Here Be Dragons

By

On one of the world’s oldest maps, off the coast of Southeast Asia the phrase “here be dragons” is written in Latin. Asia—the Orient—the exotic other. Dragons signpost: “Beware, civilized person. Beyond this boundary, different rules apply.”

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I was born and raised in Bangkok by a Thai mother and an American father. My parents met working at a tech company in the early ’80s. They are equally educated. My mother’s career took her from Thailand to Singapore, Ireland, Australia, back to Ireland. When she lived in Singapore, my mom was one of the few Thai women Singaporeans encountered who wasn’t cleaning their houses, which is to say that Thai women in Singapore are often maids. So sometimes my mother was treated as a maid. That was frustrating, maddening, but the fact that she put up with that, in her suit going to work each day, meant that maybe the next Thai woman a Singaporean met was less likely to be typed so easily.

My father’s career kept him in Thailand. He is an anomalous foreigner who stayed in the Kingdom, not rotating in and out on an expat package, or coming to the country to retire.

Growing up, I attended a British school. I met my American husband when we were undergraduates at Brown University; the two of us moved to Thailand, then Australia, working our way through my inherited need to travel. Now we live in the Bay Area where he works for a Kenyan company. Ours is a global family, but one that is constantly explaining our unions and countries of residence.

People in the US are usually surprised when I say that my Thai mother lives in Ireland. “How did that happen? That’s so strange.” Strange, and their little laugh that accompanies the statement, are code for their assumptions about the education and mobility of this foreign woman of color, who in this case is my mom. She most recently worked for Salesforce, a fast growing tech company headquartered in San Francisco. When she moved to Singapore it was to work for Intel, another large tech company. She is ambitious and accomplished. She defies the stereotypes.

My dad runs up against a different stereotype. That he, a white American man, lives in Thailand is not unusual. White American Men have more world-conquering powers according to a general, Western, Here be dragons 1unexamined assumption of normalcy. But when my parents were first married, in 1984, they spent a night in Bangkok at the Oriental Hotel, considered to be the epitome of class and elegance. It must have cost my dad more than he could afford at the time to get a room there. He must have been so proud.

As my parents approached the elevator, they were stopped by hotel staff who informed my dad that women like my mom weren’t welcome in their establishment. A White man with a Thai woman could only mean one thing: he is rich and she is a prostitute. My dad corrected the hotel staff, and my parents rode the lift up to their room

My dad never related the Oriental Hotel story to me. My mom did, shaking with remembered humiliation. Growing up, it became part of my vocabulary of inherited family wrongs to be righted. I was not sure that I would be able to fix this. I am only half Thai, and my white half protects me from their condescension. It is only in the West that I am seen as the lascivious Thai woman stereotype. But when my now-husband and I got engaged, my dad insisted on one thing: that we get married at the Oriental Hotel.

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I am writing here around the weight of a stereotype that trumps all others, and best explained in Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger Of A Single Story. In that speech Chimamanda, who is Nigerian, tells us about her American college roommate’s shock that Mariah Carey, and not some “tribal music”, was Chimamanda’s CD of choice. She says that the single story of Africa is one of catastrophe. It reduces potentially complex understandings of people and place to one-dimensional pity. In her speech, Chimamanda says she’s looking for the possibility of equal human connection.

For anyone from the global fringe, the flattening expectation created by a cultural stereotype is pervasive and familiar. There is, of course, a single story of Thailand. It is what my parents confronted in the hotel, the stereotype of the foreign man seeking a Thai woman. People unfamiliar with the country won’t know that shorthand for a wife who is twenty years her foreign husband’s junior, who speaks broken English, who is from the countryside, who may have met her husband while working at a “bar”—that woman is called a “Thai wife.”

Bangkok bookstores are full of this reductive narrative. On my last trip home I stood in front of the bookshelf for “Thai literature”, a category that mostly consists of crime thrillers written by white men capitalizing on the little they know about the Thailand. The books are formulaic: white male meets Thai female in the exotic Kingdom, land of smiles. They fall in love. She is sweeter, kinder, and easier to please than any foreign woman he has been with. The myth of the exotic Asian female is upheld. Then he finds he’s been duped: his Thai wife, who is inevitably from a poor family in the country, turns out to be in it for his money. Interwoven with tales of drug users, gang members, Muay Thai fighters, and monks, and the story is a predictable series of plot twists with the white male hero struggling to navigate a country more frightening and less friendly than it initially appeared.

