The title of the charming, moving memoir Talk Thai comes from one of the eight rules that author Ira Sukrungruang's mother posted on the refrigerator in their Chicago area home when he was a boy.
"Always speak Thai in the house" was Rule No. 6. But Rule No. 1 sounds like any mother anywhere: "Take off your shoes before entering this Thai house. Put your shoes away neatly so I don't trip and kill myself."
Born in the United States 11 days before the bicentennial celebration, Sukrungruang was the only child of Thai immigrants, a mother who joked she began packing to return home the day she arrived in Chicago and a father who left another family behind to come here.
Their son, his Old Testament first name plucked randomly from a book of American baby names, grows up in two worlds. Weekends are spent at the local Buddhist wat, or temple, not only a place of worship but a community center where families gather to celebrate, network, gossip and, always, eat. (The loving descriptions of food in Talk Thai made me ravenous.) It's also a school where Thai-American children learn their parents' religion and culture.
During the week he goes to public school with kids who, despite Chicago's multicultural mix, always seem to Ira to be more American than he is. "I wanted to be Ricky from Silver Spoons," he writes about his sitcom hero. "He was a white kid who faced white problems, which were, to me, simple, which resolved themselves in half an hour." He loves TV, video games, Stephen King novels and comic books, and one of his favorite dishes is jasmine rice and an Oscar Mayer wiener with a little fish sauce.
Sukrungruang, 33, grew up to be an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Florida; he lives in Brandon with his wife, Katherine Riegel, also a poet and USF instructor. He has published poetry, essays and short stories and co-edited two books, What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology, which include such contributors as Junot Diaz, Pam Houston, David Sedaris, Anne Lamott and Atul Gawande.
Sukrungruang's weight is a minor theme in Talk Thai — his boyhood nemesis, Simon, calls him, among other things, an elephant. It's an insult that a patient monk, teaching Buddhism to a roomful of restless kids, turns into a building block for Ira's self-esteem with the fable of Iyala, the mystical white warrior elephant associated with the Buddha.
But two other themes dominate this skillfully structured story of Sukrungruang's childhood and teens: the clash of cultures and the nature of manhood.
As her rules suggest, his mother is proud of her Thai heritage and eager to surround her son with it. She and her best friend, Aunty Sue, who lives with the family, work as nurses but devote themselves to two things: the wat and Ira. When they send him off to first grade, they fortify him with tales of Siamese warriors and a tiny Buddha to wear on a string around his neck.
They may hope he learns about the world at the knees of his mother and the monks, but he learns about the American culture that surrounds him the way most kids learn most things: from the media and his friends. His pal Mike informs him that at church he "ate Jesus" — who, he says, tasted like a cracker. As they contemplate a painting of the Crucifixion, Mike tells Ira that one of the figures at the foot of the cross is Martin Luther. Needless to say, it takes him a while to sort all that out.
As close as he is to his mother and Aunty Sue, Ira struggles to communicate with his father. A chemist who works for a company that manufactures building materials, he works long hours and is by nature much more reserved than his wife.
Father and son bond, though, over a most American pursuit: golf. When Ira shows some talent for the sport, his father becomes obsessed with making him a tournament player. Sukrungruang recalls poignantly not the hours on the greens but the time the two spend in the car before dawn, waiting for courses to open and talking in the dark.
The last chapters of the book deal with another all-too-familiar American tradition: divorce. Now a teenager, Ira finds himself in a particularly painful situation as his parents' marriage crumbles and he struggles to cope with the rage and heartbreak he feels.
Sukrungruang is a poet, and Talk Thai is bright with graceful language, but the voice in which he writes sounds like the kid he was, a kid trying to make sense of the world and his place in it, as kids do all over the globe.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.