Ira Sukrungruang

BETWEEN COUNTRIES

by Ira Sukrungruang

In a restaurant in Chiang Mai, the twins urge me to move to Thailand. They are the youngest of my mother’s siblings, fifty-eight, and are identical except for their hairstyles. Often, they bicker and sound like meowing cats. Today, however, they are on the same page.

I sip coffee. It’s the second week of about fifteen visits to Thailand since I was three, the first after my mother moved back permanently. My mother eats shrimp-paste fried rice. She concentrates on each bite, scooping a bit of rice, fried egg, and Thai peppers onto her spoon. She chews with deliberateness; her dentures are loose, so she is trying hard to keep them in her mouth.

“Listen,” one of the twins says in Thai. “We really want you to think about this.”

“We miss you,” says the other twin. “If you were here, all we would have to do is get in a car, but America is too far for us.”

“Plus, your mother is getting old.”

“Seventy-one,” my mother interjects in English. This would usually draw laughter or exasperated looks, my mother always adding one year to her actual age. This time we don’t respond.

“More importantly,” says my aunt, “we don’t want you to be without your family.”

“Have you thought of that?” says the other.

I have. Every day since my mother retired from working as a nurse in Chicago for thirty-six years and returned to the home of her birth. I’ve thought about it while making a living in upstate New York with my Caucasian wife, Katie, who is spending the summer with her sick mother. I’ve thought about it during car rides to my in-laws in the prairie of central Illinois for Christmases, Thanksgivings, weddings. The thought hits me quickly and without warning: my nearest blood relative lives over eight thousand miles away, on an extended peninsula in the Pacific.

The waiter, who has been hovering a foot away through our entire meal, asks if I want another refill. I tell him no thanks and swirl what’s left in my cup.

“We don’t want you to be alone,” one twin says.

“We want you to be with us,” says the other. “We have been thinking about this the entire morning—.”

“The entire year—.”

“Yes, the entire year.”

“We don’t want to lose you,” they say together.

They keep going, completing each other’s sentences without skipping a beat. They tell me of possible job opportunities teaching English. They tell me I can build a dream home in the mountains, in nature, so beautiful I wouldn’t believe it. Life would be easy here, they say. We would all be happy, they say.

I don’t tell them yes, this is a fantastic idea. Or, what you ask is impossible. Or, let me think about this. I can’t gather myself to be witty or silly, something I do with ease, which would make everyone laugh away the seriousness that has thickened the air like the humidity outside. I can’t gather myself to say what has gotten my mind whirling: Who do you think you are losing me to?

My mother remains silent. She focuses on the steady stream of people walking in and out of the restaurant. Her chin rests on her hand. I look for a hint of agreement, a nod of apprehension, a shake of the head, but she gives nothing away, not at the table when the conversation peters out and one of the twins asks for the check, not even much later in the afternoon—the sun scorching—and it is just my mother and me sitting outside in the heat, while two house cats watch carp swim lazily in the garden pond.

*

My friends often ask what Thailand is like. When I was younger, I knew they wanted to hear something exotic and bizarre, something drastically different from our American lives. “In Thailand,” I would say, “monkeys swing from tree to tree snatching hats off heads.” “In Thailand,” I would say, “during detention, you eat cockroaches.” This was usually followed by wondrous and sometimes disgusted faces and drawn-out whoaaaaas. My stories were never questioned because I learned at a young age that the phrase “In Thailand,” was so powerful that it dispelled all doubt.

As I entered my early twenties, I stopped telling my fantastic tales. I stopped telling stories about Thailand altogether. When asked about Thailand, all I could muster was: 1) It’s crazy hot. 2) The food is awesome. 3) It is beautiful.

Crazy. Awesome. Beautiful. All of which are true, but such statements fail to conjure up images, sensations, emotion.

