Made in Thailand: Composed in America

Last week on Monday I was over at mae‘s1 house helping her clean out her kitchen while we were listening to the late Suthep Wongkamhaeng2 (สุเทพ วงศ์กำแหง), one of mae’s favorites. As I was drying dishes, a song came up in the playlist and mae said she used to sing it to me as a lullaby and that I would sing the chorus back with her. It was a story I hadn’t heard yet.


The Suthep playlist mae and I were listening to Monday afternoon. June 29, 25633 (2020)


The day before on Sunday I watched a wonderful online event hosted by the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago, Illinois. It opened with stories by two board members of the museum, Soktheary Nak and Randy Kim. As I listened to their stories, tears welling up in my eyes, I kept feeling these were stories that resonated with me and my experience being Southeast Asian American growing up in the United States.



This piece, while being semi-autobiographical, will also serve as a case study of some of the issues I’ve been discussing in my Diversity, Inclusive Programming, and Music Education series. I’ll post it in two parts. The first looks at my early years and assimilation into a dominant white music ecosystem culture while the second part will look at the period where I started questioning that ecosystem and exploring my musical cultural roots.


Immigrant Cassette Culture

Like many immigrants during the 70s, I grew up listening to tapes of music from the motherland. In our case, these were dubbed cassettes of Pleng Luk Krung4 (เพลงลูกกรุง) which is a hybrid genre started in the 2470s (1930s): a sort of fusion of jazz, Thai Classical, and Thai folk. Some artists were more on the “folky” side (Pohn Pirome) while others, minus the scales, instrumentation, and language could be mistaken for crooner era singers found globally from the 2480s (1940s) to late 2500s (1960s) like Charin Nanthanakhorn and Eua Sunthornsanan.

Before the the “information superhighway” cassette recordings5 were a means of preserving culture, especially in areas (like Southern Indiana) where the concentrations of immigrant groups is small. In larger communities, such as in the case of the Cambodians in Chicago (and the Croatian, Italian, Mexican, Arab, and Chinese immigrants discussed in my recent blog series) it becomes much easier to intracommunally preserve culture. Otherwise, assimilation pressure sets in and for for those of us who immigrated to the US at an early age (we sometimes refer to ourselves as 1.5 Gen immigrants) it starts early!



Assimilation

Since my father was in the service, I spent the first few years in the US as a typical military brat. Assimilation at that age and in those environments was obviously much different than the forced assimilation Indigenous peoples endured. However, brought other significant challenges.6 It was during this period while living at a base in Great Falls Montana that my brother Joe was born.7

The assimilation process happens differently for everyone, but so much of it is predictable given the level of contact one has to the culture of the motherland. Spending so much of my early life moving around the States didn’t help either. By the time we settled in Southern Indiana,8 where my Father’s side of the family lived, I would eventually follow in the footsteps of his siblings and take up a musical instrument. First the violin, and a year later, when I was seven, the cello. Joe would also follow in the family footsteps as well and started on the viola a few years later.

While easing my way into the classical music ecosystem with the typical early instruction and private lessons, I was still feeling the pull of the motherland. What little bilingualism I had at an early age was mostly gone by the time we moved to Southern Indiana, but I still have at least one cassette recording of the many times my mae taught Joe and me songs in Thai. Many of those songs I’d mostly forgotten how to sing by that point, but slowly pressed on. Those experiences were met with some success–I can still remember the lyrics to some of them9–but since Joe had an even less tenuous connection to Thai culture than I did he also became a part of the home culture which was less and less Thai as we slowly assimilated.

One of our Thai-American childhood friends, Michelle, with Joe and me in Pekin Indiana. ca. 1979

While we did connect with a couple of Thai families when in grade school, only one family were living as neighbors in one of the many places we moved around to in New Albany. The rest were in smaller cities and more rural areas outside of the New Albany. Which was good for being able to grow their own gardens.10 Some of my early memories growing up were going to pick produce at Nah Sumrit‘s house. One of those times, we were all picking Thai chilis and after bringing in our harvest to wash them I made the noob mistake of rubbing my eye.

I learned two things that day. Never rub your eyes after picking Thai chilis, and that I LOVED salt and lemons11 as that was something mae gave me to distract from the burning after spending many minutes washing out my eye!


