brain farts

So, Where From?

Posted on: January 25, 2005

I found this site through Mike’s a couple of weeks ago, and it really got me thinking. When I was a kid living in the States, I always thought I was Thai to the bone. After all, I went to Thai temple on Sundays, ate Thai food for dinner everyday, had a plethora of mysterious, still-to-be-met relatives living in Thailand, and spent many an hour trying to decipher my parents’ “secret tongue” – Thai – the language they’d use whenever they didn’t want me to understand whatever it was they were talking about over the top of my head.

So imagine my utter confusion when we first came to Thailand on vacation when I was 8, and I overheard my relatives and parents speaking – what – Chinese? “Since when do you speak Chinese?!” I would ask – demand – of them. “Since we were born,” my mom would say. “Your dad and I always spoke Chinese with Ah-mah and Ah-gong when we were growing up. We only spoke Thai at school. In fact, Ah-mah and Ah-gong is Chinese for grandmother and grandfather. I thought you knew that!”

Obviously not. This was all too much for my young baffled self to digest. Too confusing, really. So not only did I have to accustom myself to Thai language and customs, but suddenly I also had to learn about this long-lost, hidden culture, too?


“So what am I, like, one-sixteenth Chinese?” I would ask, thinking that I probably had some lone obscure Chinese ancestor somewhere up the family tree. “No,” my confused cousins would say, probably thinking I was the most culturally-ignorant Asian-American to ever walk the face of the earth. “You’re 100% Chinese.” Whaaat? So what the heck was I doing at Thai temple every Sunday? Why did we eat Rad-Na and Kao Pad Krapow instead of Egg rolls or Chow Mein for dinner? What the heck was the clan doing over here in Thailand instead of China, then?

I quickly learned that, like the hundreds of thousands of other Teochiu Chinese currently living here in Thailand, both my maternal and paternal grandparents immigrated here to Thailand from China during the early 1900’s to escape political and economic strife. Upon moving here, they easily adapted to the local culture, but still retained many of the customs and traditions of their motherland. Though my dad’s side of the family eventually abandoned their Chinese last name (Lee) for a more Thai-sounding (and muuuch lengthier, though still considerably much shorter compared to that of my fellow Thai counterparts, heh) one, they still made sure my dad knew everything about Chinese culture and taught him how to speak, read and write both Teochiu and Mandarin (though he’s since forgotten how to speak, read or write Mandarin, and can only speak Teochiu now). Similarly, my mom’s first language was Teochiu, and she only learned Thai when she began going to school at the age of 5. In fact, my mom would sometimes serve as a “translator” for my grandparents, who, while fluent in Thai, couldn’t properly pronounce many Thai words (my grandmother would always pronounce the Thai word for license – ta-bian – as “sa-mian” :P).

While the Teochiu language has pretty much been lost with my and my cousins’ generation (only two of them can speak it fluently, and the rest of us are lucky if we can just get by with a simple rudimentary monosyllabic conversation), we know the culture and traditions by heart. One of the biggest family events of the year is Cheng Meng, the ancient Teochiu tradition when we all meet up to pay respect to our ancestors who have since passed away. (And I swear it isn’t as twisted or morbid as it sounds; us meeting up and having family reunions/parties at our dead ancestors’ graves, wearing party hats as we lay out roasted duck and sweet fruits for them.) So though my cousins and I may not be the greatest Teochiu conversationalists in the world, we’re definitely very aware of our heritage. We have our parents and relatives to thank for that; for seamlessly integrating both Thai and Chinese culture into our lives. In return, we’ll make sure these two cultures aren’t lost with our generation. Regardless of one’s nationality, we owe it to our ancestors to keep the culture and traditions alive and flourishing for many more generations to come.