Such statements are simple and can be applied to a number of places. Tucson is crazy hot. The food in Tucson is awesome. Tucson is beautiful. Over the years, my relationship with Thailand has become increasingly complex. It is the country that colors me. It is the country where my family resides. It is the country I forget about. It is the country I do not understand, yet feel its familiarity in my blood. This complexity has made Thailand a secret.

*

My mother’s dream: she would come and work in America, marry a Thai man, have a Thai son, who would then marry a Thai girl. Then the whole Thai lot of us would move back to Thailand, live in houses near each other, and live happily ever after. There was never any doubt about when my mother would return to Thailand, only when. Besides longing for the land she loved, in Thailand, she would live more than comfortably on her pension and social security checks, the dollar going far compared to the baht. Here, she would be solidly in the middle class, but in Thailand, she was well-off.

*

At night, I wake in a rush and forget for a few seconds where I am. I turn and clutch my body pillow, thinking it is Katie, asking her what time it is or whether she has fed the dogs. I don’t know what cues me back—the floor-hard mattress, the steady buzz of the air conditioner, the croaking toads in the pond outside—but when it dawns on me that I am not lying in my soft Sealy bed with my wife and the dogs are not snoring softly on the carpet, I find myself in a lethargic malaise, feeling as if I am adrift in thick, empty air. It’s a sensation that sticks with me for a few days. And on those days, I am locked up somewhere no one can reach. When asked if there is something bothering me, I say, no, nothing. Or I don’t know. Or I simply do not reply.

This doesn’t just occur in Thailand.

It happens in the states, too, but there I shed the blankets off of me and complain in Thai about the heat and mosquitoes. Once I told Katie to close the windows because the geckos would get into the house. “What did you say?” she said, confused that her husband had slipped into a different language. I was half asleep, and part of me was lying in the living room of my mother’s house in Chiang Mai, the walls white and sterile as a hospital, envisioning geckos scurrying across the window screens. At Katie’s voice I startled awake and gone were the geckos. We laughed at my blunder, but I wished I had invited those geckos in. Let them cling to every synapse of my imagination. Let them run rampant across the bridges of my brain.

*

I am sitting in the bathroom of my mother’s house and this is what I notice. In my bedroom, I’ve cranked up the air conditioning so high that when I enter the bathroom, the heat and humidity instantly fogs up my glasses. I can hear the Cartoon Network (my mother installed cable just for my visit) blasting from the TV—Looney Tunes—while downstairs my mother sits on the marble floor flipping through a Thai magazine while listening to a monk’s sermon on an audio cassette, the Mitsubishi fans blowing on her.

The bathroom is limbo, the in-between of two worlds. I have made America in my room. I ask for American bedding, American decorations, American furniture. I’ve asked for so many things that would be easy to find at a Target or Walmart that my mother says, “You have American things in America. Here you have Thai.”

Downstairs is Thailand with its heat and humidity, its stray dogs and cats, its blossoming trees, its manic mosquitoes, its pollution, its shimmering temples, its delectable food, its impoverished, its monks, its fan-tail birds, my family. I spend most of the day there. At night, I always return to my room.

*

In my junior year of high school, I had an English teacher who challenged students with wit, sarcasm, and difficult questions. I don’t remember her name, but I remember reading a lot of slave narratives, novels about Indians, early settlement literature. I also remember the pointed scowl she gave smartass students to shut them up, which usually worked, a miracle considering she taught a bunch of insubordinate Southside kids who would rather be anywhere else in the world but in an Early American literature class.

I sat with a group of guys on the tennis team, who sat next to the cutest girls in the class, and I watched my friends pass notes back and forth, the girls giggling each time they read what the guys wrote.

Once this teacher—I think her last name began with a B—snatched one of the notes in transit and read it aloud.
“You’re telling me this is more important than A Light in August?” Ms. B said. She carefully unraveled the note, her pinkies pointing up. Her glasses dangled around her neck, but she never put them on. She lifted them up and squinted, peering through them like a magnifying glass.

“How did you get out of the third grade, Mr. Wolfe, with handwriting like yours?”

