Thai Americans

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by Megan Ratner


The Kingdom of Thailand was known as Siam until 1939. The Thai name for this nation is Prathet Thai or Muang Thai (Land of the Free). Located in Southeast Asia, it is somewhat smaller than Texas. The country covers an area of 198,456 square miles (514,000 square kilometers) and shares a northern border with Burma and Laos; an eastern boundary with Laos, Kampuchea, and the Gulf of Thailand; and a southern border with Malaysia. Burma and the Andaman Sea lie on its western edge.

Thailand has a population of just over 58 million people. Nearly 90 percent of the Thai people are Mongoloid, with lighter complexions than their Burmese, Kampuchean, and Malay neighbors. The largest minority group, about ten percent of the population, is Chinese, followed by the Malay and various tribal groups, including the Hmong, Iu Mien, Lisu, Luwa, Shan, and Karen. There are also 60,000 to 70,000 Vietnamese who live in Thailand. Nearly all people in the country follow the teachings of Buddhism. The 1932 constitution required that the king be a Buddhist, but it also called for freedom of worship, designating the monarch as "Defender of the Faith." The present king, Bhumibol Adulyadei, thus protects and improves the welfare of the small groups of Muslims (five percent), Christians (less than one percent), and Hindus (less than one percent) who also worship in Thailand. The Western name of the capital city is Bangkok; in Thai, it is Krung Thep (City of Angels) or Pra Nakhorn (Heavenly Capital). It is the seat of the Royal House, Government, and Parliament. Thai is the official language of the country, with English the most widely spoken second language; Chinese and Malay are also spoken. Thailand's flag consists of a broad blue horizontal band at the center, with narrower bands of stripes above and below it; the inner ones are white, the outer ones red.


The Thai have an ancient and complex history. Early Thai people migrated south from China in the early centuries a.d. Despite the fact that their former kingdom was located in Yunnan, China, the Thai, or T'ai, are a distinct linguistic and cultural group whose southward migration led to the establishment of several nation states now known as Thailand, Laos, and Shan State in Myanma (Burma). By the sixth century a.d. an important network of agricultural communities had spread as far south as Pattani, close to Thailand's modern border with Malaysia, and to the northeastern area of present-day Thailand. The Thai nation became officially known as "Syam" in 1851 under the reign of King Mongkrut. Eventually, this name became synonymous with the Thai kingdom and the name by which it was known for many years. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, several Thai principalities united and sought to break from their Khmer (early Cambodian) rulers. Sukothai, which the Thai consider the first independent Siamese state, declared its independence in 1238 (1219, according to some records). The new kingdom expanded into Khmer territory and onto the Malay peninsula. Sri Indradit, the Thai leader in the independence movement, became king of the Sukothai Dynasty. He was succeeded by his son, Ram Khamhaeng, who is regarded in Thai history as a hero. He organized a writing system (the basis for modern Thai) and codified the Thai form of Theravada Buddhism. This period is often viewed by modern-day Thais as a golden age of Siamese religion, politics, and culture. It was also one of great expansion: under Ram Khamheng, the monarchy extended to Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south, to Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos, and to Pegu in southern Burma.

Ayutthaya, the capital city, was established after Ram Khamheng's death in 1317. The Thai kings of Ayutthaya became quite powerful in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, adopting Khmer court customs and language and gaining more absolute authority. During this period, Europeans the Dutch, Portuguese, French, English, and Spanishbegan to pay visits to Siam, establishing diplomatic links and Christian missions within the kingdom. Early accounts note that the city and port of Ayutthaya astonished its European guests, who noted that London was nothing more than a village in comparison. On the whole, the Thai kingdom distrusted foreigners, but maintained a cordial relationship with the then-expanding colonial powers. During the reign of King Narai, two Thai diplomatic groups were sent on a friendship mission to King Louis XIV of France.

In 1765 Ayutthaya suffered a devastating invasion from the Burmese, with whom the Thais had endured hostile relations for at least 200 years. After several years of savage battle, the capital fell and the Burmese set about destroying anything the Thais held sacred, including temples, religious sculpture, and manuscripts. But the Burmese could not maintain a solid base of control, and they were ousted by Phraya Taksin, a first-generation Chinese Thai general who declared himself king in 1769 and ruled from a new capital, Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok.

