DECEMBER 29, 2014
WHEN IRA SUKRUNGRUANG turned five years old, his father bought him a bicycle. Not a tricycle. Not a bike with training wheels, but rather an uncompromising two-wheeler, which he commanded his son to ride. “He did not steady the bike,” writes Sukrungruang. “He did not run alongside it. He simply watched the boy get on and fall. Get on and fall.”
Eventually “the boy” fell less often. Determination replaced his tears. He figured out how to pedal. He coasted with ease. “I’m very proud, said the father. You ride well.”
Sukrungruang calls this an immigrant lesson. But what exactly did he learn that day? To ride a bicycle? Or that nobody will pick you up when you fall? It seems a harsh way to teach a five-year-old, even if the lesson is about survival. But wait: Sukrungruang weaves his story about learning to ride with another about how his father learned to swim — thrown into a river in Thailand, only to find that by the time he came coughing to shore that his mother had turned around and gone home. History repeated — trauma passed down from father to son. Except there is one crucial difference: Sukrungruang’s father witnesses and praises the boy’s achievement. However Sukrungruang might choose to teach a child to ride — and I’d wager it would involve fewer tears — by linking the two stories he conveys the understanding that his father gave him more validation than he’d received himself. He gave love. Imperfect, harrowing, immigrant love.
The bike-riding anecdote appears early in Southside Buddhist, Sukrungruang’s new collection of essays, published by University of Tampa Press. His previous works include a memoir — Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy — and a book of poetry, In Thailand It Is Night, which won the Anita Claire Scharf Award. Most of the 20 essays in Southside Buddhist have been previously published, appearing in publications ranging from The Briar Cliff Review to Shambhala Sun. The first nine pieces revolve around Sukrungruang’s parents and childhood, while the latter half deal primarily with his adult life. Three have been cited as “Notable” in the Best American Essays series. Sukrungruang teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Florida, and evidently heeds what must be his own advice: Bring scenes and characters alive. Attend to the rhythms of language. Write about what hurts, and remember to have a bit of fun, too.
The title “Southside Buddhist” encapsulates dissimilar elements from which Sukrungruang strives to forge a coherent self. “Southside” refers to the south side of Chicago, where Sukrungruang, referred to as “the other white meat” by his friends, grew up roaming with Polish and Irish boys who acted tougher than they were. Buddhism is his legacy, his religion: His parents pray to Buddha for protection in an alien land, and as a lonely boy, Sukrungruang conjures a schoolyard Buddha as his imaginary friend: “Look at Eric,” Buddha says. “He’s sooooo fat. Danny is the stinkiest. Tommy’s a fart head.”
The opening essay, “Abridged Immigrant Narrative,” in which he learns to ride and his father learns to swim, is the only one written in third person. There’s a practical reason for this: the essay tells of events that occurred before Sukrungruang was born — his parents’ early lives, their courtship and wedding. Then, too, the third-person point of view frames the story as both particular and archetypal. Going to the bank one day with his mother, at an age when he is barely tall enough to see over the counter, all Sukrungruang wants is a green lollipop. First, though, he must serve as interpreter, translating the account number, explaining about check clearance time. This is how it was for “the boy,” who “found himself talking to accountants and waitresses and sales clerks. He inquired about bra sizes and ordered whenever his parents went to an American restaurant.” It’s not that his parents cannot speak English. They can. Even so, they look to their son to mediate for them.
Many of the experiences Sukrungruang renders are common among immigrant children: the too-early shouldering of responsibility, the wounding impression of parents as wounded, the urge to flee. Having conquered his bicycle, the boy pedals it fast down the driveway and into the forbidden street, to test his parents’ fear-based boundaries. “The immigrant comes in search of a larger world, only to find a smaller one,” he writes. “Yes, the land is expansive. Yes, it stretches across deserts and mountains and prairies. But the immigrant only feels safe, feels free, in the space of home.” If the American dream is of success, he suggests, the immigrant dream is of survival. Whereas the boy — the boy dreams of being a boy.
Other writers have traveled this territory. Based on a variety of narratives, we could almost make a checklist of themes: wanting to fit in, being caught between cultures, stinky food. But Sukrungruang’s account never devolves into cliché; his essays are fresh with authentic detail and high-stakes engagement.
In the way of the visual artist, he is a close observer of negative space — true to the immigrant experience, he constructs scenes as much from what is missing as from what is actually there. Describing his parents’ wedding, for instance, Sukrungruang writes: “They did not ride on top of an elephant. They did not walk side by side around the temple grounds three times. Their parents did not meet to discuss the compatibility of the union. […] Their wedding took place instead at the Cook County Courthouse. There was a judge.” Later, when young Sukrungruang wins the American Legion Award, he is asked to make a speech: “The parents waited for him to say how much he loved them. They waited for him to say that they had made many sacrifices for the betterment of his life. Instead, he said: It’s good to be an American.”
All children fail to see their parents as people — that’s natural. Immigrant children fail their mothers and fathers in all the usual ways and perhaps some others, too. We judge our parents through the eyes of the dominant culture and find them lacking. We criticize their accents, their food, their clothes. To become ourselves, we reject our role as the embodiment of their hopes. And how do they fail us? Sometimes just because they are sad.
Sukrungruang’s father works for years as a chemist in a tile factory, hoping for a promotion or for some side business scheme to pan out. In the haunting essay “The Wide-Open Mouth,” Sukrungruang conjures memories of his father, each vignette appearing under a section heading “O.” The repetition of “O” spreads visually across the pages like windows into blank space. Spoken aloud, the exclamation resonates in the body like grief. His father is elusive, hard to focus. Ultimately, he leaves the family and, like the Cheshire Cat, dissolves into a lingering image — not of a grin but of an “O” — the wide-open mouth of a man who will not answer his son’s question: “When will I see you again?”
