Final piece written for Literary Journalism 101BW, my final class and paper of undergrad, June 2015
One of my proudest moments in childhood was this one time a monk rewarded me for my outstanding behavior at the Wat Thai. Every Saturday morning, along with around a hundred other kids, I would take off my shoes before we went into the temple to meditate. The temple was a massive, beautiful and colorful palace. The outside of the temple had curved, bright red, blue, and gold-painted roofs; two ten feet statues of stone Yakshas, or guardians, rested at the outside of the temple, equally elegant and glittering. We scattered a huge array of miniature Sketchers, sandals, light-up shoes, and Converse along the maroon, carpeted stairs leading to the entrance. Inside, we packed the ornate Buddhist temple like sardines. We looked kind of silly and out of place here when we first entered. We wore traditional school uniforms: navy skirts, white button-up shirts, and black close-toed shoes. Inside the cream-colored walls of the temple sat a large statue of Siddartha Guatama. Colorful money trees, gold statues, other Buddha statues, and mounds of incense surrounded him. Our teachers trained us to neatly place ourselves in uniform, tightly-packed lines, all the while sitting cross legged in our uniforms: We were quiet and ready to pray to Buddha and thank him for what we had in our lives…
Or at least I thought that’s what we were saying. We prayed in Thai.
I didn’t, and to this day, still do not speak any Thai. I’m not even Buddhist. I’m Catholic and mixed-race. When we went to temple, the most I could do was behave the best I could. I took off my shoes every Saturday morning like everyone else and placed them carefully on the stairs. I sat quietly on the carpet cross-legged in the same way I did on the reading room carpet at school when our teacher read Harry Potter to us. As we prayed and meditated, I mouthed the words “watermelon watermelon watermelon” silently to myself. I had heard somewhere that if you mouth that during karaoke, it would look like you were singing the right words to the song…it could probably work for meditation, right?
The next month, I gradually learned to mimic what everyone was saying, not that I actually understood half of what was coming out of my mouth. All I knew was to say these prayers with passion, respect, and with a really loud humming sound at the back of your throat. Just think, “ommmmm” in yoga, but with 30+ more syllables attached at the end.
I got really good at this, almost to the point where, if you saw me sitting in my little row at the Buddhist temple, you would think I actually believed in what I was saying – when in fact I had no idea what I was saying. I did this so well that one day, toward the end of prayer and announcements, I heard my name called by the monk leading the session. I figured I was either about to be punished my bullshit or I would soon be claiming my “prize.” Fortunately, it was the latter. Every week, all of us were motivated to behave so angel-like because the most well-behaved student would get some sort of cheesy kid-tastic prize, i.e. a Barbie doll, a Lego set, board games, etc. That week, my hard work paid off. As my name was called, my teacher ushered me to the front of the temple in front of the entire Wat Thai student population. However, it’s disrespectful in the temple to walk on your feet there so I kind of skated on my knees through rows of pissed off, less well-behaved kids to get to the monk. I knelt below him and made a “wai,” pressing my hands together as he muttered a prayer above my head. He then graced me with a large, doe-eyed, blonde porcelain doll that was more than half the size of my 4-foot frame. I find it ironic that the doll I received was a blonde, white American one, but I’m pretty sure the teachers didn’t think that one out thoroughly. Regardless, I was ecstatic. As eerie-looking as this doll was, it was a small sign of approval and acceptance, two concepts that I thought I would never receive from anyone at Wat Thai.
Nestled in God-knows-where in the San Fernando Valley, the temple is the center of Buddhist life for people of Thai extraction who live in the region. It hosts meditation sessions, annual festivals honoring Thai holidays, and art and dance classes. Additionally, the monks offer Thai language classes for elementary and middle school-aged children. When I was 10-years-old, my mother, who was born in Thailand, signed my brother and me up for classes. At first, I was eager to join. After previous trips to Thailand with my family, I’d felt incredibly left out. When we were growing up in Glendale, California, my mom didn’t feel the need to teach my brother and me Thai. Glendale is filled with Armenians, Caucasians, and Koreans. There wasn’t really a huge benefit to speaking Thai here aside from the trips we took to Thailand every couple years. However, I wanted to fully integrate with both of my parents’ backgrounds. I willingly gave up my Saturday morning play dates to hopefully become a part of a community that I wanted so badly to include me.