Racism

One of the things that drove me further in assimilation was racism.12 Being on the military bases (in addition to being much younger) kept me around other colored bodies since many of the other wives were also foreign born, and usually from parts of Southeast Asia. Southern Indiana wasn’t like that. Needless to say, in an era of MTV and increasingly commercialized pop culture I eventually got sucked into many of the cliched peer pressure narratives which, for a bi-racial Thai American kid with few connections to the motherland and practically no community outside of the family unit eventually would take its toll.

Some of the pop artists we’d listen to in my preteen and early teen years included: Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Culture Club, Lionel Ritchie. this would have been in the early years of Columbia House (and later BMG) kickstarting that formed so many of our record collections. Since these early records, many of which I still have, were household records I would eventually join the clubs myself as I entered the “rebellious teen” years. I moved through Rock phase quickly and then into Heavy Metal (my favorite Metal band is still Iron Maiden, ftw). So much of my teen identity was bound up in CosPlaying a metalhead, playing Dungeons and Dragons, drawing, and basically hiding my ethnic identity as much as I could as a shield to the outside world.



While writing this piece I’ve constantly had Suthep’s “Phi Klap Ma Laeo” (พี่กลับมาแล้ว) running through my head as a soundtrack. This is the second track from the from Suthep’s album, “Alai Tokyo” (อาลัยโตเกียว) released in 2503 (1960).


During my Junior and Senior High school years, there were many attacks and fights and constant barrage of racial epithets. Of course, being the big brother meant I filled that stereotypical protector role with Joe. My white dad was not helpful during many of those moments of pain, as most of the racial epithets had nothing to do with my actual race he just dismissed the racists as “stupid” and that I shouldn’t worry about it. I didn’t have wisdom of years or the benefit of contemporary terms/ideas like white privilege to understand my dad’s point of view, but sadly, that made me start to internalize hating being Asian American.13 Before I finished Junior High, the damage was done and I assimilated as best as I could before High School during which my parents divorced for the second and final time.

It wouldn’t be until near the end of High School and into my music school years that I would benefit from white privilege. As I grew older I started to look more like my father’s side of the family and less Thai than my brother Joe did. Being a metalhead helped as I became more “white-passable” or at least ambiguously ethnic. This made it easier to forget the pain even when my mae, and to an extent Joe, still had to deal with it.14

Until I went to music school, music and art were my “lifelines.”15 They helped me to eat up the whole Tortured Artist Trope and other Ethnocentric views on how the Arts exist in our lives in the US.16


“Portrait of an Artist” 2533 (1990) by Jon Silpayamanant. 11 X 16, color pencil drawing of the late Mstislav Rostropovich.



Next: Exploring Thai Heritage while at Music School and Beyond

In the second part of this two part piece I’ll talk about my journey in slowly revisiting my ethnic heritage–and all the stops and starts in between–and how this has finally led to me to forming my own ensemble to perform Southeast Asian Music and composing my Hanuman: The Monkey King Thai Shadow Puppet Opera.