Brian Wolfe—B-Bear, as we called him on the tennis team—wasn’t fazed. He was cocky and liked the attention. Smiling, he said, “My mom says the same thing.”

Ms. B ambled to the front of the room. She always carried the demeanor of a woman not from this time period, but one who strolled along the Seine in Paris with a parasol. “Well, isn’t this the question of the class. I had hoped we could discuss this today in light of all our readings. What Mr. Wolfe has written so sloppily to Ms. Styx is: I would like to know you better.”

The class laughed. B-Bear mouthed I do at Gina Styx, who was so red she hid her face in her arms.

“Hasn’t it been the case this quarter,” Ms. B said, “that all the texts we have read come back to the question of identity? Who are we? Where do we come from? To whom do we owe our roots? America, from the start, is a country of diversity. It is a melting pot. Its literature is a melting pot. This classroom is a melting pot. So, I, too, as Mr. Wolfe has written to Ms. Styx, would like to know all of you better.” Ms. B pointed at B-Bear. “Let’s start with you, Mr. Wolfe. Please inform the class where your family originated.”

“I’m all Irish, baby.” Many in the class hooted.

“Ellis Island, perhaps,” says Ms. B.

B-Bear nodded.

“How about you, Ms. Styx?” Ms. B said.

Gina barely raised her head out of her arms and whispered, “A lot of stuff.”

“Clarify, please,” Ms. B said.

“Dutch, Scotch, Irish.”

“Very well,” said Ms. B.

Ms. B went around the room, asking each student where they came from, and to be precise. Most of the class said they were Italian, Polish, or Irish. There was a student whose parents were from Pakistan and grandparents were from India. An exchange student from Denmark said he wasn’t Danish at all, but Swedish and German. A girl in the class said she had Indian blood, Cherokee, she thought, but she was mostly Mexican. Another said, “I’m everything that makes white, which is too much to list.”

I dreaded the question. I was sixteen, and all I wanted to do was blend. I had stopped attending temple, stopped praying to Buddha at night, and stopped speaking Thai at home. I thought the Thai in me was “weird,” was the part that got me into trouble while growing up, the part that made my friends mock my mother’s accent when she spoke English, the part that America didn’t seem to care for. Once at an illegal bonfire party in the Forest Preserves off of 95th Street, a drunken acquaintance said, “I’m sick of all these immigrants who don’t speak the language, who go around thinking they are still in their country. You’re in America, be an American.” This guy was an asshole. I hated him, but didn’t have the courage to ask, “Dude, what does that mean?”

So when it was my turn to speak, I gave a smartass answer. “I’m a Chicagoan.”

B-Bear patted my back and said, “Damn straight.”

“Ira,” Ms. B said. I was the only student she did not address with a formal title. “Be serious.”

“I am, Ms. B. I was born in Northwestern University Prentice Hospital. I can give my mom a call and she can bring my birth certificate.”

“Ira,” Ms. B said.

“It really wouldn’t be any trouble. I live right over there.” I pointed out the classroom window, across the green of football field and out of school property at the barely visible black roof of my house. “My mom likes to walk.”

“I am laughing on the inside,” Ms. B said, her face without affect. “And perhaps she can tell me where you originated.”

“She would tell you I came from her womb,” I said. “Most likely, though, she wouldn’t say anything. You see, she doesn’t like white people.”

“That’s enough, Ira.” Ms. B scowled, and I knew I went too far.

Five years later, I visited my high school to interview my former teachers for an education course I was enrolled in at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. I was studying to become one and wanted to know how teachers handled diversity in the classroom. In the hallways, I bumped into Ms. B. Nothing had changed about her. She still walked with the ease of a socialite. Before I could say hi, she said, “Where does your family come from, Ira?”

“Thailand,” I said quickly, forgetting about the classroom incident years ago.

“Ah,” Ms. B said, “I see time has smartened you up.”

