Author: Ira Sukrungruang
Edition/Pages: University of Missouri Press, 2010/169 pages
Short & Sweet Synopsis: The son of Thai immigrants must learn to reconcile his Thai upbringing with the American world he has to live in.
So, the Adventures of Buddhist Boy…in the spirits of full-disclosure, this wasn’t exactly a “voluntary” read. It was for a class that I’m currently taking. And while I certainly would never complain about getting to kill two birds with one stone by reading and doing assigned homework at the same time, it has been known to affect my judgement of the book.
Now that the disclaimer has been written, on to the review.
A Multicultural Memoir
Talk Thai details the sometimes frustrating, sometimes difficult, but always funny (as he tells it) childhood of Ira Sukrungruang, the son of Thai immigrants who are living in Chicago. His childhood is filled with dichotomy: his mother requires him to be a good Thai boy, but in the suburban American world that is the only one he’s ever known, Ira just wants to fit in. Which to his mind is, to be white. And to have a normal name, not a Jewish one that his parents picked out of an American naming book and cannot even pronounce properly (in their Thai accents, it comes out as “Ila”).
I wanted to be Ricky from Silver Spoons, a sitcom about a boy who comes to live with his enormously wealthy father. Ricky was blond, with deep dimples, and lived in a mansion…Ricky didn’t have to speak Thai, didn’t have to sing the Thai National Anthem every morning or have to go to temple for Sunday School. He was a white kid who faced white problems, which were, to me, simple, which resolved themselves in half an hour. Ricky was Perfect White.
Seemingly unaware or uncaring of her son’s plight, Ira’s mother creates a list of eight rules which he must always follow to be a good Thai.
Although he starts out as extremely proud of his heritage, feeling like his faith in Buddha makes him strong enough to be a superhero (A.K.A. Buddhist Boy), Ira starts feeling stifled and embarrassed by his heritage when he begins elementary school. His mother’s eight rules for being a good Thai began to feel irrelevant and confining in his American world. They were:
① Take off your shoes before you enter this Thai house. Put your shoes away neatly so I don’t trip and kill myself.
② A Thai son should show the proper respect to his parents. Put your hands together. Bow your head. Say, sawas dee krub.
③ Never touch an elder’s head no matter how soft you think it is. The head is sacred.
④ Pray to Buddha every night. Ask for money. Ask for success. Ask to be reincarnated with the same family.
⑤ Don’t point your feet at Buddha.
⑥ Always speak Thai in the house.
⑦ Wake up at six like a good Thai boy.
⑧ Remember, you are Thai.
And they remained in their place on the refrigerator door until Ira graduated from college. The book takes us from his earliest memories through the beginning of these college years, and through Ira’s eyes we get to know his friends, his enemies, his teachers, and most importantly, his family.
This book is a fascinating insight into immigrant culture. It makes the reader think about what it would be like to grow up in two different worlds, and try to appease the customs of both. And it has a fair bit of humor in it, which never hurts. Although it was a quick read, and not the greatest book I’ve read lately by a long shot, it is still definitely worth picking up if you have a few spare minutes to read an entertaining chronicle of a young superhero named Buddhist Boy.
Another review you might want to check out:
From Narrative: 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.