Chao Phraya Chakri, another general, was crowned in 1782 under the title Rama I. He moved the capital across the river to Bangkok. In 1809, Rama II, Chakri's son, assumed the throne and reigned until 1824. Rama III, also known as Phraya Nang Klao, ruled from 1824 through 1851; like his predecessor, he worked hard to restore the Thai culture that had been almost completely destroyed in the Burmese invasion. Not until the reign of Rama IV, or King Mongkut, which began in 1851, did the Thai strengthen relations with Europeans. Rama IV worked with the British to establish trade treaties and modernize the government, while managing to avoid British and French colonialization. During the reign of his son, Rama V (King Chulalongkorn), who ruled from 1868 to 1910, Siam lost some territory to French Laos and British Burma. The short rule of Rama VI (1910-1925) saw the introduction of compulsory education and other educational reforms.


In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a group of Thai intellectuals and military personnel (many of whom had been educated in Europe) embraced democratic ideology and were able to effect a successfuland bloodlesscoup d'etat against the absolute monarchy in Siam. This occurred during the reign of Rama VII, between 1925 and 1935. In its stead, the Thai developed a constitutional monarchy based on the British model, with a combined military-civilian group in charge of governing the country. The country's name was officially changed to Thailand in 1939 during prime minister Phibul Songkhram's government. (He had been a key military figure in the 1932 coup.)

Japan occupied Thailand during World War II and Phibul declared war on the United States and Great Britain. The Thai ambassador in Washington, however, refused to make the declaration. Seri Thai (Free Thai) underground groups worked with the allied powers both outside and within Thailand. The end of World War II terminated Phibul's regime. After a short stint of democratic civilian control, Phibul regained control in 1948, only to have much of his power taken away by General Sarit Thanarat, another military dictator. By 1958, Sarit had abolished the constitution, dissolved the parliament, and outlawed all political parties. He maintained power until his death in 1963.

Army officers ruled the country from 1964 to 1973, during which time the United States was given permission to establish army bases on Thai soil to support the troops fighting in Vietnam. The generals who ran the country during the 1970s closely aligned Thailand with the United States during the war. Civilian participation in government was allowed intermittently. In 1983 the constitution was amended to allow for a more democratically elected National Assembly, and the monarch exerted a moderating influence on the military and on civilian politicians.

The success of a promilitary coalition in the March 1992 elections touched off a series of disturbances in which 50 citizens died. The military violently suppressed a "pro-democracy" movement on the streets of Bangkok in May 1992. Following the intervention of the king, another round of elections was held in September of that year, when Chuan Leekphai, the leader of the Democrat Party, was elected. His government fell in 1995, and the chaos that resulted along with the nations large foreign debt led to the collapse of the Thai economy in 1997. Slowly, with help from the INM, the nation's economy has recovered.


Thai immigration to America was nearly nonexistent before 1960, when U.S. armed forces began arriving in Thailand during the Vietnam war. After interacting with Americans, Thais became more aware of the possibility for immigration to the United States. By the 1970s, some 5,000 Thais had emigrated to this country, at a ratio of three women to every man. The largest concentration of Thai immigrants can be found in Los Angeles and New York City. These new immigrants consisted of professionals, especially medical doctors and nurses, business entrepreneurs, and wives of men in the U.S. Air Force who had either been stationed in Thailand or had spent their vacations there while on active duty in Southeast Asia.

In 1980 the U.S. Census recorded concentrations of Thai near military installations, especially Air Force bases, in certain U.S. counties, ranging from Aroostook County (Loring Air Force Base) in Maine to Bossier Parish (Barksdale Air Force Base) in Louisiana and New Mexico's Curry County (Cannon Air Force Base). A few counties with a larger military presence such as Sarpy County in Nebraska, where the Strategic Air Command has been headquartered, and Solano County, California, where Travis Air Force Base is located, became home to larger groups. Fairly large concentrations of Thai were also found in Davis County, Indiana, the location of Hill Air Force Base, Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, and Wayne County, North Carolina, where Seymour Johnson Air Force Base is located.

The Thai Dam, an ethnic group from the mountain valleys of northern Vietnam and Laos were also counted as immigrants of Thai ancestry by the U.S. Census Bureau, though they are actually refugees from other countries. They are centered in Des Moines, Iowa. Like other Southeast Asian refugees of this area, they have coped with problems of housing, crime, social isolation, and depression. Most of them are employed, but in low-paying menial jobs that offer little in the way of advancement.