*

On my fifth week, I don’t want any more rice or noodles or curries or wontons or any of the foods I had been dreaming of in New York months before my arrival. Nothing seems to satisfy my hunger. I leave plates of food half eaten. The twins ask if the food is OK and I tell them, yes, I’m just not hungry, but the truth is I’m not hungry for Thai food. What my stomach yearns for is a hamburger, French fries, and a vanilla shake. It wants McDonalds, Burger King, White Castles, Wendy’s.

I tell one of my aunts this and suddenly she tells her twin sister and there are a lot of Oh my Gods in excited English.

“Mike’s Burgers,” one twin says.

“Delicious,” says the other.

“Across from the Amari Rincome Hotel,” says the other.

“Where you and Katie got married.”

“Remember?”

I nod.

“The owner is an American.”

“I bet his name is Mike,” I say.

“How did you know?” the twins say together and laugh.

My mother shakes her head and whispers, “It’s just OK. Don’t get your hopes up.”

We pile into a minivan—my mother, the twins, an uncle, and two young cousins. Suddenly getting a burger has become serious business, has become a family outing. I tell them in America I eat a burger at least twice a week, if not more; it’s easy. They say they eat burgers once every six months. They speak of the burgers like French foie gras or expensive caviar. They speak of burgers like how I speak of real Thai food in the States, with fervent longing, with dreamy appreciation.

When we get to Mike’s we find seats along bar. The place has the feel of a 50s diner, with 50s slogans plastered on the wall. I order a cheeseburger and fries with a side of onion rings. The others opt for pork burgers and I tell them, there is no such thing in America.

“Really?” my aunt says.

“Really.”

“But it’s the best here.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

When the food arrives, I notice all eyes on me. What, they wonder, will the American think of Thailand’s version of the burger?

I eat. And it’s a burger. Better than most, but still a burger.

*

Every time I step off the plane, I feel like I’ve arrived home, only it’s a home I’m not familiar with. It is as if I am in a house I know well, but someone has moved all the light switches.

*

In America, I am Ira, a name my mother said she found in a book. She tells me that she and my father waited till the last moment to give me a name. They did not plan beforehand, did not think what the sex of the baby might be. They had skipped ahead in time, worrying about how to afford a future home and move out of their small apartment in the south side of Chicago, how to pay for the baby’s college tuition, how to prevent America from stealing him straight from the crib. Thinking of a name was not on their list of priorities.

“We liked what it meant,” my mother says. She is sewing pajamas from the fabric she bought earlier in the day at a hill tribe village. Her glasses are perched on the edge of her nose. My aunt, mother, and I are hiding from the Chiang Mai heat, drawing the shades over the windows, turning the a/c on high. On days like this, all you want to do is seek shelter and move as little as possible, like the dogs outside sleeping under parked cars.

This is a conversation we often have—the origin of Ira—but each time I ask, I expect to hear a different story, one with more mystery and excitement. For example: my mother had an illicit affair with a rich Jewish doctor and I am their offspring.

“What does Ira mean?” asks my aunt. Her twin is off feeding her cats.

“Successful,” says my mother.

“You do realize it’s a Hebrew name,” I say.

“Is it?” my mother says.

My aunt laughs. “You gave your son a name and you don’t even know where it comes from?”

“A book,” my mother says. “I already said that.”

“Why not a Thai name?” my aunt says. “There are perfectly good ones.”

“Too long,” says my mother.

“People usually assume I’m a Jewish lawyer,” I say.

“Lawyers make good money,” my mother says.

“I’m not a lawyer.”

“Too bad.”

“You can’t even pronounce the name correctly,” I say. “Ira not Ila.”

“No matter,” says my aunt, shaking her head and waving her hand. “Here, you are Tong.”

She’s right. In Thailand, my family addresses me by my Thai nickname. When I hear the name Ira, it sounds like a dream I can’t remember, a thought at the edge of the mind. It is of a man far from where I am, shoveling snow in upstate New York, bundled in a coat that makes him look twice his size. And when the spring comes, he curses the rabbits under his breath for nibbling the top of his tulips.
*
“Let’s get away. Let’s go to a deserted island where no one can find us. Just me and you and the dogs.”