I’m seven-years-old and sitting on the cold granite floors inside my grandparents’ house. It’s in a small neighborhood just outside of Bangkok, and I can’t recall the exact name of it because the town, like many other towns and many Thai last names, is thirteen letters too long. There’s no air conditioning in here, and all I can do is lie on the floor and press my cheek to the granite for relief. My eyes are closed and I try to fight the 14-hour time difference. I can hear mosquitos furiously buzzing to escape the humidity and blazing sun outside.
While I lie down, I feel a pair of feet knock into the back of my legs. My cousins are playing a Thai children’s game and counting as they try to hop over me. “Neung, song, sam, see, HA!” they shout then giggle as they energetically run about the dark two-story house. I want to join them. I want to feel included in this family despite the fact that I can barely speak two sentences to them at a time. Although everyone smiles at me, I know they can’t talk to me. They don’t speak English, and the most they can do to make up for that discrepancy is nod and smile at me to replace the silence, something I’ve become used to in the last couple times I’ve gone to Thailand with my family.
They are from my mother’s side of the family, and we used to make it a point every couple years or so to go to Thailand to visit them. I used to love and hate these trips at the same time. Although we spent a lot of days like this, cooped inside the house hiding from the heat, we also got to see a lot of the city. We’d take regular visits to Mah-Boon Krong in the heart of Bangkok, a massive six-story shopping plaza and spend hours walking up and down the escalators to find the best deal.
I also remember escaping the city some days to go to Hua Hin and Pattaya. We’d go to these grand temples during the day to see statues of the Buddha that were the size of high-rise buildings. Beachside, we’d then walk over to the shores of the Gulf of Thailand to dip our toes into the warm, salty swishing waters. If there’s one clear memory I’ll always have, it’ll be seeing my toes clearly through the ocean and the bliss of this warm water in comparison to the Pacific Ocean. I didn’t want to leave.
The part that I hated about these trips, however, was having to rely on my mother to get around in Thailand. I had to ask her to help me find the bathroom, order food, tell my grandparents something about school, and more. I hated sitting in the tuk-tuks clueless while my mother had lively conversations with the driver. My mother always saw my frustration during these times and never wanted to acknowledge it. She seemed to see these moments as a temporary frustration until our trips were over, which angered me even more after leaving but I wanted to know what they were talking about, and I wanted to be able to talk to them too.
I am 22-years-old and mixed race. My mother grew up in a small rural town outside of Bangkok, Thailand. My father lived the first half of his life in Youngstown, Ohio. When my father finally did decide to try living elsewhere, he moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. After leaving a bad boyfriend, my mother rebelled and ended up in Florida as well. She had a few family members who were living there at the time who were ready to support her big move. Despite growing up in completely opposite ends of the world, my parents were set up by some mutual friends and started to date.
Although I identified with Filipinos and their culture in Glendale, I felt guilty for not adopting any Thai customs beyond eating panang curry in Thai Town once a month, a taste I did not even develop a liking for till later in high school. To this day I still try to make up for not speaking Thai by doing other “Thai things.” I joined Thai club in college and participated in culture nights. I cook Thai at least once a week because food is so important and iconic to the culture. I even got my first tattoo this year in tribute to my Thai heritage. A mildly painful but worthy experience, my left inner bicep is now labeled with “family” in Thai letters, but in the colors of the German flag to represent my father’s background. Ironically enough, I showed my mother this tattoo on Mother’s Day; she seemed to approve that I at least spelled it right, but I think she found more amusement rather than sentiment out of it. I mean in the end it’s a tattoo, so I guess I can’t expect that much more of a reaction from a mother. And as a mother she still loves and supports me, but I feel awful for giving up on Wat Thai eleven years ago.