Over my teenage years, I gradually changed from being a culturally-confused person to being someone much more culturally aware of who I am as a person. Does that make sense? Today, my idea of culture and traditions is a colorful mish-mash of Thai and Chinese. My thoughts and opinions are still very much Western-influenced, but I also understand and highly respect the thought and logic of Asian ideas. For example, Western folk (and my younger more angsty teenage self) might scoff at the seriously solemn conversations my aunties have over Chinese horoscopes and fortune-telling, but I can honestly tell you that there have been more than one occasion where their so-called predictions have come true. ;)

As I was growing up, one of the questions I always dreaded answering was, “Where are you from?” This always made me twiddle my thumbs as I’d rack my brain for an answer, trying to weigh out the question as carefully as I could. If I said I was Thai, then would that be like thumbing my nose at my long, far-reaching Chinese heritage? But then again, if I said I was Chinese, how could I blatantly deny the palpable cultural Thainess that flowed through my veins? I may be 100% ethnically Chinese, but I’m still very much culturally Thai. And even if I could settle with one answer (or sometimes both, even – “I’m Thai-Chinese.”), this would always spawn another question: “But how come you can speak English?” Once I’d explain that I was born in the States, this would further confuse people and they’d inquire with furrowed brows, “So you’re American, too?”, upon which I would say, “Oh yeah, that, too.”

But now, I consider myself more of a global citizen. I guess I can attribute this to having spent my formative years being educated at an international school. With a school full of kids hailing from all corners of the world, it was almost impossible to not find someone who’d never lived in a particular country before (yes, even the Czech Republic and Mauritius, of which I never even knew existed until I met Jenny Yu King Hing). It was fun hearing other kids tell me about their childhood days spent in Egypt, followed later by a few years in France, and later Hungary. Everyone had a different and unique background, and looking back now, I realize that it was a great eye-opening experience for me to learn about all these different cultures at such a young age.

At the end of the day, each and every culture of the world is equally special and beautiful in its own way. Be proud of yours, but also respect and cherish those of the rest of the world. At the risk of sounding like that sappy Heal the World song by Michael Jackson, if we could all do that, the world would be a much happier place, don’t you think?

~*~

A few weeks ago Gug and I met up with Paddy, Kirk and Peter for dinner at Cabbages and Condoms. At the end of dinner, I had a sudden realization that I’m pretty much a certified Xangan Whore. I mean, you can tell things are getting pretty pathetic when you refer to everyone by their Xangan user names. Sheesh.

LYNN: Your sister’s Fone, right? Foneeey?
KIRK: Yeah.
LYNN: She’s hilarious! Her blog entries always crack me up.

Later, after ordering some fried fish with lemon grass essence, Gug started talking about lemon grass aromatherapy oils.
KIRK: My girlfriend and I just bought some lemon grass aromatherapy oils from Suan Lum Night Bazaar a couple of days ago.
LYNN: Moo Noi Jai Dee?

During dinner, we started talking about the various Thai communities in Chicago, the East Coast, and of course, the very large one out in California.
LYNN: The Thai community over in Chicago seems so much more close-knit than the one out in California.
KIRK: Yeah, I think it’s because they’re more spread out in California. Do you know Lisa and Peter Mani?
LYNN: Oh, you mean Hybrid_Girl?

Talk about sad. Someone really needs to spend less time on Xanga.

Anyways, I finally upheld my promise to Paddy! After last year’s Cabbages & Condoms fiasco, we finally got a chance to eat there, exactly one year later. Food was awesome, though it was kinda weird how there were more farangs there than Thais, heh. Anyways, though we were mighty tempted, we did not take the condoms that were laid out at the front of the restaurant after dinner (and if you’re wondering what the heck condoms are doing laid out at the front of the restaurant, please read this). For those of you who have been to C&C in the past, though, could you please explain to me why the condoms are separated into “Democratic Free” and “Republican Free” piles? Gug and I were completely stumped, and even after much speculation, just couldn’t figure that one out.

Paddy, Peter, Kirk, Gug, meSigh, I’m sure y’all are already very well acquainted with my Crap Camera.Then again, perhaps the blurriness could be attributed to the woman with the Parkinsonian tremors who took the pic for us.

Currently Playing: Ode to My Family By The Cranberries

1 Response to "So, Where From?"

hey, lynn, your blog is such a discovery. i hv been immersed into the thai culture for years, still cannot really undertsand it well. your site gives some instant insights into it , and the bangkok scene too. i hv linked you into my site, hope u dont mind!!

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