Katie’s family often drives her nuts. It’s the unfortunate setback of being the glue that holds everything together. She is the most rational, most dependable, most accommodating, and because of these attributes, there are sacrifices she makes in her life for the sake of family stability. When crisis strikes—once a month—the phone rings and rings and rings, and soon, my patient wife is on the edge of a breakdown.

“OK,” I say. “Anywhere you want. It doesn’t have to be an island.”

“Somewhere in the Rockies, then.”

“Awesome.”

“The green of Scotland.”

“Fantastic. Keep going.”

“A planet of spaniels and chocolate.”

“I’m with you.”

Truth is: she can’t stray too far because she needs her family as much as they need her. This need is what I envy, even though I often joke: This is why my family is far, far away. I never have to deal with this shit. But I want to deal with it. I want to figure out why one of the twins frowns so much when she thinks no one is watching, or when my young cousin will decide to come out of the closet, or whether my uncle will admit he is having an affair. When my mother calls, I sometimes ask how the family is doing. I ask for gossip. She laughs and says we will have a lot to talk about when I get there. When I get there could be a year or more.

I am trying to understand need and want. For as long as I can remember, I only wanted things I knew I could have—toys, clothes, material possessions. These were easy. I was taught at the Thai Buddhist Temple of Chicago, during those long hours in Sunday school that need was a luxury, and anything that is a luxury leads to excess, which leads to vanity, which ultimately leads to gum, sin. America, however, is a country of needs and wants, and no matter how much I’ve tried to deny them—though many times I have not tried that hard—I’ve been asking myself, What is it I need? What is it I want? The answer is often: I don’t know.

“Let’s go somewhere,” I tell Katie after stressful days. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know.”

*

Katie and I are out with a friend at a Thai restaurant in Oswego, New York, our hometown. We have just arrived back from Thailand. I stayed with my family for six weeks before Katie came to join me for another three. While we were away, a Thai restaurant magically opened in this tiny snow-weathered town known for their bad Italian food and abundance of bars. We sit with our friend describing how American the food is like overeducated snobs, how the noodles are too thin and overcooked, the curry watered down, the spices lacking the essential kick. But the truth: it’s not a bad restaurant. In fact, in the months to come, we will frequent the restaurant so often the Thai workers exclaim, Ajahn! Ajahn!, when I come in. Professor, professor!

Still, this restaurant isn’t Thailand, and our tongues have yet to adjust.

Katie describes our latest vacation. That’s what she calls our trips, vacations. Nothing permanent. A brief three-weeks before we return to the states, back to our dogs panting at home, back to our lives. Most of the dinner, I sit and nod and add a detail or two. Katie mentions the food, “so cheap”; she mentions the beaches in the south, “so beautiful”; she mentions the kindness of the Thai people, “so nice.”

Our friend asks: “Have you guys considered moving to Thailand?”

Two years ago, Katie asked out of the blue, if she weren’t in the picture would I move back to Thailand. Without hesitation, I told her no. But by then, she would never be out of the picture.

I laugh. “My aunts were trying to convince me to.”

“They always do,” Katie says.

“And?” our friend asks.

“My mother would love it,” I say. I twirl stir-fried noodles around in my dish.

“She totally would.” Katie sips Thai iced tea. “But our lives are here.”

I nod.

“Plus, my family would flip.”

They would, and eventually, Katie would also.

But I can’t help imagining a life there. A teak home under the northern mountains, our dogs chasing the geckos on the property, our trees dropping the sweetest fruit. Katie and I would teach somewhere in the city, at American university. We would take the congested bus to work, and come home to watch the evening update about the royal family. And my mother would be there, and she would happy.

