Ira Sukrungruang is a writer and creative writing teacher at Kenyon College. He has published four nonfiction books, a short story collection and a poetry collection. He currently resides in Delaware, a suburb of Columbus, and was born in Chicago to Thai immigrants.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Ira, Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory), Logan Sander (editorial director at Midstory) and Samuel Chang (president at Midstory) on February 22, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): Let’s go back to the beginning and talk about where you were born and how you grew up.
Ira Sukrungruang (IS): I was born in Chicago. I think for me, I always find my birth really interesting, especially my name Ira. It’s the first thing a lot of people ask me. It’s not my last name right — my last name is long enough, they get it. It’s my first name, Ira. It’s a Hebrew name. [They ask], “What? Did your mom — was she Jewish?” I’m like, “No.” My mom and dad just said they looked in a book and picked what they thought was a good American name that meant successful and decided to give me this very Hebrew name, which, when I was growing up, I was not very fond of. I wanted a Thai name, like a really complicated, monosyllabic Thai name. But to me now, I love it in the way that there’s no Ira Sukrungruang anywhere else in the world.
I grew up in Chicago and lived for most of my life in Oak Lawn, Illinois, which is a Southwest suburb of Chicago. My mom worked for a long time in the inner cities of hospitals, Englewood Hospital. She came in 1968. There was a nurse shortage and during that time period, she applied to move to another country where she didn’t speak the language. She met my Auntie Sue, and they became inseparable and became best friends. And then she met my father in 1972, I believe, and then just got married.
RC: Was Auntie Sue a family friend?
IS: Yeah. She’s Thai. She had come at the same time as my mom. And she was living in the same nurses’ dorm when they had met. She told me the story of how they met and how my mom just never came out of her room. She always cooked the same things over and over again, radishes and eggs and a pot of rice. She just wanted to get to know this quiet Thai woman who was so shy. She just knocked on the door one day and they just became lifelong friends.
RC: So it wasn’t super easy, either, I imagine.
IS: No, I mean — well, for them, they had host families that took care of them when they came to America. Personally, they had Mom Pat, and she lived in Chicago for a while. She helped nurses from Asia assimilate as best they could, taught English and taught culture, and really took care of these nurses who came during that time period.
RC: And so for you growing up, what was it like in your house?
IS: It was interesting because, even though I have this really Hebrew name, the first rule in my house was to talk Thai all the time. They — my mom especially — refused to talk to me in any other language until probably like first or second grade, when I entered school for the first time. And then she’s like, “Well, I think I’m going to have to change my ways. Because this is going to be very difficult for him to navigate if we don’t put English into the language.” I always find that really interesting, where I am now as a professor of English and creative writing, when I didn’t know how to speak English for the first six or seven years of my life.
RC: You talked about radishes and eggs. What was part of the Thai heritage [you experienced] besides just speaking Thai?
IS: Well, there was a large Thai community growing in the ’70s in Chicago. My mom and father were part of that first wave of Thai community that came in and formed the Thai Buddhist Temple of Chicago Wat Dhammaram, which still exists now. It’s tens of thousands now because they had kids, and the kids had kids, and now it’s grown so much. They were part of that first wave.
So every Sunday, we would go to temple. Every Sunday, I would have to go to Sunday school, where I learned Buddhism and Thai language courses. Every summer, they brought university professors from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, to come and teach kids Thai, and then we had to take the exam that would be the equivalent of the exam taken in Thailand. I hated it. I absolutely hated summers because that’s what I would do everyday from nine to five. I’d be at the temple Monday through Friday taking these courses. It’s funny. I speak very fluently in Thai, but learning the written language was so difficult for me. It wasn’t natural for me to really pick up. That was our life for a good many years. Just temple on the weekends.
And we ate Thai food. Auntie Sue was amazing in the kitchen, but she would have to do with what she had. So she invented some really interesting dishes like “yum Oscar Mayer hotdogs” or something, which is hotdogs in a spicy salad that Thai people have — and so it was delicious. So the food to me was Thai, but it was really much more indicative of what it was like to live in Chicago, in that family and our little bi-level.
RC: The example of the essentially American Oscar Mayer hotdog being treated in a Thai way — did that sort of form the way you grew up?
IS: I think so. I think this has always been a constant negotiation. Before, when I was growing up, I think the biggest thing that I was trying to deal with was the separation between what was Thai and what was American, especially as I was growing up going through my adolescence. I only spoke Thai when I was at home. I only did this when I’m at Temple. And for a long time, I think I tried to keep those two spheres really separate, to the point where I think I didn’t want to be Thai. I grew up in a neighborhood where not only were there no other Thai kids at my school, there’s barely any Asian students. So for a long time, I was trying to sever, in many ways, myself during my adolescence until I got to college. I think when I got to college, I was introduced to this larger Asian American community. But I also began to write for the first time my junior year, and that changed everything.
RC: Can you tell me a little bit more about college?