After two years of being at Wat Thai, every Saturday was the same clueless struggle for my brother Jonathan and me. At around 9 A.M., my mother braved the 45-minute drive to the Valley completely on side roads because she was terrified of freeways. We would then hesitantly walk to catch up with the rest of the students that were forming lines with their classes in front of the Thai flag. There, we sang the Thai national anthem together in unison, another “prayer” that I remember word for word to this day but have no clue what I’m actually singing about. Shortly afterwards, we walked to the temple to meditate then went straight to snack break.
Snack break: What a simple concept it should have been. Instead, it was probably a clear sign that I didn’t fit in at Wat Thai. While everyone got money from their parents to buy cool candies and snacks from vendors at the temple, I munched on pretzels and peanut butter that my mom packed for me. It was the classic case of “kid bringing foreign food into the lunchroom” but in reverse. I was the one bringing uncool American food into the Thai temple. More importantly, snack breaks were a sign that I just didn’t have any real friends I could talk to. Speaking in Thai definitely extended beyond class time, and I struggled to find a group of students who either spoken English outside or would be comfortable with me sitting with them quietly as they snacked and talked about children’s problems in Thai.
When we walked into class to begin lessons for the day, the situation only grew worse from there. Thai classes were taught in Thai. It was as if I was in any other elementary school classroom in Thailand, and it was incredibly hard to keep up. I was also a 10-year-old in a class full of 5 to 6-year-olds. I felt embarrassed for being so much older than everyone else yet still more clueless than my peers during lessons. We learned the alphabet, grammar rules, and sentence structure. All the letters looked like shapes to me, and all the rules we recited in class I simply memorized in the same fashion I remembered Buddhist prayers and meditation: know how to say it but not what it actually means. As we wrote sentences in our workbooks: know how to spell it but not what you’re actually writing.
I wanted so badly to be in the class with the “falangs,” or the white adults in the neighboring room who were learning conversational Thai in English, but I was too young for this.
Lunch break was the same as snack break for me, but only longer and worse and by the second round of class, I found myself sitting further and further in the back of the classroom, exhausted and trying to hide from my teacher. After two years of repeating this struggle, a day came when I reached my breaking point…
First, my teacher called on me in class to read aloud from the rule book. “Mai, dee, ka put tha tsai na,” or at least that’s what that day’s set of grammar rules sounded like to me. I could feel myself growing more and more frustrated. In the months that I’d been at Wat Thai, I know my place in the back of the classroom.
Then, after we finish reciting the rules, we open our workbooks to begin writing sentences. Instead, I find myself doodling over the instructions. Again, I feel myself growing more sad and frustrated. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing after a good six months in this class, but I feel like I’m at the same point where I started two years earlier.
After spending time working in our notebooks, we are then called on to say out loud what we have written. As it comes to my turn, I realize I have nothing. At the brink of admitting this to the class, I instead break into tears.
Everyone in the class is staring at me, speechless. They don’t understand how embarrassing it is to be placed in a class with a bunch of people who are supposedly at the same mental level as you even though you’re perfectly competent with other kids your age outside of Wat Thai. They also don’t understand how difficult it is to keep up in class when you’re only speaking Thai once a week. You’re basically starting from scratch with little direction every time you come here. They also don’t know simply how frustrating it is to not understand something even though you want to – trying so hard yet in the end failing because it is out of your reach.
When my mother picked my brother and me up from class that day, she saw my eyes were red from crying. Even though she knew we had been experiencing difficulties learning Thai, she had persisted until now, thinking that perhaps after the second year, Thai would come naturally to us. After seeing the look of complete disappointment on my face that day, however, she decided to end the torture. We stopped going to Saturday Thai school, and instead visited the temple only on Thai holidays or when we had cravings for mango with sticky rice and sweet coconut milk. Even those days eventually declined and stopped after a year or so.
