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Lions Roar : November 2018
In October we were on edge, my father double-checking if the doors were locked, my mother praying to the Buddha in our liv- ing room for protection. Because we were the first family of color on the block back then, our house was the perfect bull’s-eye for eggs and shaving cream, especially on the last day of the month. Hello, it’s Halloween. H ALLOWEEN WAS another day my parents didn’t understand. But now they had a son in America, who went to American schools, hung out with weird Ameri- can boys, yearned for American fast food and American things. Who wanted to be American, eviscerating the Thai Buddhist in him because the Thai Buddhist was what set him apart when all he wanted was to belong. The Thai Buddhist and his Thai Bud- dhist family did peculiar things, like setting offerings of coffee to the statue of Buddha every morning or saying Pali prayers— words sounding like gravel—which the boy never understood the meaning of. American Boy was a costume he wanted to wear perma- nently. American Boy wanted to be like the other American Boys in the sitcoms he watched, where problems were solved in thirty minutes, where at the end of every show were smiles and hugs. American Boy was popular. American Boy was cool. Not Thai boy. Or Thai American Boy. American Boy would not sing the Thai National Anthem at sunrise; he’d start his day with the Pledge of Allegiance. American Boy would not pray to Buddha the way his mother taught him to, asking to be reborn in the same family, asking for safety in this strange country; instead, he’d pay homage to Frankenstein. What were his parents to do when their son talked so excit- edly about Halloween? What could they do? They tried. They taped a cardboard cutout of a spider or a black cat in an angry arch in the window. They wrote the word Boo underneath Buddha. They put a pumpkin on the front doorstep, which would be splattered by neighborhood kids within days. W HEN OCTOBER CAME so did images of the super- natural, the dark netherworld. The country turned orange and black, the grocery stores advertising infinite bags of candy. Skeletons were everywhere—on doors and windows and in stores and classrooms. In our neighbor- hood, some houses went all out: mechanical witches and coffins and Styrofoam gravestones. One house had an eerie soundtrack playing from hidden speakers and a fog machine that clouded the front yard. Meanwhile, cloaked figures and maniacal clowns scared the bejesus out of little kids. All in good fun. Worst of all, horror movie commercials aired between TV shows. When one came on, fright took over my body, my eyes wide and unblinking, as trailers of some film played on the old Zenith. These commercials were filled with creepy music and screams and the prospects of imminent death. Sometimes, I would wake my mother from her needed nap before the night shift at the hospital so she could tell me everything was all right, that no man with a hockey mask was going to get me. She would tell me to keep Buddha’s image in my head. If Buddha were in the mind and heart, he would protect me from any monster. I did what my mother instructed, but eventually Buddha would transform into a dreaded werewolf howling at a full moon. I WAS AN ONLY CHILD, so my imagination made most days Halloween. I spent a lot of time pretending. I was the immortal Hulk Hogan, with twenty-six-inch pythons (biceps), wearing a yellow bandana and tattered T-shirt that could be ripped off my torso. Or I transformed into Michael Jackson and moonwalked across the turquoise carpet of our liv- ing room, singing “Billie Jean” in near falsetto. Or I was one of the doctors my mother worked with at the hospital, laying out surgi- cal tools for a life-saving operation. Slipping into other identities was easy for me when I was in so much conflict with my own. But there was one day you could definitely be someone else. One day you could wear a mask and no one would look twice. Hello, it’s Halloween. When I was nine, I wanted to be Larry Bird, Boston Celtic star, who could make a basket from anywhere on the court. I was enamored of him. Wanted his cool and calm demeanor. Wanted his don’t-mess-with-me attitude, like when he slugged Bill Lambeer because Bill Lambeer was a bully and there were too many bullies in the world. “Always white people,” my mother said. She sewed another Thai dress she wouldn’t wear because there were no occasions to wear them. Her dresses clogged up her closet, but she couldn’t stop sewing them, as if the making of them was a way for her to dream, to see herself in some fancy ball, being some fancy person, doing fancy things a dress like that would dictate. These dresses were desire stitched into elaborately patterned Thai silk. “Can’t you be Bruce Lee?” she said. I shrugged. I didn’t say what I was thinking. That I had equated white with American, the same way some of the kids at school equated Buddha with the fat dude at Chinese restaurants. “Larry Bird is too white,” she said. “Do you want to powder your face? Wear a blonde curly wig?” She laughed and looked out the front window. October. The leaves on the lawn reminded her of lost time. Reminded her that she wasn’t home. Now her son wanted to be Larry Bird, her son she felt she was losing. I told her watching Larry Bird play was like watching magic. I made a shooting motion with my hands, tossing an invisible ball into an invisible basket. Swish. “Why don’t you be King Mongkut this Halloween? You know King Mongkut, right?” I knew King Mongkut, fourth monarch of Siam, who LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2018 68