During the 1980s, Thais immigrated to the United States at an average rate of 6,500 per year. Student or temporary visitor visas were a frequent venue to the United States. The main attraction of the United States is the wide array of opportunities and higher wages. However, unlike people from other countries in Indochina, none whose original homes were in Thailand has been forced to come to the United States as refugees.

In general, Thai communities are tightly knit and mimic the social networks of their native land. As of 1990, there were approximately 91,275 people of Thai ancestry living in the United States. The greatest number of Thais are in California, some 32,064. Most of these people are clustered in the Los Angeles area, some 19,016. There are also high numbers of people whose temporary visas have expired who are believed to be in this area. The homes and businesses of Thai immigrants are dispersed throughout the city, but there is a high concentration in Hollywood, between Hollywood and Olympic boulevards and near Western Avenue. Thais own banks, gas stations, beauty parlors, travel agencies, grocery stores, and restaurants. Further exposure to the English language and American culture has caused the population to disperse somewhat. New York, with a Thai population of 6,230 (most in New York City) and Texas with 5,816 (primarily Houston and Dallas) have the second and third largest Thai populations, respectively.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Thai Americans have adapted well to American society. Although they maintain their culture and ethnic traditions, they accept the norms as practiced in this society. This flexibility and adaptability has had a profound effect on first-generation American-born Thais, who tend to be quite assimilated or Americanized. According to members of the community, the young people's acceptance of American ways has made these new changes more acceptable to their parents, facilitating relations between "established" Americans and newcomers. With the high concentration of Thais in California and recent efforts to define who is and is not "native," members of the Thai community have expressed fears that there may be problems in the future.

Although many traditional beliefs are retained by Thai Americans, Thais often try to adjust their beliefs in order to live in the United States comfortably. Thais are often perceived as too adaptable and lacking in innovation. A common expression, mai pen rai, meaning "never mind" or "it doesn't matter," has been seen by some Americans as an indication of Thais' unwillingness to expand or develop ideas. Also, Thais are often mistaken for Chinese or Indochinese, which has led to misunderstandings, and offended Thais since Thai culture is bound up with Buddhism and has its own traditions, different from Chinese culture. In addition, Thais are often assumed to be refugees rather than immigrants by choice. Thai Americans are anxious that their presence be seen as a benefit, not a burden, to American society.


Thais do not shake hands when they meet. Instead, they keep their elbows at their sides and press their palms together at about chest height in a prayer-like gesture called wai. The head is bent in this greeting; the lower the head, the more respect one shows. Children are supposed to wai adults and they receive an acknowledgement in the form of wai or a smile in return. In Thai culture the feet are considered the lowest part of the body, both spiritually and physically. When visiting any religious edifice, feet must be pointed away from any Buddha images, which are always kept in high places and shown great respect. Thais consider pointing at something with one's feet to be the epitome of bad manners. The head is regarded as the highest part of the body; therefore Thais do not touch each other's hair, nor do they pat each other on the head. A favorite Thai proverb is: Do good and receive good; do evil and receive evil.


Perhaps the greatest contribution from the small Thai American community has been their cuisine. Thai restaurants remain a popular choice in large cities, and the Thai style of cooking has even begun to appear in frozen dinners. Thai cooking is light, pungent, and flavorful, and some dishes can be quite spicy. The mainstay of Thai cooking, as in the rest of Southeast Asia, is rice. In fact, the Thai words for "rice" and "food" are synonymous. Meals often include one spicy dish, such as a curry, with other meat and vegetable side dishes. Thai food is eaten with a spoon.

Presentation of food for the Thai is a work of art, especially if the meal marks a special occasion. Thais are renowned for their ability to carve fruit; melons, mandarins, and pomelos, to name just a few, are carved in the shapes of intricate flowers, classic designs, or birds. Staples of Thai cuisine include coriander roots, peppercorns, and garlic (which are often ground together), lemon grass, nam pla (fish sauce), and kapi (shrimp paste). The meal generally includes soup, one or two kaengs (dishes that include thin, clear, soup-like gravy; though Thais describe these sauces as "curry," it is not what most Westerners know as curry), and as many krueng kieng (side dishes) as possible. Among these, there might be a phad (stir-fried) dish, something with phrik (hot chili peppers) in it, or a thawd (deep-fried) dish. Thai cooks use very few recipes, preferring to taste and adjust seasonings as they cook.