Sukrungruang’s mother, meanwhile, remains the central force of his childhood — a source of love and attunement as well as crippling insecurity. She worked for 30 years as a nurse, he tells us — though we rarely see her show the confidence and competence this must have required. Rather, he portrays her as waking up each day feeling lost, coming home from her job to spend hours sewing clothes she’ll never wear outside, checking the house locks nightly in fear.
Ira absorbs her sense of isolation. In “Playing with Buddha,” he writes about the day his second-grade teacher asked his mother to come in for a meeting. When she arrives, the teacher explains that Ira is so shy that he can barely speak two words at a time; bullied off the schoolyard swing set, he spends recess on a bench staring at his hands. “I am sorry for him,” his mother replies. “He is like me.”
As sorrowful as Southside Buddhist can be, it’s ultimately a book about healing. In his college years, Sukrungruang meets his future wife, Katie, a white woman who grew up in a central Illinois neighborhood of unlocked doors. From Katie, he learns to trust in the world around him, in his own belonging, even in the wind to fly a kite. A nature lover, Katie introduces him to birding. “You have to love what you watch,” he writes in “For the Novice Bird-Watcher.” In “The Takeover: A Love Story,” Katie and Ira hang bird feeders on the trees outside their rented farm house, and binoculars in hand, he begins to differentiate among woodpeckers and chickadees, swallows and bluebirds. Creatures creep out to reveal themselves: the mouse in the bag of jasmine rice, the groundhog living under the propane tank. Sukrungruang begins to feel at home, to inhabit the landscape more consciously. The poet in him sees “beaks pointed like a needle,” hears “the buzz of electricity like a hummingbird in flight.”
Although Katie is a positive force in Sukrungruang’s life — perhaps because that is so — his portrayal of her lacks the dimension he brings to his descriptions of his parents; his portraits are more complex and more credible when his feelings are more ambivalent. Katie seems “to sprout from the earth itself,” he writes in “Into the Country.” The essay begins with a quote from Woody Allen — “I am at two with nature” — and amusingly contrasts his family’s sole camping trip (a quick getaway to a motel) to the wholesome outdoorsiness of his wife and her clan. Katie likes to talk about wildflowers, RV trips, and swimming in lakes. “Listening to her is like watching NOVA on PBS.” Even so, I found myself wondering: Is Katie really that well adjusted? And what am I to make of my lingering impression of her ease with the world as a function of privilege as much as character?
Still, the reader enjoys Katie’s presence and influence in Sukrungruang’s life. My favorite moment of “Into the Country” comes when she and Ira take his mother on vacation to Maine. His mother, for whom the countryside has long been a reminder of childhood poverty, turns out to be a natural birder. “I liking them all,” she says. To Sukrungruang, this signifies the bridging of families and cultures, whereas I was just glad the woman got to spend that joyful day with her son and his wife.
Healing is about finding joy, but it’s also about coming to terms with wounds. In “To Kill a Thought: A Confession,” Sukrungruang honestly and bravely grapples with suicidal urges. “Sometimes you can get lost and every direction looks the same,” he writes. He explains that his Thai mother believes depression is an American malady that derives from weakness and overthinking. “This,” he writes, “from a woman who would go through silent periods for weeks and walk the upstairs of the house like a zombie.”
The essay form allows Sukrungruang to consider such difficult topics from different perspectives, to bring both research and reflection to the mix. At times, though, he seems to skitter nervously around his subject. “Suicide. I wanted to commit suicide. (Neo-Latin suicidium, of one self). [William] Styron again: ‘… it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.’” Styron is interesting, but we know about Styron: I wanted the author to stay with his own experience, rather than escape sideways to the dictionary or to another writer.
When he does dive deep, the work is powerful. In “Body Replies,” grown to 370 pounds, he hauls himself to yoga and hates himself for not being able to walk “correctly.” When his instructor asks him what he’s thinking, he claims to be focusing on “heel then toe” when he’s really running a familiar tape of self-castigation: “I say, fat. I say, ugly. I say, stupid.” He goes on:
I spend most of my day trying to disappear. […] Many fat people do this. To hide ourselves, we exaggerate another part of our personalities. I put on a wide smile. I nod voraciously. I ask questions. I make people laugh. In this way, I place persona in front of Body. […] This, perhaps, is why fat people have been stereotyped as jolly […]. We deny ourselves true feeling; we belittle our suffering.
The very act of articulating this truth is a reclamation of selfhood. In this way, Sukrungruang breaks the silence that surrounds and fosters corrosive shame.
In an epigraph to the essay “Constellations,” Sukrungruang quotes author Bill Roorbach from the book Writing Life Stories: “And — I’m just realizing this — memory is what people are made out of. After skin and bone, I mean. And if memory is what people are made out of, then people are made out of loss.”
Loss, then, is the human condition, and memory is the vanishing trace of us. But the personal essay is something else. It’s a chance to correct the axis on which the world spins, to revisit our experience, to consider what was overlooked or misunderstood the first time. A writer can’t change how it was, but he can say it. He can find language worthy of the dear things that are slipping away — or of the disowned parts of the self that are nonetheless part of who he is. Sukrungruang does all this with courage and grit — southside style — and, I’ll say, a Buddhist approach to witnessing. Binoculars provide a tool for looking outward. Writing, though, provides a means to see inward — to observe, to consciously inhabit, even to love.