Fulbright Stories
ETA Narrative: Charles (Cha) Mangan

Pressing onto damp and mushy grass, rotting and holed red bricks anchor Northern Thai Buddha iconography and Pagodas. I was the only foreigner-looking foreigner in my group, and people’s gazes kept on me. I was so self-conscious, but I didn’t want to seem unappreciative or ruin the mood. It is my first Loy Krathong, after all. Looking for a distraction, my eyes fix on the surrounding brick.

Impressively, these bricks of aged, rusty hues have upheld the remains of the ancient Sukhothai city for around seven centuries. Sukhothai, where I was placed to teach English this past year, is known by many Thai People as the “original” Thailand, as it was the first independent Thai nation. Now, 21st-century Sukhothai locals don’t live in the park as their ancestors did 700 years ago. Nor has it been completely abandoned, either. Now, it's “Sukhothai Historical Park,” the province’s “claim-to-fame” tourist attraction and a gathering place for Thai celebration - a celebration of heritage, history, language evolution, and Thai-Buddhist Holidays—specifically, Loy Krathong.

Loy Krathong is a Thai festival and holiday celebrated throughout Thailand during the 12th month in the Thai calendar during the full moon. Thinking with the Western calendar, this means that it typically falls sometime within November. Last year (2022), it was in early November, so I had been in Sukhothai for only a few weeks. To someone who’s never celebrated Loy Krathong, it still is an incredibly beautiful holiday, really. Floral, too. Maybe I’ll fixate on the lights and flowers. They’re the main event, anyway.

My friends and I light our “Krathongs.” Thung Saliam, Sukhothai.

Colonies of incense and candle flames flicker and crawl about me. Alive and warm, their imprints remain against the blackness as I close my eyes. Loy Khrathong is a community-oriented day of personal spirituality. It’s stunning - the light and wishes you carry are all but alone. Against the water’s reflection, the already massive chorus of lights doubles into what feels like infinity. Each light is tucked tightly into woven krathongs, or cake-shaped bundles of banana leaves customly decorated with lotuses, jasmines, and plumeria. Fragrant, the krathongs' scents hug the inside of your nose.

Some Krathongs Float In The Lake. Sukhothai Historical Park.

The rosy sunset has now matured into a rich red wine, making the lights especially poke out. My Thai friend hands me a Krathong and tells me to lower it into the water. Everywhere, I see Thai people kneeling before the water and gently placing their krathongs into the water. I was told that, as a rule of thumb for culturally-sensitive immersion, you mirror the people around you. So, I mirror. As I lower a Krathong into the water, I thank nature, consider what I want and expect out of life this coming year, and wish for good fortunes. At the birthplace of Thailand, the country of my own mother’s birth, I supposed this was meant to be a contemplative moment. I sat and thought. What did I want?

Lights Shining Near the Sukhothai Sign (in old Thai). Sukhothai Historical Park.

Just over a month ago, on my flight over to Thailand, I asked myself the same question. I am half-Thai and hadn’t been to Thailand in around twelve years, so this coming year in Thailand held sentimental value. I spent a large chunk of my life feeling undeserving of claiming Thai culture as my own - my eyes were green, my skin was pale, my hair was curly, and not once in my life had I been assumed to be Thai. The act of moving to Thailand for a year almost felt like the fulfillment of a perverse dream - perverse in that I was fighting an instinctual shame for bringing it up. I bore a weight that I so badly wanted to shed. No longer would I exist within the in-between - Thai or American. In Thailand, I would be as Thai as I could.

To blend in and become Thai, I had to prove it, as if the act of “being Thai” was a list of actions and things and behaviors of the people around me. I would let go of my Americanness. I would be a mirror. Can you speak the language? Can you eat spicy food? Are you a practicing Buddhist? This trip, in my mind, meant ticking off those criteria. I was finally going to… become more Thai. Whatever that meant. Although I had been in Thailand for two months, I was the least Thai I had in my entire life. My foreignness so blatantly contrasted against every other person around me in provincial Thailand. Not only did I look different, but I also barely understood the language. As much as I wanted to blend into the people around me, I couldn’t. I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Me taking a Photo of May, Another Thailand ETA. Sukhothai Historical Park.