This image, however, can only go so far. This Thai life is not a husband and wife life. A husband and wife life resides in America with its four seasons and cornucopia of freedoms. This Thai life is a son’s life. It is a mother’s dream.

And because of this, this life is like the Thai food in this upstate New York town. Satisfying, but not quite right.

*

When did my mother lose hope? When I said my first English word, “more”? When I wanted a Big Mac for dinner instead of jasmine rice and fish sauce? When Luke Skywalker became my role model instead of the King of Thailand? Or was it later, when I was teenager, and I fought with her constantly about the weird things she did, like using mothballs as air freshener? Or was it when I started preferring the company of women whose skin were pale and freckled to the Thai ones she often tried to set me up with? Or was it when I graduated with honors with a Bachelors Degree in English? When I could recite poems by Wordsworth, but could not remember the Thai National Anthem? When I moved farther and farther away, calling her less and less, starting a new life? Was it when I met and married a white woman?

*

I don’t hear anything but the fall. Her hands smack the hood of two cars. The sound echoes in the dark parking garage of a Chiang Mai mall. When I look behind me, my mother is on all fours. She is breathing deeply, sucking in her breath from the pain. I am slow to react. My uncle dashes to her side and a stranger walking behind my mother is on the other.

“Are you OK?” my uncle says, his voice full of worry.

“Oh my god,” says the stranger, a woman in her forties, high heels and hair long and flowing. She looks like what my mother would have thirty years ago, young and attentive and strong. “That was a hard fall. And you’re old, too.”

My mother gets on her knees, but when she tries to plant her left foot and rise, she gasps in pain.

“We might have to call an ambulance,” says the stranger.

“Give me a second,” my mother says. “I need time to gather myself.”

She breathes through her teeth. Her hands tremble.

Throughout my life, I’ve never seen my mother fall. I’ve never seen her in any pain, except for once when I accidentally shut the door on her hand. Even then I don’t remember my mother screaming or grimacing, just her palm swiping the top of my head and her stern reprimand not to be so careless. But here is my mother teetering to get up, face red and sweating, mouth twisted. She sucks in air, sharp like a snake, blows it out in a quiet puff. Over and over. I watch. Frozen. I don’t know what to do or say until my mother is standing, telling the woman she is ok and thank you, until she takes her first wobbly step, clutching onto my uncle and parked cars.

“What the hell, Mom?” I say.

She laughs. “Where were you?” she says jokingly. She means nothing by it, a slight tease, but I wonder the same thing. I wonder in the years to come, how many more times will she fall and will I fail to be there for her, the woman who has been witness to all my injuries.

I don’t answer her. I hold her hand and give it a soft squeeze. I say: “That woman said you were old.”

*

When I return to the States, I know I will forget one detail at a time: the neighborhood mutts howling at night, lotuses that bloom like fireworks, spiky fruit that raises the blood sugar, delicate chiming of temple bells, the gentle flutter of butterflies, the rusted rumble of a noodle cart, vendors and customers haggling at the outdoor market, the sweet scent from the champi tree, elaborate spirit houses dotting neighborhoods, name of relatives, language, evening news updates of the royal family, prayers, monks, and motorcycles.

The only reminder of Thailand is my mother’s weekly phone calls, asking me when I will return and how long I can stay this time.

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Ira Sukrungruang is a Chicago born Thai-American. He is the co-editor of What Are You Looking At: The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology, both published by Harcourt Brace. Ira has published his essays, poems, and short stories in many literary journals and anthologies, including Creative Nonfiction, the Bellingham Review, North American Review, Isotope, Crab Orchard Review, Post Road, and Tilting the Continent: Southeast Asian American Writing. He has received the New York Foundation for the Arts Nonfiction Fellowship, The Just Desserts Fiction Prize, and an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award, and received support from the Blue Mountain Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow. His previous publications include Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, a collection of poetry entitled In Thailand It Is Night, and a forthcoming book of essays, Southside Buddhist. Ira can be found at www.buddhistboy.com

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