Traditional clothing for Thai women consists of a prasin, or a wrap-around skirt (sarong), which is worn with a fitted, long-sleeved jacket. Among the most beautiful costumes are those worn by dancers of classical Thai ballet. Women wear a tight-fitting under jacket and a panung, or skirt, which is made of silk, silver, or gold brocade. The panung is pleated in front, and a belt holds it in place. A pailletted and jeweled velvet cape fastens to the front of the belt and drapes down behind to nearly the hem of the panung. A wide jewelled collar, armlets, necklace, and bracelets make up the rest of the costume, which is capped with a chadah, the temple-style headdress. Dancers are sewn into their costumes before a performance. The jewels and metal thread can make the costume weigh nearly 40 pounds. Men's costumes feature tight-fitting silver thread brocade jackets with epaulets and an ornately embroidered collar. Embroidered panels hang from his belt, and his calf-length pants are made of silk. His jewelled headdress has a tassel on the right, while the woman's is on the left. Dancers wear no shoes. For everyday life, Thais wear sandals or Western-style footwear. Shoes are always removed when entering a house. For the last 100 years, Western clothing has become the standard form of clothing in Thailand's urban areas. Thai Americans wear ordinary American clothes for everyday occasions.


Thais are well known for enjoying festivities and holidays, even if they are not part of their culture; Bangkok residents were known to take part in the Christmas and even Bastille Day celebrations of the resident foreign communities. Thai holidays include New Year's Day (January 1); Chinese New Year (February 15); Magha Puja, which occurs on the full moon of the third lunar month (February) and commemorates the day when 1,250 disciples heard the Buddha's first sermon; Chakri Day (April 6), which marks the enthronement of King Rama I; Songkran (mid-April), the Thai New Year, an occasion when caged birds and fish are set free and water is thrown by everyone on everyone else; Coronation Day (May 5); Visakha Puja (May, on the full moon of the sixth lunar month) is the holiest of Buddhist days, celebrating Lord Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death; Queen's Birthday, August 12; King's Birthday, December 5.


A member of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, Thai is one of the oldest languages in East or Southeast Asia. Some anthropologists have hypothesized that it may even predate Chinese. The two languages share certain similarities since they are monosyllabic tonal languages; that is, since there are only 420 phonetically different words in Thai, a single syllable can have multiple meanings. Meanings are determined by five different tones (in Thai): a high or low tone; a level tone; and a falling or rising tone. For example, depending on the inflection, the syllable mai can mean "widow," "silk," "burn," "wood," "new," "not?" or "not." In addition to the tonal similarities with Chinese, Thai has also borrowed from Pali and Sanskrit, notably the phonetic alphabet conceived by King Ram Khamhaeng in 1283 and still in use today. The signs of the alphabet take their pattern from Sanskrit; there are also supplemental signs for tones, which are like vowels and can stand beside or above the consonant to which they belong. This alphabet is similar to the alphabets of the neighboring countries of Burma, Laos, and Kampuchea. Compulsory education in Thailand is up to the sixth grade and the literacy rate is over 90 percent. There are 39 universities and colleges and 36 Teachers Training Colleges in Thailand to meet the needs of thousands of secondary school students who want higher educational attainment.


Common Thai greetings are: Sa wat dee Good morning, afternoon, or evening, as well as good-bye (by the host); Lah kon Good-bye (by the guest); Krab sir; Ka madam; Kob kun Thank you; Prode Please; Kor hai choke dee Good luck; Farang foreigner; Chern krab (if the speaker is male), or Chern kra (if the speaker is female) Please, you are welcome, it's all right, go ahead, you first (depending on the circumstances).

Family and Community Dynamics

Traditional Thai families are closely knit, often incorporating servants and employees. Togetherness is a hallmark of the family structure: people never sleep alone, even in houses with ample room, unless they ask to do so. Virtually no one is left to live alone in an apartment or house. As a consequence, Thais make few complaints about academic dormitories or the dormitories provided by factories.

The Thai family is highly structured, and each member has his or her specific place based on age, gender, and rank within the family. They can expect help and security as long as they remain within the confines of this order. Relationships are strictly defined and named with terms so precise that they reveal the relation (parental, sibling, uncle, aunt, cousin), the relative age (younger, older), and side of the family (maternal or paternal). These terms are used more often in conversation than the person's given name. The biggest change that settlement in the United States has brought has been the diminishing of extended families. These are prevalent in Thailand, but the lifestyle and mobility of American society has made the extended Thai family hard to maintain.