What did I want? The smells of my Krathong’s flora and incense calm me down, helping me concentrate. I arrived at two goals, vaguely. Firstly, I wanted to be seen as Thai - I wanted the external approval of Thai people. My Thainess felt antithetical to Americanness. To become more Thai meant abandoning Americanness. So secondly, I wanted to abandon Americanness. I would push myself. I would try my best to study Thai, speak as much Thai as I could, and say yes to any outings with my Thai friends. I would brute force myself through the culture shocks, pretending the culture shocks in communication, food, and in lifestyle didn’t sting my senses. At the end of this tough and long road, I could smell and taste the spoils. I would have Thai acceptance. I would be happier. I would be more content. I would be more at peace with myself. That’s what I wanted: transformation. With that mish-mash of thoughts and two vague goals floating about my head, I lowered the krathong. He rocks but finds his standing in the water.

For the longest time, I thought “Loy” meant to lower. But, as it turns out, I was wrong: it means to float. I didn’t figure this out until months later when a friend told me in passing.

A Small Krathong Floats in the Water. Sukhothai Historical Park.

I was walking away with my friends when curiosity made me look back at my Krathong. He was lost in the sea of wishes. I had no idea which he was, but I took that as a good sign.

Krathongs of Varying Sizes Float on the Water. Sukhothai Historical Park.

It wasn’t too long until I thought about the Krathong again. Sleepily, I opened the train curtain and looked out onto the Ubon sunrise. It was early December 2022, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the last time I had seen the sunrise in Ubon Ratchathani, my mother’s home province. I would’ve been about eleven. This sky was lit into a bright Barbie pink. Beautiful, but something about it felt out of place. Some edges and lines didn’t need to be there. I scrunched my crusted eyelids in search of what this error was. No, it wasn’t the trees or the fields. It took a moment - though, to my defense, I was half asleep.

The error was my reflection. Refocusing my vision closer, I examined myself. Sweaty and in need of a haircut, this moppy-headed Charlie wasn’t quite what I expected. I had begun a mental ritual of comparing myself within the growth of my “Thai-ness” - then to now. I reflected on the choppy Thai conversations I had with the people the train conductors the night before. It was not my best performance. I could’ve practiced my Thai in the corner before approaching them just a minute more. It would’ve made all the difference in their impression of me. I thought about my Krathong. I imagined it sinking. I wonder if it had sunk that night. The train car had come to a halt for almost half a minute before I realized we had stopped. Refocusing my eyes, I looked past myself, and on the other side of the window they waited: my family.

My Thai family played a vital role in the development of my understanding of Thai culture. Beyond that, they understood me. No long-winded explanations of my ancestry - everybody knew Charlie, and knew I was here to connect and learn. All the noise and pressures of mirroring had lifted - I was an unjudged student.

The thing about immersion is that you learn aspects of the culture you’d never be able to learn by reading online or in a video. You learn sharp cooking techniques, the way to say cheers in their neck of the woods, the stressors in their lives. You find tidbits of commonality. A love for shopping runs in both my American and Thai family, so we just had to hit the Central World.

A Photobooth Pic of Me and my Cousins JiJi, Phraew, and JanJan. CentralWorld.

My family is full of teachers, so a lot of their struggles with student behavior management sounded just like mine. Even my cousin Jan, who was my age, was even a Teacher! And what similar tolls our voices went through each week! I felt so in place. Food, being so central to both my American and Thai family, was also a strong connector. The smiles on their faces, when they saw me eat Khao Niew (Sticky Rice) and grilled pork neck like a pro, were priceless! These moments of finding common humanity were so savory. I felt a deep pride for moving to Thailand and for my heritage. I thought: I was no guest to this culture. This was my culture.

Returning to Sukhothai, I remembered that I was, in fact, a guest. Thailand was composed of smells and tastes I had only known in bits and pieces. Humbling lows left the bitter taste of disconnect. The most pungent and recurring reminder of my otherness was the language. To no surprise, learning Thai is difficult. Against a sea of native speakers, it’s easy to think “Wow, I will always have the comprehension of a two-year-old.” Of course, this is of no detriment to the Thai people around me. The Thai people around were often very encouraging of my attempts at speaking Thai, oftentimes dropping the “Poot Thai Geng Mak!” - you speak Thai so well! Objectively incredibly kind words, words meant to encourage my development. And yet, something stung.

