It’s always a pleasure to be introduced to a new voice representing a culture that has been underrepresented, especially one that is so complex and challenging. I know very little about Thailand.
Mai Nardone, a Thai American writer, in Welcome Me to the Kingdom presents a multifaceted portrait of a gritty lower class of people trying to get ahead or at least survive.
I didn’t know, for example, that after World War II, the postwar period saw rapid growth, modernization, and Westernization in Bangkok. Tourism in Thailand became popular, and a financial crisis hit the country in the late 1990s, leading to make or break moments in people’s lives.
It is against this background that Nardone presents a mosaic of characters. A prologue states: “We came for Bangkok on the delta. The thin tributaries that laced the provinces found full current at the capital. And in the city, we’d heard, the wealth was wide and deep.” So begins a migration from the provinces to the city as Thailand’s economy focuses in on manufacturing and tourism. Amid tourism banners that read “Take Home a Thousand Smiles” is a promise proclaimed by wide range of celebrities who act as stereotypes.
Welcome Me to the Kingdom consists of 17 stories spanning from 1980 to 2016, arranged mostly in chronological order.
This is not a novel, and the reader encounters glimpses in the overlapping tales of three central families that brush up against each other. There is Nam, her American husband, Rick, and their daughter Lara. There is also Vitat, a Thai Elvis impersonator, and his daughter, Pinky. Finally, for me, my favorite family was of Tintin and Benz, orphans who adopt each other as brothers and use any way they can to get to “the good life.”
The short story format allows the reader to explore, in Tintin and Benz’s case. “Scouring the klong… after finding the empty plot behind the high bushes… There was wealth, we saw, below the sediment blanketing the klong.” From there as the boys become men, they take illegal jobs stripping cars, or take chances with cock fighting.
Finally, Tintin and Benz take on saving people “after watching accident victims die waiting for ambulances, the volunteers started trucking the injured to hospitals themselves, earning a small commission and no small credibility among the families of survivors.”
The other family stories plunge into skin whitening routines, sex work, gambling, food stalls — any way to make one’s way in contemporary Bangkok. Almost all of the dramatic situations are tragic but realistic. It’s a testament that these characters manage to continue on. Such writing offers insights into sides of contemporary Thai culture that tourists do not experience. Because the subjects are gritty, dense, and depressing, such tales can be difficult to read.
Some contemporary short story collections have been evolving into a form where all the accounts center around a central subject or central protagonist. To assume that the characters of Welcome Me to the Kingdom each have an arc and growth is misleading.
What the author has assembled is a complex structure of characters that makes the reader stop and think, omitting years and background information, focusing on one moment of a character and that narrative when the reader encounters them again.
Each short story is crafted carefully with touching observations. Lara states in the piece “Like Us for a Whiter You:”
“Our mother’s lives, too, serve as cautionary tales. They know the cost of crossing boundaries. The sense of unbelonging has worn Mom down, like it did on those days she spent in Dad’s winter country, the absence of sun and humidity changing her, turning her skin into a landscape fissured and coarse.”
The reader is sometimes introduced to characters in a first-person point of view, only to have another character speak of one of these original families in the third-person in a later piece. Each story reflects how Thailand is changing in the modern world. Each character begins and tries hard to hold onto hope.
In “Labor,” (1980), characters Pea and Nam tell the immigrant story of Pea promising Nam that he would make them a living within 30 days. Nam is staying with her last living cousin while Pea rooms at a boarding house apartment with other men from the provinces.
Each story could be a novel, but being condensed and told from a different point-of-view, the themes gain strength in their positions next to each other. Welcome Me to the Kingdom may not be uplifting, but it is tough, realistic, and ambitious.