The first time I knew that I was different from my cousins was when we were all at a restaurant in Bangkok and one of the waiters came to ask me to pick a lottery ticket for him. I was about six. Something to do with my nose. Or was it my freckles? Maybe it was my curly hair. Whatever it was, I remember it well, because it marked me as different. Ten cousins, and I was singled out.
I’m 47 now and I look around Thailand and I see many mini-mes walking around. We are common. There is nothing extraordinary nor particularly interesting about us, apart from our very own stories and personalities, and for that I am grateful.
It wasn’t always so. Except for the missionary kids, I think I knew just about every luk krung my age in Chiang Mai when we were growing up. We didn’t necessarily all like one another nor did we have much in common, but we recognised a tenuous kinship. We were stopped in the streets to have our cheeks – often painfully – pinched. We posed for endless photographs with strangers who hugged, kissed and cuddled us. We endured daily exclamations as to how good our Thai was…and the reverse when we went aboard to our other home countries. Teachers either loved and spoilt us because they thought we were cute, or detested us, secretly pinching and failing us because they thought we were too big for our boots – and as we got older, viewed us as constantly being on the precipice facing the plunge into immorality.
Growing up with the best of both worlds is nothing to scoff. I literally had it. I was as Thai as my mother dreamt me to be – being sent to the palace to learn lady-skills such as fruit carving and flower arrangement, being sent off to nunneries for meditation retreats, being a respectful and devoted daughter/niece/student. And I was probably as English as any; as daddy insisted we sit down for tea at four every day, as he helped me to fall in love with (really old fashioned) English literature from Beatrix Potter to Enid Blyton, as he and I spent dinner and the hours afterwards debating and discussing the sins of Henry VIII or the dastardly shenanigans of the government that led to the South Sea Bubble.
Then, as I entered my teen years, that is when the best of both worlds were distorted by hormones and teenage angst, leading me down a vortex of anger, rejection, rebellion and all the other stuff teens go through – with the added twist of two warring identities. As I wrote in one of my editorials, “As a child, and I am sure the thousands of luk krung out there can relate, I oscillated emotionally between east and west. Am I Thai? Am I British? How Thai am I? How British am I? Where are the Thai bits? Where are the British bits?…you get the picture. Sometimes I would find myself being the perfect Thai girl, then for no reason, I would reject all Thainess within me, start chewing gum, and rebelling against one typecasting – then the other.”
Frankly it was exhausting.
On the other hand, how could I not benefit and be enriched by spending so much time on self-reflection, having so many questions asked and so many judgements and decisions made – the most basic of all being the constant choice between my mother’s and my father’s perspectives, morals, opinions and edicts.
Mum is devoutly Buddhist; dad is an atheist. Mum revered the monarchy, dad bought me the box set of Spitting Image. Mum toed the Thai history line about Ayutthaya kicking Burma’s ass, daddy was an archeologist who showed me contrary evidence that led to me to constantly fail history class due to correcting my teachers. Looking back, yes, my precociousness must have been painfully annoying to them. Mum wanted me to be a virgin until marriage, not smoke, do drugs or drink, dad told me to do and dare and to come home and discuss anything I wished with him. And yet they were a tight unit and it was that unconditional love that helped me navigate the treacherous cultural waters: push, pull, waves, riptides, currents and all.
No two luk krung are alike, of course. Generalisations are inherently dishonest. I can only talk for my experience of my generation, a generation when we were a scarcity, a rarity, often an object of fascination. When we weren’t pretty enough to become movie stars or models, we felt as though we had let our side down. When we revealed too much of our farang side, we felt judged and condemned by society. They liked us to be a pretty object to coo over, but they didn’t necessarily like our often contrary opinions. For me, it helped me to hone my opinions, as it made me question theirs. And I think that that was one of the greatest advantages I had. We are all indoctrinated to some degree. Here in Thailand there are certain beliefs, traditions, cultural practices and behaviours which are considered the norm, the acceptable, and most of all, truly Thai.
Having my kind, loving, supportive, open minded and very well read father pushing me to question everything that I was being taught at my rigid Thai all girls’ school every day was one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me. Because he respected Thai culture, and loved my mother, he would never allow me to disrespect Thainess, but encouraged me to question and taught me how to do so in a way which would help me to ask even more questions. I learnt to debate without offence nor insult. It was a good balance, but it took many many years to hone. And I am still working on it.
Today, I point fingers, but I smile when I do so (until I fail and let rip). As a writer, I shine a spotlight, but I try to find solutions. I argue, but I also listen. I don’t know whether this is a product of being a luk krung or just a lucky lucky daughter of fantastic parents, but it is this constant push and pull which has shaped me.
Luk krungs are everywhere these days, and I personally think that it is a great thing. In fact, I have always been of the opinion that we Muggles are the future. What is there to be racist, nationalistic or bigoted about if we are all part of one another? It’s like we are on an autobahn towards cultural empathy.
Not that we are anything special – apart from those awfully pretty ones I used to be green with envy over – but should we choose to, and should our personal situation allow, we do have a leg up, even if it’s just linguistically.
Suffice to say, being a luk krung is something I live with daily. The languages I use, the personalities I pick and choose to approach various people, the decisions I make about my mannerisms, my behaviour…my very being. One flips and switches from one to another, often taking advantage of whatever is most suitable to the occasion. After nearly five decades it is seamless and intuitive, but not something I am unaware of each and every day as one moment I sneak a cheeky gin and tonic to dad, telling him some naughty joke I’d heard at a party – much to his nurse’s horror – and the next I sit with mum, tolerating and doing my best to smile and nod as she waxes adoration about the junta – oy ve.