I grew up Thai; however, when I was fourteen years old -the age at which I started to gather things from my surroundings and put together my identity, my life in the United States began.
The decision to choose the United States as the place where I'd further my education came from my parents. I left my private Thai school at the end of my ninth grade, and I entered a public high school in a small town in Pennsylvania.
Against the suggestions from their international friends and colleagues, my parents chose a public school in an unknown town over several excellent boarding schools in Australia an dEngland, because they wanted me to learn to live a normal life "like other people's children."
They wanted me to know how to live without being in a pampered environment, like at home in Thailand.
However, because they also wanted to make sure my Thai roots remained intact, they would come to stay with me every other month out of the year. While they were here, they would go out of their way to enforce Thai manners on me. This meant I had to be on my best behavior everywhere I went. This included having to "wai" people -Thais or Americans- who were older than I was. The wai is the gesture of showing one's respect to older people by putting the palms together at the center of one's chest, while the head lowers to reach the top of the hands, the thumbs positioned at the middle of the forehead. It also meant I had to keep mum: no questioning authorities (my parents and other adults), and always obeying their orders. If I were to sit on a chair I needed to sit with my knees together -leg crossing was not allowed, and my back had to be straight against the back of the chair. If a chair had no back, I had to hold myself erect and not slouch. I was not allowed to be with my friends unless supervised by my parents. All hanging out took place at our house in my parents' presence. Not only did they supervise, but they also joined me and my friends in conversation. After school activities were not allowed, either.
While some of my friends thought I had such wonderful caring parents, it was an awkward situation for me and for other friends. At some point, I stopped doing things with my friends outside of school hours.
My parents certainly succeeded at keeping me protected the Thai way. However, as far as keeping the Thai manners, I failed them.
They also ignored their original idea about wanting me to learn how to live a normal life "like other people's children."
I got away with acting "Thai" in front of my parents for years. Behind their backs -for those every other months when they were back in Bangkok- I was acting like a typical teenager who rebelled against rules. Not anything extreme: I was only making up for what I couldn't do in front of them. To my American guardian (who was my mother's best friend) I was polite, quiet, and well-mannered; and she also thought that I was so restricted under my parents' tight rules that I didn't know how to have fun. She decided to lift some rules -only when my parents were not here- and let me join after school activities, drove me to meet friends at the mall or at the movies; and, from time-to-time, she dropped me off at my friends' houses. I had more fun, and I also learned how to deceive my parents by letting them see only what they wanted to see, and by sharing with them only those things I did that were under their "rules."
Soon enough, I got addicted to my newly found freedom, and each time my parents visited me I was holding my breath and couldn't wait for them to leave.
It was the same with visiting Thailand very summer -and, sometimes during Christmas breaks. I would go back to what I referred to as my social manner confinement, and I utterly hated every moment of it. If being Thai came with so many restrictions -so much that I wasn't allowed to be myself- I'd rather not be Thai.
I was extremely frustrated but couldn't get out of the situation, and there would be no way I'd talk to my parents. For one thing, their rules did not allow talking in the manner where I could question their actions. My only outlet was ranting with the maids -the help around the house. They were my friends and confidantes. This was how I managed to survive every summer.