When I met my half-brothers there was no traditional wai, no bowing and folding, even though their mother introduced them to me in Thai. The little one, Daniel, stuck out his hand like a flag. I didn’t know it then, but this was an indication of where his allegiances lay. My father introduced them to me and my sister twelve years late. I was flying back to Middlebury College from Bangkok the next morning, so that night we were introduced, we ate spaghetti at home and we learnt about the missing dozen years. Italian food is Daniel’s favourite. At the table we spoke English. As I listened to their interests and hobbies, to their stories about the trip to Italy with my father, I thought two thoughts.
The first thought was how easy it is to hide something by closing your eyes; the second how easy it is to hide something by not speaking about it. How, for example, I could have closed my eyes and, by listening, hidden the empty space at the table where my stepmother sat, unable to join the conversation because she only speaks Thai. I could also, just listening to the English, forget that my brothers are also half-Thai, luk kreung like my sister and I. And how, by not talking about it, I could pretend that I had known the two boys those twelve years that they had been kept a secret, when they had been two boys pretending not to exist.
It became understood that dinner would be the time when we learnt most about one another. Coming home months later, for the winter holidays, I find that with each meal I know a little more, I can pretend a little less. Daniel, I now know, is an anglophile, you can see it in the way he eats. In Thai Do you know how to eat this? is how you would ask if someone likes a type of food. That how requires an understanding deeper than preference, it must be learnt. My brother does not know how to eat Thai food. This is because he is, in the Southeast-Asian, formerly-colonised sense, an anglophile. Our American father encourages this. Daniel wrinkles his nose at Thai food. His is an inclination more common among the generation of luk kreung, half-children: we are only half-committed to our Thai heritage, born with foreign tastes. Thai people are nak kin, for which there is no English equivalent in language or, I believe, in essence. Nak is to do something professionally, as a vocation, and kin is to eat. To turn away from Thai food is to forget how to eat, and how to be Thai. At ten, my brother has managed this.
Actually, he is not the only one. Growing up in Bangkok I ate spaghetti with meatballs and dreamt of white Christmases, of American suburbs and cartoons in English. I can trace my childhood through food. Green curry takes me back to when I was six, because I refused to eat it. At seven I loved beef ravioli. With cheese I remember when my dad used to ask me what my favourite food was, knowing well that it would be pasta al quattro formaggi! Enjoying my first tom yam: ten. At twelve I learnt to eat spicy food, and considered myself an adult. A year later I was eating Thai food regularly. By the time I was sixteen I had developed lactose intolerance and I never ate cheese again. Sometimes, on my birthdays for example, I can condense my entire childhood into a meal.
There are times, however, when the inclination becomes larger than a diet. When my stepmother tells Daniel to finish his food and he points at her and yells, No! No Thai at the table! it is a prejudice. The same prejudice loiters by his ear when he sleeps, in his chest on especially cold days. It manipulates the way he sees Thai people, even his mother. He is carrying on in the long tradition of anglophiles, borrowing sentiments that were cultivated in a colonial age.
Although long independent, the Southeast Asian countries have continued in the tradition of venerating the British. Not publicly, the official word reflects the backlash against colonisation, touts the British wrongdoings and the need to reclaim lost traditions. But in their heads (because it is a matter of the head and not the heart, of learning rather than knowing) and at the dinner table the people keep the adopted traditions alive. They smile at archaic practices and pat each other on the back as members of a new generation. They eat toast with jam and clotted cream. They dream first-world dreams, in English. The British have fooled them, turned the local peoples into fools of the most terrible kind, the fools that fool themselves. And the Thai fool is the most foolish of them all, having inherited the self-abasing culture without actually having been colonised. More impressive than the British legal system or the railways left behind, the true feat of the empire was to conjure up an entire culture that overstepped borders and outlasted the colonies. That culture which settles down at the dinner table as steak and potatoes, as Christmas pudding.
Of course, nowadays the fascination is more often with Americans. But the Americans are just filling the spaces that the British left behind. When I think of anglophiles, I do not necessarily mean people that admire the British, but those who admire white people in general, the British were simply the originals. And while it is easy to blame colonisation, globalisation, or tourism even, the true culprits, the most ardent turncoats, are the Thai people. Those people who decided that celebrities should be luk kreung for their fairer skin and lighter hair. The people who feed the industry of whitening creams and cosmetics, who dye their hair a shade lighter. The biggest betrayal, still, is that of the luk kreung who turn on their own mothers. Who, worse than trying to become something that they are not, choose to ignore something that they are.
Daniel is already beginning this. By reprimanding his mother when she speaks to him in Thai, by deliberately choosing to communicate in a language that his mother does not speak, he is constructing the distance. Seeing him do this makes me think of my relationship with my own mother and of why I stopped speaking to her in Thai.