NOTES

  1. Mae (แม่), as many longtime readers of this blog may know, is the Thai word for “mother”–hence, the blog’s title Mae Mai!
  2. Mae and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Suthep (Bangkok Post 2020).
  3. In this piece, I’m centering the Buddhist calendar and making the Western one parenthetical. This means all the first dates listed are Thai Buddhist Era (BE) dates and those in parentheses are Common Era (CE). Note that the Thai Buddhist calendar starts the year after the Buddha attained enlightenment (543 BCE), which means there is technically a year 0 in BE calendars (544 BCE). References are in their typical colonial and Christian-centric dates.
  4. Not to be confused with Phleng Luk Thung (เพลงลูกทุ่ง) which is a more rural style.
  5. For some immigrants in the cassette tape era, it was also a means of communication (Madianou and Miller 2011).
  6. My father passed away earlier this year. We weren’t especially close later in life but most of my earliest memories of him were as an alcoholic and many of the problems associated with living with one.
  7. For those of you who know me outside of the WWW, you probably already knew that in 2010 my brother Joe was beaten to death in Texas by a white biker.
  8. My parents divorced for the first time while we were in Montana. They reconciled and that was when we moved to Indiana.
  9. I mentioned in a recent interview for Arts Louisville (Waits 2020) that Kyu Sakamoto‘s “Ue o Muite Arukō” was one of the songs I know in the Thai language version. It was very popular throughout much of Asia during the 2500s (1960s).
  10. I think one of the reasons many of the immigrants from the post Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge, and Burmese refugee era have these experiences of communal gardening is because the marketplace for produce didn’t exist yet for many outside of the larger populations of Southeast Asian immigrants found in, say, the LA area. It was just easier to to grow our own foods at home or in semi-public places. A Laotian refugee family we lived close to actually grew their own garden behind a bank closer to one of the main drags (State Street) in New Albany and we’d often go there to harvest things.
  11. I actually knew I loved lemons for some years. My first hospitalization happened when I was 8 after eating a whole bag of lemons and salt by myself in a day which led to my getting a and ulcer and running a fever. I was in the the hospital for about a week.
  12. Some of the things I plan on discussing in my “Diversity, Inclusive Programming, and Music Education” series are the health outcomes for immigrants due to assimilation pressures, and especially when their cultural arts are absent in their daily lives–something members of the majority culture, or minorities in large communities don’t normally have to worry about. See Greenman and Xie (2008) and Lechuga and Fernandez (2011).
  13. This is related to many transracial adoptees experiences. The first time I had an experience a this was in a vitriolic Anti-Asian screed on a bulletin board discussion many years ago. Turned out that the poster was a Filipino American adoptee in Texas who later in the thread explained that he was adopted by a white family and considered himself white because he only ever grew up around white people. So never having any direct or even indirect connection to members of his ethnic background he had no connection to the culture in addition to having no shared experience with other Filipino or Asian Americans . He explained that he experienced racism his whole life growing up and hated hated Asians for making him look the way he did. While most people’s experience of transracialism in the US has been via Rachel Dolezal (Kai-Hwa Wang 2015), it’s a field that’s long recognized, studied, and lived in the adoption community (see Marra, 2015; and Demby and Maraji, 2018). Cf. Yam (2017).
  14. As mentioned in note 6., my brother died as the result of being beaten by a white biker. All three of us have been physically attacked on multiple occasions, in addition to the verbal abuse and other microaggresions. In 1991, my mae was shot by a white man while I was in music school.
  15. I would go on to spend the first couple of years at DePauw University as a double major in studio art and music performance. One of the benefits of having Liberal Arts college with a separate Music Conservatory was the option of doing double majors and/or hybrid/interdisciplinary majors.
  16. Just as in music in Western countries, the Arts in general share a Euroecentric bias. From the aesthetics (Paparella 2008 and 2009), to the audiences (Kottasz and Bennet 2006), and to the role of artists in society (Bach 2013; Ingram nd).











REFERENCES

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Banymadhub, Yashi. (2018). “The tortured artist is a dangerous myth. It’s the way creative workers are treated that causes breakdown.” Independant: Voices, October 10. <<https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/world-mental-health-day-tortured-artist-dangerous-myth-pain-art-depression-suicide-a8576971.html>>

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Dieter, Mary. (2019). “Jon Silpayamanant ’96” The Boulder, DePauw University, November 18. <<https://www.depauw.edu/theboulder/details/jonnbspsilpayamanant-96/>>

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Ingram, Cindy. (nd). “About Those Dead White Guys: Why the Same Old Artists Aren’t Enough” Art Class Curator, Podcast Episode #36 and Transcript. <<https://artclasscurator.com/36-dead-white-guys/>>

Kai-Hwa Wang, Francis. (2015). “Adoptees to Rachel Dolezal: You’re Not Transracial.” NBC News, June 17. <<https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/adoptees-rachel-dolezal-youre-not-transracial-n377121>>

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National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial. (2020). “The Story of Cambodia | Part 2: Dance, Storytelling & Music,” June 28. <<https://www.facebook.com/cambodianmuseum/videos/608742419756792/>>

Paparella, Emanuel. (2008). “The Deconstruction of Eurocentric Art by Two Afrocentric Artists, Part I” Metanexus, December 16. <<https://metanexus.net/deconstruction-eurocentric-art-two-afrocentric-artists-part-i/>>

Paparella, Emanuel. (2009). “The Deconstruction of Eurocentric Art by Two Afrocentric Artists, Part II” Metanexus, January 8. <<https://metanexus.net/deconstruction-eurocentric-art-two-afrocentric-artists-part-ii/>>

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Waits, Keith. (2020). “12 Questions With Musician Jon Silpayamanant” Arts Louisville, April 23. <<http://arts-louisville.com/2020/04/23/12-questions-with-musician-jon-silpayamanant/>>

Yam, Kimberly. (2017). “Filipinos Aren’t Happy With This White Woman Claiming To Be Filipina: Ja Du says she loves Philippine food and music and enjoys TV shows on Philippine culture” HuffPost, November 15. <<https://www.huffpost.com/entry/ja-du-filipina-transracial_n_5a0b04b2e4b00a6eece45800>>

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