Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Immigrant Buddhist Memoirs

I am what they call a "convert Buddhist" - born white in North America, to a nominally agnostic family, but raised in Christian culture. I came to Buddhism in my late teens and early twenties, and adopted Shambhala Buddhism, which contains threads of original Tibetan Buddhisms and also American adaptations, specifically for people like me.

But I am aware this is not the only experience by far. One of my ongoing "research" projects is to learn more about race in North American buddhism - specifically how the convert buddhisms we have now in North America often cater more towards white folks than people of color. In the meantime, I am also taking up efforts to immerse myself in the experiences of immigrant buddhists, sometimes called "ethnic buddhists" - folks who (or whose parents) came to the US as buddhists, and attend temples or places of practice oriented towards only their kind - e.g. Thai, where all attendees are Thai or Thai ethnically, and speak only Thai together. This seems especially important now, in the heightened era of intense national discrimination against immigrants.

This search lead me to the memoir of a man about my age, Talk Thai: The Adventures of a Buddhist Boy by Ira Sukrungruang, who grew up in a Northwest Chicago suburb. His parents immigrated to the US as adults, and he was born in the US. But his experience was a definite conflict and confluence of Thai and what's generically considered "America" (e.g. whiteness) - Thai at home, English at school; Buddhism at home and Temple, Christianity at school and with friends; ethnicity clear and strong at home, challenged by whiteness at school and in the world. Here's a passage that shows both neck-in-neck when he was very young:
Before school each morning, I chanted quietly: I am a warrior, I am a warrior. I put my Buddha in my mouth..and I prayed to him, asking for a better day. I slipped into an alternate world. I am on top of an elephant - a warrior, a king - bursting through the wall of of Mrs S's classroom. With me are the animals of the world. I stand on my elephant, raise my arms up to the sky, and tell my classmates I am their new leader. Henceforth, I am not a crybaby. I do not talk funny; it is you who speak with an accent...Yes, this is how today will turn out. Much better than yesterday. Today I will be king. 
As soon as I stepped out of the house, however, my built-up courage seeped out of me, and the strange invisible walls of this country closed in. I remember watching a nature show about bees on PBS, remembered that if an alien bee mistakenly flew into a hive it was immediately terminated.
Sukrungruang has a great sense of humor, and has clearly processed a lot of his experiences with kindness towards his parents' struggles and his own. He speaks to experiences common - though by no means justified - of being bullied because of not only weight, but religion and, most commonly, race. He speaks of idealizing superheros and specific white boys/men. One of my favorite passages is about which white folks different family members idealized, and how they varied:
I told my aunt I wanted to be white...
"Like Larry Bird?" Aunty Sue smiled.
I shook my head. Even though the Boston Celtics star had the sweetest release when he shot the basketball, he wasn't the white I imagined. I was beginning to categorize the different divisions of white. Larry was Sweaty White. Tom Select, my mother's secret crush, was Hairy White. Ronald Reagan was Boring White. Boy George was Scary White. The boys in my class were Wild White or Meany White or Stupid Fart Head White.
"Like who then?"
I wanted to be Ricky from Silver Spoons...he was a white kid who faced white problems, which were, to me, simple, which resolved themselves in half an hour. Ricky was Perfect White.
As a buddhist who is a convert, I deeply appreciate all his detailed descriptions about temple and teachings. What would it be like to grow up in Buddhism, to have it be a part of your culture so deeply that everyone believes it? I don't idealize that - it's not perfect - but getting to peek into that experience is deeply powerful and helpful for me.

There really is a huge divide in this country between these two main manifestations of Buddhism - I am happy to keep exploring through memoir what those feel like, alongside my other research in articles and essays.

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