Defining Thai America — Locals connect with Thai culture

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

A photo of Nina Saisombut using the Thai greeting, “Sawasdee” (meaning “Hello” in Thai)

Every Sunday, Supakit (Duke) Bhuphaibool goes to Thai temple for Thai language classes. There is only one non-Thai person in attendance. But, few Thai Americans attend temple to reconnect with their culture. One Sunday a monk at the temple inquired whether Bhuphaibool is Thai.

He wasn’t sure what to say. That was when his Thai language teacher stepped in and answered for him. “Yes, he is Thai.”

Duke Bhuphaibool and an old Thai elephant, Pisamy, at Elephantstay in Ayutthaya, Thailand (Photo by Sasha Baylor)

Assimilation encouraged

Emphayia Harrell goes by Aime because it is easier for Americans to pronounce.

Aime Harrell and Arriya Hagen, mother and daughter, performing a Thai folk dance for The Thailand Cultural Group (Photo by Tanya Hensen)

Along with the name change, there were other adjustments. While other Asian parents weren’t so active with their children’s schooling, Harrell attended school alongside her daughter. She chaperoned, volunteered, and even became a substitute teacher to gain a better understanding of the American education system. Of his 30 years of living in America, Bhuphaibool spent 28 assimilating to become what he felt the culture dictated and find the way of least resistance.  The burden of turning his back on his own culture weighed on him.

Practicing Glong Yao (Thai long drum) for an upcoming performance at the Tacoma Zoo. (Photo by Sasha Baylor)

“Most younger Asian Americans are busy trying to do well in society, and to go towards their heritage usually ends up not being a positive thing in America. If there is a really strong [cultural] community, it could probably work. But without that, it becomes something that isn’t often encouraged. Assimilation is what is encouraged,” said Bhuphaibool.

“I didn’t go out there looking for Thai friends,” said Dr. Varun Laohaprasit, a neurosurgeon in Bellevue.  Laohaprasit came to America in 1985 with an immigrant visa for residency training at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He initially struggled to learn not only the national culture but also the medical culture. Americans tend to be more straightforward than most Thai people. The nurses and doctors in American hospitals interact differently than those in Thai hospitals. Not only did he have to adjust to the language barrier, it took some time to adjust to American body language. It took a few years before he really started to feel comfortable.

Tanantha Couilliard provides an agenda, TAWA information, and encouraged members to donate for the Jacket Drive at the annual Thai picnic in Aug. 2009 (Photo by Sam Yoophum)

“Thai people in Seattle don’t hang out together that much because everyone is focused on their own profession and family. I think, because of that, we adjust more to get along with non-Thai people,” Laohaprasit added,  “We’re not socially tight. I don’t know why.”

In 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimated that nearly 4,000 Thais reside in the Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue and make up 1.1 percent of the Asian population in Seattle. This is considerably less than the estimated 7,800 in New York and 22,000 in Los Angeles. Thais remain a smaller group than Chinese, Korean, and Japanese populations in all major cities. While Los Angeles and New York boast their own Thai Towns. Seattle is still without one.

A struggle for balance

Passion Julinsey, a public affairs officer with the Washington National Guard, attended a picnic last year for Thai professionals. There, she met a doctor from Ballard, an engineer that worked on the 520 bridge, and others with interesting careers.

Passion Julinsey visited Thailand as part of her job with the Air National Guard (Photo by Assunta Ng/NWAW)

Her job in the Air National Guard provided her the unforgettable opportunity to visit Thailand  as it is Washington state’s partner nation in the Guard’s State Partnership Program.

“I never thought I would be able to go back wearing a U.S. Air Force uniform,” said Julinsey.

In Thailand, she visited the hospital where she was born.

“My mom thought it [was] odd when I dragged her to events at Wing Luke. She doesn’t understand why I want to seek out other Thais,” said Julinsey. “When I tell her that I’m going to get together with a group of Thai professionals, she says, ‘Why?’”

Thailand, a country that has never been colonized, has remained for decades in the center of trade, passage, and debate between countries.

“In my opinion, because we’ve never been occupied by other countries, we’re pretty open-minded, and we don’t feel threatened by other nationalities,” said Tanantha Couilliard, who came to the U.S. in 2005.

Older generations of Thai immigrants in Washington came during the 1970s and 1980s. Like Couililard, many immigrants came to study in graduate programs and stayed for job opportunities or to be with their newfound American spouses.

But even so, the varied experiences and ages of immigrants makes figuring out how to relate and work with each other more difficult.

“I struggle to balance Thai and American culture,” said Couilliard. “I don’t know how to behave in a situation where a certain manner is fit for Thai culture, but too passive for American culture. With Thai people, especially for seniors, a manner I think is OK might be disrespectful for them,” said Couilliard.

Claiming the place of Thai America

Prissana Nina Saisombut worked for a foreign construction firm in Thailand before coming to the U.S. to continue her education. When she first arrived, she worked tirelessly, eventually becoming the owner of the Thai Chili Restaurant and a part-time dental assistant. But even with her success, Saisombut wanted to find ways to share her culture with others such as performing traditional dances and music at local festivals.

She served as an independent advocate of Thai culture for almost 10 years before meeting Peter Tang.

“I didn’t know about [Peter] and what he did until we met, and neither of us could believe that it took us so long to meet. We agreed to work together to help promote Thai culture,” said Saisombut.