I didn’t stop speaking Thai with my mother abruptly, it took several years. It was the slow unwinding of a clock. I was fourteen when I stopped initiating conversations with her in Thai. Neither of us noticed. At that point she was working abroad in the U.K. and was seeing an Irish man. We spoke more often in English than in Thai for his benefit, to be inclusive. Somehow this inclusiveness became exclusive, and our Thai conversations dwindled. Then there was the time, over the phone, when she asked me in Thai how I was doing in school and I replied in English. We both noticed, I know we did, but we continued in English without pause. A little while later she had given up speaking to me in Thai entirely, knowing that I’d respond in English. Thai was only used sparingly, usually when either of us was upset. Maybe even this was a form of consideration for her partner, to spare him the intricacies of the family quarrels. Thai became the intimate language, used in ebullience or distress. This also meant that intimacy was cordoned off in its own corner. In English it became harder to express myself emotionally. English with its clipped sounds and careless drawl, with words as stiff and practical as concrete. It is my father’s language. There are things that I could not say to my mother in English. As Thai grew distant, so did my relationship with my mother.
Initially, I thought I stopped speaking Thai because English allowed me more room to speak. I mistakenly thought that English was in fact the intimate language that I used to express myself. English was my dominant language. I was schooled in English and after my parent’s divorce spoke it exclusively at home, with my father and sister. I was bringing the world down to my own turf, to my more solid footing in English. English was easy. I had already grown into a quiet person and I think my mother humoured my choice to wheedle out the few extra words that English afforded me. Thai, on the other hand, became a distant language, a language of uses. Thai was used to call my grandparents on Chinese New Year, to translate recipes for my maid, to speak with the taxi driver. Thai was useful for my sister in reprimanding me in front of American relatives, and for ordering lunch on the street. Thai was used to understand my mother’s outbursts. It was brought out for special occasions, like expensive china. While I used Thai, English was the language I felt expressive in.
At heart, however, English had becoming limiting rather than expressive. Only recently did I realise that English had allowed me not to consider the other reason I stopped speaking Thai. Luk krueng, like me, typically have a white father and a Thai mother. Usually the fathers are significantly older and the mothers of a poor background. The relationships smack of necessity. Fathers speak poor Thai and mothers broken English. I became aware of this at the same time that I stopped speaking Thai with my mother. I wanted to separate her from all those other women. At least I pretended I was doing it on her behalf. Having been to university in the U.S., my mother’s English is faultless. I wanted to escape broken English and those relationships I associate with it. Somewhere, English became a sign of quality. Thai was cheap. Cheap is what I thought of those Thai women and their farang husbands. I thought: My mother is not one of those women. English became the distance I needed between her and the others.
In Thailand, we all know about those Thai women, the ones who seep into the city like rainwater, who flood into particular neighbourhoods. We have all been through those places and know what they look like. We know that in the daytime the soi is lined with noodle stalls and fruit vendors. Low buildings crowd the space. On a street corner a young girl sells too sweet khanom chun. Shoppers move through, taking care to stay in the red shade of the sun umbrellas. But at night the fruit vendors give way to those of a different sort. Bars and massage parlours with names like Teen Love wait impatiently. It becomes an area frequented by large farang men. When they walk through the girls in short skirts lean forwards, crying their wares. A passing man follows a girl inside. Sometimes, these men come to stay.
When I stopped speaking Thai with my mother, I wonder if she knew I was ashamed of the assumptions people made about her. I think about how she must have had to handle that shame, the condemnation of her marrying a foreigner, of being another one of those Thai women. And this is where the Thai self-abasement is most baffling. Although Thai people venerate the white and the luk kreung, they look down on those women that marry foreigners. They parade the luk kreung children around parties and weddings, introducing these blanched marvels for all the relatives to admire while hiding their mothers in the back, behind the curtain, angry at them for having traded themselves away. Didn’t I warn you? is all my grandfather told my mother when my parents divorced. She had been warned, as if it were something forbidden, dangerous, as if it were all her fault.
Eventually, my mother must have seen the same reaction in her son. Growing up I took for granted that my mother speaks English well. I never saw her learning the language. I think of how she must have felt living in the U.S. for the first time, learning English at graduate school and later while living with my father. How she continued to learn English even after they moved back to Thailand, and my sister and I were born. How she probably thought that being able to speak her children’s language contributed to the cohesive family that we needed to be, to cover up the quiet space at the English speaking table. I think of how she saw that language turned against her, used to create a space between her and her son. How English became the language I used not to talk about things. How even ten years later we have not talked about why I stopped speaking Thai.
At the dinner table I look at Daniel and I think about warning him. I want to warn him about the quiet table-spaces that grow like oceans. But I think that rediscovering how to eat and speak Thai is a process we luk kreung come to individually. Only now, having acknowledged that I have avoided a problem by not looking at it, not speaking about it, am I able to return to address the aftermath of my prejudices. In my first year at college I took a Thai cooking workshop. On the phone my mother said to me: You went all the way to Vermont to learn how to cook Thai food from a foreigner? It was absurd, but also necessary. In many ways I had also learnt to eat Thai food as a foreigner, as a spaghetti-eater, as an anglophile myself.