The further into the grant, the more I heard the same reaction! “Poot Geng Mak, Geng Mak! So Good!” This “more of the same” effect from people didn’t stop at just speaking.

Even as my spice tolerance developed, I was constantly met with reactions of surprise - “Wow, gin phet dai mai? You can eat spicy food?” For the first few months, I thought… “Of course I can! I tell you I can, why is that so crazy?” I mirrored, but I didn’t receive the results I wanted. The comments and the weight they bore built up. I became more and more frustrated. Were these words kind? Of course, they were. They were pieces of simple conversation. And yet, they were markers of my otherness, the perception of my foreign identity. The more I held onto the dream of blending in and letting go of my Americanness, the more these moments stung.

A lit-up Pagoda and Small Lake at the Sukhothai Historical Park

My insistence and ego led me nowhere. To be a mirror and only a mirror meant losing all recognition of my original substance: who I was, and where I came from. Even though I was part Thai, I was also a foreigner. This was something I had to learn, painfully. Accepting this felt very lonely.

However, coming to accept the entirety of who I was and where I came from soon empowered me. A callusing process, I soon understood that being “othered” was not the same as being “excluded.” Very rarely have I ever been “excluded” from activities - the Thai community around me has welcomed me with open arms! Once I began to understand this, my experience as a “part-Thai foreigner” blossomed.

A wavy, unstill image of my face floats on the puddle's bouncing surface, staring back at me. It was August 2023, the onset of Thailand’s rainy season when I found myself amidst armies of puddles. Always surrounded by mirrors, I had no choice but to catch glances of myself floating. I thought about my Krathong again. I wonder if it had sunk that night. Quickly, my watery portrait was overcast by something else. Though my back was turned and I had headphones in, I knew my aunts, uncles, and cousins had finally arrived. With grins as wide as theirs, how could I not see them welcome me through the tiny reflections? My American family - my mother, father, brother, and sister - was staying at the family home and were waiting for my Thai cousins, aunts, and uncles to finally arrive.

My American and Thai Family at my home in Ubon Ratchathani

They unload a feast. Infinite lab, som tam, grilled pork neck, grilled chicken, pickled garlic, and stick rice were all prepared and laid out for us to enjoy until our bellies were full. Looking at my siblings, I gratefully observed that they ate with the same precision that I did. Even though we were Americans, we had no problems with sticky rice and the grilled pork neck. Throughout their trip, we all existed in a strange mix of knowing and not knowing, understanding and not understanding. They updated me about life at home in America. I missed it, and yet I had an immense love and pull for living in Thailand.

Returning to school in Sukhothai, I was eager to share my version of American culture - Thai American culture. Spaghetti Drunken Noodles. Playing on your DS at Temple. People call your family Taiwanese. I had beautiful, meaty conversations about the differences between Thai and Thai American culture. Differences in food, attitudes, values, and culture. I became much more comfortable in my Americanness. Embracing Thainess didn’t mean getting rid of my Americanness: these identities could co-exist. I am an American guy from the Philly Suburbs. I missed cheesesteaks and hoagies. I missed cold falls and sweaters. I missed going to thrift stores with my friends. I missed killing afternoons in Targets.

Upon writing this, my second Loy Khrathong in Sukhothai quickly approaches. I reflect on what I let go of. I look towards what I’ll let go of next time. This Loy Khrathong, I will not let go of my Americanness. I am Thai, but I am also an American. These qualities are permanent. What I shall let go of… is needing the acceptance of others to know who I am. Fitting into the mold of how those around me expect a Thai person, how they expect an American. I am myself. I do not have a list of criteria that needs to be filled out. I am all my complexities and contradictions and mistakes and flaws all at once. Yes, my Thai is bad. My eyes are green. I miss hoagies. But you know what? I love grilled pork neck.

Happy Loy Khrathong!

- Charlie / Cha