From left, of the TAWA team: Chairperson of the Board Tawat Siwadune, Former President Peter Tang, Vice Presidents Narongdej Jaroensabhayanont, Ph.D. and Sittipan Sittikariya, Ph.D., They are part of the committee to encourage Thais living in the state to obtain absentee voting for the Thai election. (Photo by Sam Yoophum)

Peter Tang came to America in the 1970s and decided to stay.  While he appreciated the progressive and orderly society, he also experienced racial prejudice and felt that employers were not open-minded toward his Asian appearance and toward his speaking English as a second language. In 2008, while attending a ceremony at a Thai temple in Woodinville, Tang encountered a group of older Thai immigrants who arrived in the States around the same time as he did.

Arriya Hagen (daughter of Aime Harrell) age 8 from the Thailand Cultural Group, performs the Thai classical dance called “Kinnaree Ron” (Bird dance) at the sixth annual Asia Pacific New Year Celebration at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall. (Photo by Sam Yoophum)

He learned that there was once an informal Thai Association, an offshoot of the University of Washington Thai Student Association that disbanded in the early 1990s. Peter worked with the help of other Thai immigrants to reinstate Washington’s Thai Association, which became recognized as a tax-exempt charitable nonprofit in 2009. Despite their many accomplishments in the last two years — including presenting a donation of clothing and aid for flood victims in Thailand to the Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand — Tang admits that among their greatest challenges is still a shortage of passionate and eager volunteers.

Harrell watched her young daughter dancing in front of the television, emulating Elmo’s movements, when an idea occurred to her.

“I want her to be respected and proud of me as an immigrant mother. In order to ensure that she understands, I have to show her the values of Thai peoples’ lives and culture,” said Harrell. “My English is not terrific enough to write a story, so I used one of my favorite hobbies — illustrating the culture through dance.”

The Charm of Thai Cultures event at the Tacoma Dome, Feb. 2011

Harrell led a class to teach traditional Thai dances to her daughter, along with other second generation children that are Thai or half Thai. Her daughter, now in high school and an avid Thai dancer, performed alongside her at last year’s Folk Life Festival.

Through her work with the Thai Association and other Asian groups, Couilliard hopes that Thai culture can be upheld in both the U.S. and her homeland, where assimilation has also taken hold.

Handcrafted melons and papaya showcasing an Amazing Thailand theme at Folk Life, 2011

“I want Thais that live here to not take in too much American culture. When you live here all the time, you forget what the traditions are and why they’re important. That is something I hope the new generation will take into consideration,” said Couilliard.

“It’s really up to the second and third generation Thai Americans, who need to claim the place of Thai America, when they come around to realizing they actually need to have a connection with their heritage,” said Bhuphaibool.

Laohaprasit converted from Buddhism, the primary religion of most Thais, to Christianity, four years before immigrating to the states. It was while he was wrapped up in an intense neurosurgery residency at the University of Washington that he felt he was called by God to start a church. What started humbly out of his home is now the New Hope International Church, active in the Seattle area and Thailand. The church offers a Thai language service for immigrants in Seattle.

“He is Thai” — that simple answer from the Thai language teacher became a moment that turned things around for Bhuphaibool.

“It was only within the last few years that I realized that being Asian and being American aren’t exclusive. When I came to America, I was told differently,” said Bhuphaibool,”To be Asian means that you’re not American; to be American means you’re not Asian.”

“A few things connected for me at the moment, when I realized that I could be American and I could be Thai, but because somebody else claimed me to be part of their community, that sort of legitimized things.” ♦

For more information, visit www.thaiwashington.org.

Tiffany Ran can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

5 Responses to “Defining Thai America — Locals connect with Thai culture”

  1. Hi. I believe there is an issue with your loading speed. I hope you are able to fix it!

  2. From my experiences of being a first generation Thai American I can probably write a book on my experiences and views growing up on the threshhold that we know as the Thai and Thai American culture. When it comes to the question of whether to assimilate or not to assimilate, I must say that the correct question, for Thais and all Asian ethnicities, is whether to educate or not to educate themselves with American culture. By this I mean that many Thais come to America thinking only about work and new job opportunities for themselves while not thinking about the long term social and moral consequences for themselves, their commnunity, and their children in America. The question of assimilating radically answers two questions on the opposite sides of the spectrum that are not favorable: to assimilate is to abandon one’s culture and to not assimilate is to not pay one’s dues, if you will, in a new country. Either way, loyalties are skewed. This proves to be an obstacle for all Asians and Asian Americans as to where their loyalty lies, but we must assure and prove to America and any country we are in that we are loyal and strive for the improvement of our homeland and our present community. Therefore the question of education is the factor which decides the middle ground of this dual loyalty that will further push the Asian Americans into the spotlight as the multilingual and the multicultural power that we are and should be proud of. I find that education about the American culture should start at the parents because of a biblical adage that states that benefitting from the seeds that you do not sow is unethical: coming to America and only sticking to our culture and not conrtibuting to our new home seems unethical. Therefore Asian American parents should educate themselves about American culture as to better introduce themselves and their children to the American scene which will aid in social acceptance and healthy development for their children and the next Asian generation. For starters Asians and Asian Americans who are not proficient in English should clearly learn English so they can vote, pay taxes, and read the New York Times – all activities that are seemingly’American’. They should know of college savings plans such as the 529 plan. They should know of the government benefits they have rights to. They should know which schools exceed the standards in their district. They should be able to turn on the news and know of the crime in the neighborhood. Any way they do it, by all means they should know what it is to be American and be apart of the culture rather than being excluded from it. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: Asian parents parents should be more open and understand how this new culture works if they really care about their children. Another note for Asian parents is to know the differences between Eastern and Western constructs of child psychology. What it all comes down to is a clash of cultures. Therefore Asians and Asian Americans must understand both cultures and utilize their understanding to the best of their ability.

    Best wishes to all.

  3. Like many other people from other cultures and countries. People are realising their roots and yearn to have a chance to reconnect back to their culture and land of origin. There is just this pull as we grow older.

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