In Thailand, many houses and buildings have an accompanying spirit house, or a place for the property guardian spirit (Phra phum ) to reside. Some Thais believe that families living in a home without a spirit house cause spirits to live with the family, which invites trouble. Spirit houses, which are usually about the same size as a birdhouse, are mounted on a pedestal and resemble Thai temples. In Thailand, large buildings such as hotels may have a spirit house as large as an average family dwelling. The spirit house is given the best location on the property and is shaded by the main house. Its position is planned at the time of the building's construction; then it is ceremonially erected. Corresponding improvements, including additions, are also made to the spirit house whenever modifications are made to the main house.


Arrival in the United States has brought an increase in self-determined marriages. Unlike other Asian countries, Thailand has been far more permissive toward marriages of personal choice, though parents generally have some say in the matter. Marriages tend to take place between families of equal social and economic status. There are no ethnic or religious restrictions, and intermarriage in Thailand is quite common, especially between Thai and Chinese, and Thai and Westerners.

Wedding ceremonies can be ornate affairs, or there may be no ceremony at all. If a couple lives together for a while and has a child together, they are recognized as "de facto married." Most Thais do have a ceremony, however, and wealthier members of the community consider this essential. Prior to the wedding, the two families agree on the expenses of the ceremony and the "bride price." The couple begins their wedding day with a religious ritual in the early morning and by receiving blessings from monks. During the ceremony, the couple kneels side by side. An astrologer or a monk chooses a favorable time for the couple's heads to be linked with joined loops of sai mongkon (white thread) by a senior elder. He pours sacred water over their hands, which they allow to drip into bowls of flowers. Guests bless the couple by pouring sacred water in the same way. The second part of the ceremony is essentially a secular practice. Thais do not make any vows to one another. Rather, the two linked but independent circles of the white thread serve to symbolically emphasize that the man and woman have each retained their individual identities while, at the same time, joining their destinies.

One tradition, practiced primarily in the countryside, is to have "sympathetic magic" performed by an older, successfully married couple. This duo lies in the marriage bed before the newlyweds, where they say many auspicious things about the bed and its superiority as a place for conception. They then get off the bed and strew it with symbols of fertility, such as a tomcat, bags of rice, sesame seeds and coins, a stone pestle, or a bowl of rainwater. The newlyweds are supposed to keep these objects (except the tomcat) in their bed for three days.

Even in cases in which the marriage has been sealed by a ceremony, divorce is a simple matter: if both parties consent, they sign a mutual statement to this effect at the district office. If only one party wants the divorce, he or she must show proof of the other's desertion or lack of support for one year. The divorce rate among Thais, both officially and unofficially, is relatively low compared to the American divorce rate, and the remarriage rate is high.


Pregnant women are not given any gifts before a baby is born so as to keep them from being scared by evil spirits. These evil spirits are thought to be the spirits of women who died childless and unmarried. For a minimum of three days to a month after birth, the baby is still considered a spirit child. It is customary to refer to a newborn as frog, dog, toad, or other animal terms that are seen as helpful in escaping the attention of evil spirits. Parents often ask a monk or an elder to select an appropriate name for their child, usually of two or more syllables, which is used for legal and official purposes. Nearly all Thais have a one-syllable nickname, which usually translates as frog, rat, pig, fatty, or many versions of tiny. Like the formal name, a nickname is intended to keep the evil spirits away.


Many Thais consider ngarn sop (the cremation ceremony) the most important of all the rites. It is a family occasion and the presence of Buddhist monks is necessary. One baht coin is placed in the mouth of the corpse (to enable the dead person to buy his or her way into purgatory), and the hands are arranged into a wai and tied with white thread. A banknote, two flowers, and two candles are placed between the hands. White thread is used to tie the ankles as well, and the mouth and eyes are sealed with wax. The corpse is placed in a coffin with the feet facing west, the direction of the setting sun and of death.