Although my mother helped us with our workbooks during the week, she didn’t speak much Thai to us in between our classes. When I asked her why that was recently, she simply shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know. I thought Wat Thai was already doing enough.” I couldn’t argue with her. After a huge fight we had the summer of my junior year of college, she tries so hard to be nurturing and supportive of my brother and me no matter what we do, and those are valuable traits that are hard to find in other Asian “tiger” moms.
Throughout middle school and most of high school, I simply did not get along with my mom. Her style of parenting was “Do this because I’m your mother and you should do it.” If I ever talked back to her or tried to argue with her, I was always the one at fault. I can’t recall how many times she played the silent treatment on me when we got into arguments. If I needed a ride from my friends’ houses and my mother was the only one who could give me a ride, she wouldn’t do it till I begged, and when she did, it was a nauseatingly silent drive back home. When I’d use our home desktop she’d yell at me for typing too loudly while she was watching TV, we’d throw insults, and somehow, I found myself apologizing for disrespecting her and typing. It was definitely the disrespect that she expected apologies for, but that’s what our relationship was: a constant check of respect and honor for her no matter how ridiculous some of our fights may have been. This gradually settled as I finished high school, but one summer night before my junior year of college, she began throwing insults at me for God knows what, telling me to get the hell out of the house. I was furious with her for treating me this way after all I was doing at UCI to impress her and prove to her I was better than my younger brother, who was still dealing with drug problems at the time. I did leave for a night, and when I didn’t come back, she freaked out. Crying hysterically on the phone, she called me the following morning while I was sleeping over at my best friend’s house. She apologized for insulting me and said that she loved me, something I had never heard my mother say. Since then, I confide in my mother a lot more than I had before, but I always feel this sense of guilt in the back of my head when she texts me saying, “I love you and am proud of you.” Sometimes I feel like I bullied her into changing who she was, but sometimes I feel like it has made our family a lot closer as a unit. We get along so much better and tell each other more, and my brother, too, is beginning to open up to her. As I see her change and my family mature, I feel like I can’t argue with her or complain to her for not teaching us Thai. For how close we are now as a family who speaks English, speaking Thai is simply something I want to keep in mind for the near future when I am ready to do it on my own, not when I feel pressured to by my peers or my mother, not that she ever will pressure me again.
Despite my hesitation to bring up the Thai language to her now, I certainly have asked before why my mother didn’t speak Thai to my brother and me growing up. This received another simple answer. “I don’t know! I did at first, but I just forgot about it eventually with your dad around.” I try to understand this. I don’t think it was because my mother was trying to become more Americanized. It was simply just happening on its own. My mother came to America already semi-fluent in English—she majored in languages at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. She worked her ass off to get her citizenship within the first five years of coming to America, and other than my uncle who died in 2002, she’s never had other Thai friends around her. My mother naturally became an American. Although her accent singles her out as a person of foreign origins, my mother is American. She reads the Los Angeles Times, cooks American food (much to my disappointment because I can’t brag to my friends that I get to eat home-cooked Thai food whenever I come home), and watches an unhealthy amount of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and CNN. Because she is so comfortably in America as an American, I choose not to challenge that. At this point in my life, I just hope that I can be proudly Thai but also proudly American for me and my self-identification.
Last week, I decided to revisit the temple to see if I would feel anymore a part of the community after my other more recent efforts to become more Thai. Going back, however, I feel even more out of place than I did when I used to attend regularly. This time, I don’t have Mom to escort me around immediately after leaving classes, trying to use her full Thai identity as a justification for my being there. Everything is smaller too. I remember the “campus” of Wat Thai being a place that I could walk around for hours. The food vendors were a massive supermarket, the temple a grand palace, and the classrooms similar to a university campus. This time around, it only takes me about fifteen minutes to look at everything. While I’m walking around the temple, I notice that there are no children around. They are currently inside the classrooms learning, and the only people sitting outside are other parents and monks, who all stare at me as I stroll by them. I’m clearly one of perhaps the three non-Thai people who are on the premises, and I can feel my cheeks redden as I avoid eye contact with anyone. I don’t look very Thai, but I know why I’m here. Still, I almost feel guilty for being here, like I have no right. In reality, I simply don’t feel “Thai enough” to be here.
