydreamed about.
His family pronounced Ira “Ila” and eschewed linking verbs: “We Thai.” They confused words like civic and cervix. At least he could improve his own English by parroting zingers from TV sitcoms: “What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”
Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy tells the story of this American kid who, inside his home, was strictly Thai. His parents and their close Thai friend, Aunty Sue, really a second mother, spoke only Thai to him. They taught him their nation’s customs and the tenets of Buddhism. Much of the humor and poignancy of the memoir flow from this passionately Thai triumvirate trying to raise a good Thai boy under the onslaught of American culture. They’re endlessly puzzled by America’s “god people”—their encounter with a pushy Christian evangelist is both funny and discomfiting to read. They quietly consider Thais superior, and yearn for their native land, 8,000 miles away, where every day isn’t a confusing struggle.
Of course Sukrungruang (pronounced SUKE-RUNG-RUNG) was American-born and desperately desirous of being American—with problems as simple as American names. His gym teacher sang a Beach Boys tune to his last name. And while his mother tried to teach him to fear America, this boy’s life outside the home was utterly American. Here’s part of a scene:
One evening, I decided I wanted to become something that I could never be, not in a million and a half years. I pondered this predicament at the kitchen table, twirling a noodle around in my bowl with chopsticks. In our house, laundry was my mother’s business, like cooking was my aunt’s. Aunty Sue prepared a bowl of noodles for my mother, who was upstairs putting away clothes. She ladled some broth over the noodles and sprinkled scallions on top. She then placed the steaming bowl on the kitchen table and sat across from me, staring.
“What’s the matter?” she said in Thai.
I twirled the noodle round and round.
My aunt told me there should be no secrets between us. I could trust her with anything. I did trust my aunt, my second mother, more than anyone in the world.
I told my aunt I wanted to be white. I wanted to be a farang.
The bowl had gotten cold. My mother’s footsteps creaked upstairs. I didn’t want her to know this secret desire.
“Like Larry Bird?” Aunty Sue smiled.
As Sukrungruang struggles to fulfill family and cultural expectations, he makes two close friends in Southside Chicago and later a Thai boy he meets at the Buddhist temple. In vivid scenes, the boys experience bullies, comic book heroes and villains, wild sleepovers, Sunday school, and inevitably the mysterious allure of girls. The story darkens as Sukrungruang’s parents’ marriage unravels, underscoring their plight as a family “lost and alone in a foreign land.” At last, in pain, and angry at his odd, golf-obsessed, unfaithful, beloved father, Ira acts out—the family’s living room furniture and their drywall pay the price—but, as always, his mother and Aunty Sue are there to comfort and console him.
A yellow legal sheet, his mother’s handwritten eight rules for being Thai, would hang on the refrigerator for twenty years with Ira’s signature at the bottom. The last rule: “Remember, you are Thai.” When he was little, playing with his father one day on the bed, his mother had chastised him for breaking Rule 3—never touch an adult’s head—and Rule 6: Always speak Thai in the house.
Rule 6 was the hardest not to break. English was everywhere. It even began infecting my dreams—frogs croaking: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Ribbbittt!”
“I like talking that way,” I said. “I’m good at it. I hate speaking Thai.
My mother’s lips thinned. She punished in two ways: an intense verbal barrage or silence.
My father slid toward the back of the bed. He, too, feared her anger.
“You hate speaking the language of your ancestors?” my mother said, her voice even and curt. “Then you hate me.” She turned away, her eyes aimed at the dresser.
My father made his eyes bulge. He nodded toward my mother, a gesture that told me to apologize, to lay my hands on her lap and bow my head.
I couldn’t stand her silence. It made my chest hurt and my fingers feel numb. I inched toward her.
The story, moving from his enrollment in first grade to his entering high school, flashes forward to mention his exodus for Southern Illinois University. Sukrungruang’s blog, The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, mentions that he later earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Ohio State. Today, at thirty-four, he’s an English professor at the University of South Florida and has co-edited two anthologies, What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. On his website he has published three cut chapters of Talk Thai, including an alternate ending that takes his mother and Aunty Sue to the brink of their return to Thailand.
Talk Thai is disarmingly deft in execution, a nice blend of scenes and exposition. And this coming-of-age story is concise—always impressive to long-winded me. I also find the book is very teachable, and right now my freshmen in a class on “memoirs of childhood and dangerous youth” are enjoying it. They identify with Ira Sukrungruang, feeling new and different themselves, and appear charmed by the humorous spirit that hovers over this gentle, generous memoir.