Dressed in mourning black or white, the relatives gather around the body to hear the sutras of the monks who sit in a row on raised padded seats or on a platform. On the day that the body is cremated, which for persons of high rank can be as long as a year after the funeral ceremony, the coffin is carried to the site feet first. In order to appease the spirits who are drawn to the funeral activities, rice is scattered on the ground. All the mourners are given candles and incense bouquets. As tokens of respect for the deceased, these are thrown on the funeral pyre, which consists of piles of wood under an ornate paste pagoda. The most exalted guest then officiates at the cremation by being the first to light this structure. The actual cremation that follows is attended by the next of kin only and is usually held a few yards from the ritual funeral pyre. The occasion is sometimes followed by a meal for guests who may have traveled from far away to attend the ceremony. On that evening and the two following, monks come to the house to chant blessings for the departed soul and for the protection of the living. According to Thai tradition, the departed family member is advancing along the cycle of death and rebirth toward the state of perfect peace; thus, sadness has no place at this rite.


Education has traditionally been of paramount importance to Thais. Educational accomplishment is considered a status-enhancing achievement. Until the late nineteenth century, the responsibility for educating the young lay entirely with the monks in the temple. Since the beginning of this century, however, overseas study and degrees have been actively sought and highly prized. Originally, this sort of education was open only to royalty, but, according to Immigration and Naturalization Services information, some 835 Thai students came to study in the United States in 1991.


Nearly 95 percent of all Thais identify themselves as Theravada Buddhists. Theravada Buddhism originated in India and stresses three principal aspects of existence: dukkha (suffering, dissatisfaction, "disease"), annicaa (impermanence, transiency of all things), and anatta (non-substantiality of reality; no permanence of the soul). These principles, which were articulated by Siddhartha Gautama in the sixth century b.c., contrasted with the Hindu belief in an eternal, blissful Self. Buddhism, therefore, was originally a heresy against India's Brahman religion.

Gautama was given the title Buddha, or "enlightened one." He advocated the "eight-fold path" (atthangika-magga ) which requires high ethical standards and conquering desire. The concept of reincarnation is central. By feeding monks, making regular donations to temples, and worshipping regularly at the wat (temple), Thais try to improve their situationacquire enough merit (bun )to lessen the number of rebirths, or subsequent reincarnations, a person must undergo before reaching Nirvana. In addition, the accumulation of merit helps determine the quality of the individual's station in future lives. Tham bun, or merit making, is an important social and religious activity for Thais. Because Buddhist teachings emphasize philanthropic donations as part of achieving merit, Thais tend to be supportive of a wide range of charities. The emphasis, however, is on charities that assist the indigent in Thailand.

Ordination into the Buddhist order of monks often serves to mark the entry into the adult world. Ordination is for men only, though women can become nuns by shaving their heads, wearing white robes, and obtaining permission to reside in the nun's quarters on grounds within the temple. They do not officiate at any rituals. Most Thai men Buat Phra (enter the monkhood) at some point in their lives, often just prior to their marriage. Many only stay for a short period, sometimes as little as a few days, but in general they remain for at least one phansa, the three-month Buddhist Lent that coincides with the rainy season. Among the prerequisites for ordination is four years' education. Most ordinations occur in July, just before Lent.

The thankwan nak ceremony serves to strengthen the kwan, or the soul, the life essence, of the person to be ordained. During this time, he is called a nak, which means dragon, referring to a Buddhist myth about a dragon who became a monk. In the ceremony, the nak 's head and eyebrows are shaved to symbolize his rejection of vanity. For three to four hours, a professional master of ceremonies sings of the mother's pain in giving birth to the child and emphasizes the many filial obligations of the young man. The ceremony concludes with all relatives and friends gathered in a circle holding a white thread and then passing three lighted candles in a clockwise direction. Guests generally give gifts of money.

The following morning, the nak, dressed in white (to symbolize purity), is carried on the shoulders of his friends under tall umbrellas in a colorful procession. He bows before his father, who hands him the saffron robes he will wear as a monk. He leads his son to the abbot and the four or more other monks who are seated on a raised platform before the main Buddha image. The nak asks permission for ordination after prostrating himself three times to the abbot. The abbot reads a scripture and drapes a yellow sash on the nak 's body to symbolize acceptance for ordination. He is then taken out of view and dressed in the saffron robes by the two monks who will oversee his instruction. He then requests the ten basic vows of a novice monk and repeats each as it is recited to him.