Here is an example: the blurb of the novel, My Thai Girl and I:

This is about how Andrew Hicks met Cat, a ‘Thai girl’ half his age and how they set up home together in her village out in the rice fields of North Eastern Thailand. He’ll tell you of toads in the toilet, of ants’ eggs for breakfast, how they took up frog farming and how he got married without really meaning to.

The single story of Thai wives is insulting to every Thai union, even if the woman is from a village where they do eat ants’ eggs. Exotifying hardship and cultural norm serves no one but the spectator. There is a crisis of education and upward mobility in Thailand, which begins to account for the prevalence of willing Thai women and our recent political turbulence. But in the same way that Africa is more than a continent ridden with catastrophe, even given the current Ebola outbreak, Thailand is more than a country where one kind of woman marries one kind of foreign man. As Chimamanda would point out, there is no possibility in that singular narrative for Thai women who are educated, financially self-sufficient, uninterested in foreign men, or not in need of rescue. It should go without saying that too many of the current stories are from the perspective of the white male foreigner.

Now, my lineage is different. My mother is educated and my parents met at work. I was careful to say that I met my husband when we were both in college. So even despite the story that my parents have, and the story that my husband and I have, “Thai wife” is an insult I’m anxious to skirt. It’s a stereotype that overwrites complexity. Despite my efforts though, I have been introduced as my husband’s “Thai wife.” Although I recoil at the phrase, I recognize that if I’m not willing to widen and reclaim the definition of a Thai wife, who will?

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For the last few years, I’ve been writing fiction about Thailand. A big influence on my work has been Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, whose truth-telling career and electrifying latest novel, Americanah, has been the lodestar by which I try to navigate. Chimamanda came into my Here Be Dragons 2life as one of the writers who showed me how much I didn’t know about Nigeria, and made me realize how much more needs to be told about Thailand.

Americanah is notable for how it traces an immigrant arc from Lagos to the US and back. Ifemelu, the protagonist of Americanah, grows up in Lagos, and yearns to be educated in the US. She succeeds in coming to study here. The reader experiences the excruciating journey of integration with Ifemelu, struggling to find a job, to understand Americans and our habits. After some years, Ifemelu adapts to life in the US. She maintains a blog on racism in America that has some of the best modern commentary on the issue that I’ve read, even though the blog is embedded in the novel as something written by a fictional character. Ifemelu wins a fellowship at Princeton; she dates a Black American academic. Then she gets homesick. This is not the homesickness of one who has “failed”, whatever that means, to gain a foothold in their new society. Ifemelu decides to go back to Lagos. Unlike a typical immigration story where America is the destination, a pinnacle of achievement, Adichie gives us a global arc; her protagonist returns to a developing country. Americanah is exciting because it depicts the world I live in, a world that has moved past one-way immigrations. That world demands a literature that reaches beyond the single story.

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As an undergraduate, I took a seminar on African women writers with the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo. Each week Aidoo placed a blank map of Africa with national boundaries drawn in front of us. Pacing between our desks, Aidoo said that Africa is a continent, not a country, and we were to learn that fact. We had five minutes on the clock to map the countries and their capitals. To my embarrassment, I discovered places I’d never known existed: Burkina Faso, Togo, Djibouti. This made me sympathetic to people who confused Thailand and Taiwan, or asked if I speak Japanese.

One day after our obligatory test, Aidoo announced that she’d been on a panel of judges who granted an exciting new writer the Orange Prize. Who was that writer?  Of course it was Chimamanda Adichie, who won the prize for her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. When I learnt about Biafra reading Half of a Yellow Sun, I started thinking about the untold stories of Thailand. I imagined writing in English about why Thailand was never colonized, about the effect of the US bases in the country during the Vietnam War, which was where the demand for sex tourism came from.

Before I took that class with Ama Ata Aidoo, I had a failure of curiosity about Africa. I was guilty of many of the assumptions that Binyavanga Wainana named in his satire, “How to Write About Africa,” which went viral. Wainana nailed the expectations of people like me when he wrote:

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or “safari’ in your title.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these.

Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

The burden of stereotype is heavy. Once when I waited for my husband in a restaurant in San Francisco, a city of many Asians, a husband and wife starting talking to me. The husband perked up when he heard that I’m Thai. “I know some Thai,” he told me. “Just the naughty words.” It comes as a surprise, how lascivious a grown adult male can be to my face, even though I speak fluent English, even though this guy was in front of his wife, even though I was waiting for my husband. The single story of Thailand reaches far and deep. I was inspired to write a list like Wainana’s.

How to Endear Yourself to an Asian Woman Writer:

1. Tell her you love her eyes—they make her look smart.

2. Inquire at a shout about her English language skills. Congratulate her on her fluency.

3. Underestimate her age by ten to fifteen years. When you find that the petite girl you’ve been calling “sweetie” and “honey” is a woman older than you, older than you thought, has a partner, and you stand corrected, tell her she’ll be glad to look so young some day. Continue to call her “sweetie.”

4. Ask her where she’s from. Ask her where she’s from from.

5. When she says Japan/Vietnam/Laos, say you were once in Bali. Smile broadly. Congratulate yourself on your worldliness.

6. Announce that she writes real well for “someone her age,” despite having no inkling about the breadth and depth of where her life has taken her.

7. Put your hands on her shoulders, on her head. Touch her, stroke her like a pet, like a plaything, like she’s so cute, you just can’t resist; all women, but especially Asian women, are pliant.

8. When she tells you to stop, ask why she has to be angry. Tell your friends about the angry Asian chick. Warn them to stay away.

9. Commend her on her writing, then ask why she’s featuring another Burmese/South Korean/Filipina character. If she asks why you’re writing about another American one, see number 8, angry. Don’t forget to notify your friends.

10. Most of all, if you’re the type to be attracted to women, when she tells you she’s from Thailand, give her a smile that lets her know you like Thai women, you get the code, you’re on the inside, and you want some too.

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My encounter with the work of Chimamanda and other incredible global writers tells me that there is a rising generation of people who call many continents home. I don’t mean only immigrants, transplanted, yearning for somewhere as they fit themselves to the rhythm of their new country. What is it to be both, to exist in multiple cultural-linguistic dimensions, with traits from one culture that glare in relief in the other?

I’ve worked in Thailand as an adult and struggled because I have dared to disagree with men and with older people in meetings. At the same time, now that I live in the US, I find it bold and boggling when Americans state what they need with ease; I’m not used to individuals asserting “I want” with such authority. Here be dragons 3As a writer, I can fall between the cracks. I have been told by Americans and Thais that I don’t have the authority to write about either place.

But these are examples of a dated paradigm. My parents are cheerleaders of my global identity; they know that authenticity can encompass many-pronged belonging. I take heart that people like Chimamanda Adichie write about the fluid movement between Nigeria and the US. The writers who inspire me have been global: Nadine Gordimer (South African), Rohinton Mistry (Indian, Canadian), Leo Tolstoy (Russian), and Michael Ondaatje (Canadian, Sri Lankan). There are writers who’ve just published their first collections like Krys Lee (Korean, American) and Chinelo Okparanta (Nigerian), whose quiet, charged sentences speak to me about the way Thai culture seems muted on the surface but is fierce and elaborate underneath. I learn from them too.

I hope that what I do as a global writer will help to dispel stereotypes of Thailand the way that Chimamanda’s work has been a vehicle for demystifying Nigeria and upending the norm of one-way immigration stories. That every time I say, “Yes, I really lived in Bangkok until I was eighteen,” and “Yes, my English is fluent,” that I will be helping to expand the possibility that Thai wives and Thai women can be capable, self-sufficient, and complex humans. That by living my own multi-faceted, global life, I am complicating the idea of a single story. In this way, the globe is mapped, the regions lit, until there are no othered peoples, no dragons lurking at the edge of the unknown world.

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Rumpus original art by Max Winter.


Sunisa was born and raised in Bangkok. A graduate of Brown University and VCFA, she now lives in the Bay Area. She's working on a collection of short stories about Thai women and foreign men. She can be reached @sunisasn. More from this author →