Ira Sukrungruang’s memoir Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy is a work firmly cemented in the in-between. This first-person account of Sukrungruang’s “adventures” as a Thai-American coming of age in the suburbs of Chicago offers ample opportunity for cultural comparison, a subject fully explored through the retrospective lens of a child version of the author.
Sukrungruang’s tales of growing up in an unfamiliar world is a subject with which his readers remain quite familiar. His “outsider peering in” perspective establishes itself within a long tradition of authors: Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, among others. Yet what separates Sukrungruang is his willingness to risk sentimentality with every sentence, to hover endlessly on the verge of childhood cliché while rarely falling into its trappings.
Perhaps this is most evident in his opening essay, “The White Elephant,” in which we witness a first-grade Sukrungruang attempting to differentiate between school customs and home customs, eventually concluding that he has no choice but to live a double life: “With white people I do this. With Thais that.” From an early age, Sukrungruang divides himself into sections, a choice that continues to haunt him throughout childhood. “Under the Hand of Buddha” further explores these divisions, though this time in religious terms. The young Buddhist’s attempt to understand Christianity results in a highly literal interpretation of crucifixion and communion, leading him to believe that Christ had “the worst life ever”—one in which the Son of God is continually murdered and consumed in the form of a cracker.
Sukrungruang’s struggle to embrace divergent cultures continues in “World of Adjusters,” in which the eleven-year-old attempts to trade his cowardice for bravery. After his Aunty Sue is accosted by a biker gang of fifth-graders, Sukrungruang instinctually runs for safety, only later questioning the morality of his action, asking, “Would Bruce Lee run away?” The essay tracks Sukrungruang’s misguided attempts at becoming a man (primarily through testicle scratching and penis adjustment), though he only fully comes to terms with his boyishness after a conversation shared with his father while on a trip to the hardware store. “Very hard to be man,” Sukrungruang’s father confirms. “Confusing. Not always good.” On the surface, the advice appears deceivingly simple, yet his words resonate once the reader becomes privy to Sukrungruang’s father’s affair with his son’s best friend’s mother. Sukrungruang’s concluding essay, “Bad Son,” reports on the aftermath of his father’s infidelity, how one day his father simply stopped being his father and began being the father of his best friend instead. “If divorce meant we were American,” a heartbroken Sukrungruang admits, “then we were American.”
Yet beneath the humor and coyness of this coming-of-age tale resides what may likely be Sukrungruang’s true intent—to offer the poignant exploration of a young boy living two lives within a single body. Sukrungruang’s work reads as a lighthearted eulogy in which he all but admits that maintaining the tenuous harmony between two cultures is possible only on a superficial level. This is expressed most clearly in Sukrungruang’s mother’s and Aunty Sue’s decision to leave America and return to Thailand in 2004. “Now, when my mother calls to check in,” Sukrunruang writes, “her voice rings with happiness. . . .”
This failure to successfully waver between cultures is apparent in an anecdote as well. In a particularly moving scene early in the memoir, Sukrungruang recounts a trip to Holland, Michigan, in which the young boy witnesses a living dog nuzzling his dead comrade. Sukrungruang describes the living dog as “frantic, jumpy, as if at any moment it expected the other dog to leap up and then they’d be off to wherever it was they were heading.” Yet as we expect, the dead dog does not get up, and the living dog is forced to trot along—much like Sukrungruang— leaving half of itself behind.
Sukrungruang’s experiences living in cultural limbo prove to be a powerful tale, and one that neatly aligns itself within the genre dedicated to the difficulties of the second-generation immigrant experience. Without question, Sukrungruang shares stories we wholly recognize, but he shares them uniquely—at half-height and through eyes that remain unfamiliar. Sukrungruang’s Thai-American childhood narrator offers fresh glimpses of the America we think we know, yet all the while he urges us to open our eyes a bit wider, to take a second look around.
About the Reviewer
B. J. Hollars is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, where he’s served as nonfiction editor and assistant fiction editor for Black Warrior Review. He is also the editor of You Must Be This Tall To Ride (Writer’s Digest Books, 2009) and has work published or forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Mid-American Review, Fugue, Faultline, The Southeast Review, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Puerto del Sol, Hobart, among others.