The father presents alms bowls and other gifts to the abbot. Facing the Buddha, the candidate then answers questions to show that he has met the conditions for entry into the monkhood. The ceremony concludes with all the monks chanting and the new monk pouring water from a silver container into a bowl to symbolize the transference of all merit he has acquired from being a monk to his parents. They in turn perform the same ritual to transfer some of their new merit to other relatives. The ritual's emphasis is on his identity as a Buddhist and his newfound adult maturity. At the same time, the rite reinforces the link between generations and the importance of family and community.

Thai Americans have accommodated themselves to the environment here by adapting their religious practices when necessary. One of the most farreaching of these changes was the switch from lunar calendar days to the conventional Saturday or Sunday services that are offered in the United States.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Thai men tend to aspire to military or civil service jobs. Rural women have been traditionally engaged in running businesses, while educated women are involved in all types of professions. In the United States, most Thais own small businesses or work as skilled laborers. Many women have opted for nursing careers. There are no Thai-only labor unions, nor do Thais particularly dominate one profession.

Politics and Government

Thai Americans tend not to be active in community politics in this country, but are more concerned with issues in Thailand. This reflects the general insulation of the community, where there are specific delineations between northern and southern Thais and where intercommunity outreach with other groups has been almost nonexistent. Thai Americans are quite active in Thai politics and they keep an active watch on economic, political and social movements there.

Individual and Group Contributions

Many Thai Americans work in the health-care industry. Boondharm Wongananda (1935-) is a noted surgeon in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the executive director of the Thais for Thai Association. Also worthy of mention is Phongpan Tana (1946 ), the director of nurses in a Long Beach, California hospital. Several other Thai Americans have become educators, company executives, and engineers. Some Thai Americans are also beginning to enter the field of American politics; Asuntha Maria Ming-Yee Chiang (1970 ) is a legislative correspondent in Washington, D.C.




Offers programming in Thai in the Los Angeles area.

Contact: Paul Khongwittaya.

Address: 1123 North Vine Street, Los Angeles, California 90038.

Telephone: (213) 962-6696.

Fax: (213) 464-2312.

Organizations and Associations

American Siam Society.

Cultural organization that encourages investigation of art, science, and literature in relation to Thailand and its neighboring countries.

Address: 633 24th Street, Santa Monica, California 90402-3135.

Telephone: (213) 393-1176.

Thai Society of Southern California.

Contact: K. Jongsatityoo, Public Relations Officer.

Address: 2002 South Atlantic Boulevard, Monterey Park, California 91754.

Telephone: (213) 720-1596.

Fax: (213) 726-2666.

Museums and Research Centers

Asia Resource Center.

Founded in 1974. The center includes among its holdings 15 drawers of clippings on East and Southeast Asia, from 1976 through the present, as well as photograph files, films, video cassettes, and slide programs.

Contact: Roger Rumpf, Executive Director.

Address: Box 15275, Washington, D.C. 20003.

Telephone: (202) 547-1114.

Fax: (202) 543-7891.

Cornell University Southeast Asia Program.

The center concentrates its activities on the social and political conditions in Southeast Asian countries, including the history and culture of Thailand. It studies cultural stability and change, especially the consequences of Western influences and offers Thai lessons and distributes Thai cultural readers.

Contact: Randolph Barker, Director.

Address: 180 Uris Hall, Ithaca, New York 14853.

Telephone: (607) 255-2378.

Fax: (607) 254-5000.

University of California, Berkeley South/Southeast Asia Library Service.

This library contains a special Thai collection in addition to its substantial holdings on the social sciences and humanities of Southeast Asia. The entire collection comprises some 400,000 monographs, dissertations, microfilm, pamphlets, manuscripts, videotapes, sound recordings, and maps.

Contact: Virginia Jing-yi Shih.

Address: 438 Doe Library, Berkeley, California 94720-6000.

Telephone: (510) 642-3095.

Fax: (510) 643-8817.

Yale University Southeast Asia Collection.

This collection of materials centers on the social sciences and humanities of Southeast Asia. Holdings include some 200,000 volumes.

Contact: Charles R. Bryant, Curator.

Address: Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06520.

Telephone: (203) 432-1859.

Fax: (203) 432-7231.

Sources for Additional Study

Cooper, Robert, and Nanthapa Cooper. Culture Shock. Portland, Oregon: Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company, 1990.

Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Washington, D.C.: Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1993.

Thailand and Burma. London: The Economist Intelligence Unit, 1994.