I’m still amazed by the temple’s beauty. Despite how plain, even slightly dilapidated, the place has become, the temple itself is still very well taken care of. The maroon carpet from my childhood is still freshly vacuumed and I unzip my boots, carefully placing them at the foot of the stairs. After a few steps I’m inside the temple, and it feels ridiculously smaller than I last remembered. Perhaps not seeing a hundred children cross-legged on the floor alters my perception. Still, there is a comfortable stillness. Siddhartha is still just as golden and magnificent, sitting where he has always sat. The money trees are just as full as ever, and the incense is even more fragrant. Having disliked the smell when I was a kid, I find that it now heightens that sense of calm in the air; the billowing clouds from these sticks rise lazily and disappear into the ceilings of the temple.
As a child, I saw these parts of the Buddhist temple as routine. My mission was to go in there, prove myself, and leave with a prize. Now, the grandeur of the temple attracts me, and my respect and appreciation for Buddhism grows.
Leaving the temple, however, I wake up to reality. The food vendors are now hidden below the classroom building and I order Tom Yum soup and fried bananas from there, in English of course. The most I can mutter is “kahp khun kha,” thank you, and quickly take a seat before they can start speaking to me in Thai, only to realize I’m not fluent in the language. This is how it is for me at Thai restaurants, and here, it becomes another repetition of the same experience at those restaurants. I sit at one end of a set of picnic benches, trying to give myself the proper amount of personal space one creates in public settings. I also seat myself far enough so that people don’t have to ask me why I’m here. The Tom Yum soup is cheap and incredibly savory. The lemongrass creates this immediate zing in my mouth, and as I swallow the broth, the cilantro leaves a cool feeling in my throat. If there’s one thing about Thai culture I know well, it’s the food, and the food at Wat Thai is one of the most authentic Thai dining experiences you can have in L.A. As I sit and drink my soup though, the process is still the same.
I’m by myself.
I have my Thai food.
But where are my Thai friends?
When I walk up to the classrooms of Wat Thai, I can’t really do much without disrupting the classes. When I peer in, I see children in school uniforms, still sitting at their desks and possibly repeating the same grammatical rules that I myself learned and forgot so many years ago. They stare at me the same way the adults at Wat Thai stare at me when I’m walking through the campus. They’re confused, and I feel just as confused myself.
Although I’ve made many attempts to be Thai in different ways, I think I’ll always feel sorry about not speaking the language. I’ve realized that I can fix this, though. My recent visit to the temple made me think that maybe I just haven’t found the right place to do this yet. I know that I’m at a point in my life right now where I need to focus on other aspects of myself as an individual before I think of myself as a Thai. I still want to make my mother and my family proud, but in other ways. I’ve learned that I don’t have to do everything at once. I don’t have to find my career right now. I don’t have to move immediately upon graduation, and I don’t have to learn Thai right away. Although I will always have slight senses of guilt in the back of my mind for not finishing Wat Thai, I’ve told myself that one way or another, I will learn it at some point in my life on my own terms.
I also have a comforting thought in the back of my mind that has reassured me about this. I know that one day, my mother and I will be sitting at the dinner table. I won’t be fluent but I will know enough Thai to ask her how her day was, what the weather looks like for the week, and that I love her for raising me and accepting the person I’ve become. I think she’ll be a little startled at first, but I feel that she’ll be even more excited to finally have a close friend in America who’s Thai, but also American like her, too.