IS: I went to college at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. I barely got into college, which was funny because I had a tough adolescence. I grew up just trying to always thwart authority, always challenging my parents in ways, so I never did any work. I never did homework. The only reason I got into college — I think it was a 1.8 GPA, it was so low — at Southern Illinois University was because they put me on what they call the LAC program, which means you’re admitted but only if you take “how to read like a college student and how to study” courses and do well in that before we admit you. That’s when I think I woke up: “Oh, maybe I should have paid a little bit more attention to my work.” I got into college because my test scores were really high. I think they thought I wrote a really good college entrance essay. During my high school years, I just didn’t — I went out with friends, I hung out late and my parents were going through a divorce. I didn’t want to be at home at all.
So, when I got to college I was forced to be by myself for the first time and really still my brain and really look at my life, look at all the things I was trying to run away from that played into my writing. I started to figure these things out. I had some amazing teachers and one of the teachers said, “You should start writing nonfiction. I think there are things in your life that you need to deal with or need to confront.” He was completely right. So as a junior, I took a graduate-level, creative nonfiction course, but it was called autobiography then. I just remember writing about childhood, and writing about those Sundays at Temple, and writing about those meals Auntie Sue cooked up that was half American, half Thai — but also really challenging and confronting notions of why my parents, especially my mother, were very unhappy. I think her famous line when she got here was, “I began packing as soon as I arrived.” She just was never happy in America; she never felt like this was home. She was always looking forward to “When I retire, I’m going to go back.” And I think when you grew up in an immigrant family that wasn’t really happy, you inherit that. So I started trying to figure out, “What’s the nature of this thing? What have I inherited? What types of longing do I have that my mom had about place and home?” Because they’ve always told me, “Thailand was home.” Her dream was I would marry a Thai woman and then we would move back to Thailand and I would be a doctor or something. All of that didn’t happen. So she had to adjust her dream. I think that’s part of the thing that I’m always curious about, too, as a son of immigrants — always the adjustment of want, that you have this certain idea and plan of what you want to do, but that never really happens that way.
RC: I echo a lot with that, the sense of, “How much am I allowed to become fully?” — and I’m never going to become fully American in some ways. I think some of the wanting and the longing come from that immigration background.
IS: Yeah, absolutely.
RC: I think in some ways that makes us a little bit even more American.
IS: Yeah. No, I completely understand that. I think just looking at Asian culture, there’s things in Asia right now that are more American than American, right? They’ve found a way to play up everything to the n-th degree, right? And I feel my family had to do that — had to buy into the holidays, like Christmas, as a Buddhist family. Because to us, even though it was a Christian holiday, it was much more of an American holiday and we didn’t want to be seen not as an American. So we bought into Christmas fully — decorations, we were the brightest house.
A lot of it was, of course, a show, because I think there was a lot of fear. We grew up in a neighborhood where we were the first people of color on the block. So for a long time, we experienced a lot of racism. Our mailbox would be found off its post, or we would repave the driveway but someone would be dancing and leaving footprints in it. My mom left it; she’s like, “This is just a reminder we’re not going to repair this. This is something for you to see every day.” But because of that, for example, they hung the American flag right outside the door to be visible for everyone in the neighborhood, to be ultra visible. I think one of the things that’s really interesting about being an Asian American in the Midwest, in particular, in general is that we suffer from either hyper invisibility or hyper visibility. It suits what the culture wants. So when the President says, “Oh, here’s a Chinese virus,” we become ultra visible and we become a threat. But before that, we were very much looked over. We were the quote-unquote, “model minority.”
RC: You talked a little bit about how writing led you into this exploration. So today, looking on a macro scale, why do you teach writing?
IS: I love my job. I’m just so privileged to be able to teach a subject that has changed my life and saved my life in many ways. That’s the thing I always tell my students after they get out of my class: “You have to find the thing that saves your life.” And writing was the thing that saved my life. There’s no greater charge that I get when I’m in the classroom, and when I’m teaching, and when I’m talking about literature, and when we’re reading these essays — and they’re tough. Nonfiction is a tough genre. We’re reading essays about being marginalized, being outsiders and that universal sense of grieving and belonging that transcends race in many ways. But we look at these essays, and then I challenge them to write these things. It’s incredibly vulnerable to ask them to write about their lives in this way.
RC: What does the Midwest get from our immigration background? And then in return what do we get from America?
IS: That’s really an interesting question. When you contacted me about the project, it’s something I’ve been really thinking about, having traveled and worked with Thai communities in LA, New York and DC. There’s a strange sense of isolation that one feels sometimes in Ohio, right? I think about, what kind of community do I exist in?
The Asian American community that I exist in or Asian community existence is built in at school. It’s probably why I never left academia. As hierarchical [as] academia can be — it has its flaws, it has its system like any other system — for me, it has been the safest place to be because I’m around like-minded individuals, I’m around diverse individuals, I get to talk about what it means to be an Asian American where I don’t do anywhere, any other time in my life. If I go out with my friends, that’s a thing we don’t talk about. But in Kenyon or the University of South Florida or SUNY Oswego — all the places I’ve taught at — these communities have been very vital because it’s the thing that reminds me there’s a lot of us out there, and we’re probably struggling with the same sense of visibility or invisibility. So there’s a safety in higher education institutions for me.
RC: I’d love to talk about food and kids now.
IS: Yeah, food is huge. I think to me, it’s bigger than just the regular things like “Asians have a fondness of food,” right? