On one side of the door, the rich smell of sweet, spicy food and the calm of Buddhist devotion; on the other, the strangeness of a new land.
When Ira Sukrungruang was born to Thai parents newly arrived in the U.S., they picked his Jewish moniker out of a book of “American” names. In this lively, entertaining, and often hilarious memoir, he 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.” They ate Thai food, spoke the Thai language, and observed Thai customs. His bedtime stories were tales of Buddha and monkey-faced demons. On the first day of school his mother reminded him that he had a Siamese warrior’s eyes—despite his thick glasses—as Aunty Sue packed his Muppets lunch box with fried rice. But when his schoolmates played tag he was always It, and as he grew, he faced the constant challenge of reconciling American life with a cardinal family rule: “Remember, you are Thai.”
Inside the Thai Buddhist temple of Chicago, another “simulated Thailand,” are more rules, rules different from those of the Southside streets, and we see mainstream Western religion—“god people”—through the Sukrungruang family’s eyes. Within the family circle, we meet a mother who started packing for her return to Thailand the moment she arrived; her best friend, Aunty Sue, Ira’s second mother, who lives with and cooks for the family; and a wayward father whose dreams never quite pan out.
Talk Thai is a richly told account that takes us into an immigrant’s world. Here is a story imbued with Thai spices and the sensibilities of an American upbringing, a story in which Ira practices English by reciting lines from TV sitcoms and struggles with the feeling of not belonging in either of his two worlds. For readers who delight in the writings of Amy Tan, Gish Jen, and other Asian-Americans, Talk Thai provides generous portions of a still-mysterious culture while telling the story of an American boyhood with humor, playfulness, and uncompromising honesty.