By Savitre “Rapture” Schaefferkoetter, Contributing Writer
Thai cuisine, culture and country have become the subject of international attention, for better and for worse.
I personally have been grasping a handle on what it means to be Thai-American. When I was younger, I had to deal with constant questions.
“Where are you from?”
“I’ve never heard of that, is that China?”
Now, I receive comments about a restaurant someone has tried, a movie someone has watched, or how many times they’ve visited Thailand.
This should be wonderful, and yet I am admittedly pessimistic about things. I now find myself gritting my teeth when people talk to me about my culture. Part of the reason comes from me not knowing completely about it myself, but mostly because people don’t realize what it has meant for me to be Thai.
It was strange. t was mysterious. Then suddenly, it’s all the rage. I am not comfortable and am distrusting of this sudden popularity. I am aware enough to know that when I see Thai food items in restaurants or groceries stores, I can call their bluff but not educated enough to explain what exactly is authentic.
I laugh when people talk excitedly about the “trannies” in the country and how people go there to have a good time and do drugs. Yet in my heart, I feel worried that Thailand is growing popular for the wrong reasons. I relate it to seeing a good, down-to-earth friend who suddenly becomes popular because she’s being perceived a certain way, but I knew how cool she was from the beginning.
I wondered if I was alone in having these mixed feelings and decided to interview a few other Thai-Americans to see their takes on the situation.
I interviewed Duangduan Geeratisoontorn, my mother who migrated to America in the 1970’s. Her family once owned a Thai restaurant on Devon Avenue in Chicago, back when Thai culture was more obscure. She has seen the change as time has past and she has relocated to Tampa Bay, Florida.
I also interviewed my college friend Mindy, or in Thai, Thitaree “Mindy” Pongpluempitichai. As a 26-year-old Thai restaurant manager in Louisiana, she is fully aware of how Thai cuisine and culture has taken its claim in America.
About her non-Thai friends who try to make authentic Thai food, Geeratisoontorn saids, “I would ask, exactly how did you make your curry paste? Okay, that doesn’t sound like a Thai recipe, but if it tastes good to you, kudos. Would you be interested to learn how to make Thai curry?”
As far as cooking Thai food herself, Pongpluempitichai said, “I always use my mom’s and grandma’s recipes. I try to make it as traditional as possible…but sometimes the ingredients are hard to find or can be expensive.”
“To call something authentic and traditional Thai when it’s not kind of hurts my pride as a Thai person,” she also said of other products and establishments.
According to a paper written by Sirijit Sunanta, the popularity of Thai culture was boosted from a Thai government project. Launched by the prime minister of the time, Thaksin Shinawatra, the “Kitchen of the World” project’s goal was to “increase the number of Thai restaurants overseas from 6,875 (in 2003) to 20,000 in 2008.” Restaurants overseas that would were deemed project-compliant won a Thai Select label and had food items delivered to them fresh from the country.
Sunanta mentions that the most successful Thai restaurants in Vancouver are completely Thai-operated, yet “Thai restaurants in Vancouver adapt the recipes, serving processes, and service systems to suit the local culture’s dining customs.”
Food aside, the way the culture and country itself is viewed today is another hot topic.
“The moment [people] find out I’m from Thailand, I tend to get more of an audience interested in my life,” Geeratisoontorn said. “People are drawn to us because we have a very rich culture. The more people educate themselves about Thai food, people get exposed to it compared to in the past.”
Pongpluempitichai also felt a sense of lost identity growing up in the same generation as me. “Most people had no idea what Thailand or Thai people were. They always thought Thailand was the same thing as Taiwan.”
Geeratisoontorn’s take on Thailand’s status in the world today is: “You have to have the good, the bad, the ugly. You will always see people who follow Buddhism to practice loving kindness. Bad part is people coming to seek opportunity and profit in Thailand. The originality of the country has slowly been taken over by multiple people coming in.”
Geeratisoontorn and Pongpluempitichai have their opinions about living in Thailand today. Geeratisoontorn says in a wistful way, “It’s not the country I used to know.” Pongpluempitichai sees both sides of the fence. “I like how Thailand has that kind of “sabai sabai” (easy going) mindset and lifestyle…while I do love the community and family emphasis of Thailand, sometimes I feel like one can feel too obligated.”
Geeratisoontorn advises those who have a one-sided view on Thailand.
“If you only see the bad side, I suggest do more research,” she said.
“Thailand has so much more to it as its culture, the beautiful mountains, and jungles,” she added. ”Even negative stereotypes of Thai women exist, to which Pongpluempitichai says, “It really angers me…those images are not reflective of all Thai women…as a whole.”
I write this article to shed a little more light on the complexity of the Thai image. Perhaps, I will never stop gritting my teeth, but it isn’t because I want people to stop talking about Thailand. It’s because I want people to look deeper beyond the “party image” of the country or the pseudo-Thai food. I want you to really find out what the country is all about because I am learning more about it everyday, too.
Author’s note: the content below is purely opinion-based and does not represent all Thai people.
Featured Image: Thai picture. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/chiang-mai-thailand-temple-religion-1670926/
Article Image: Thai Dancer. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/action-actor-art-asia-background-1807516/
Source: Sunanta, S. (2005, October 14-16). The Globalization of Thai Cuisine. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.404.1934&rep=rep1&type=pdf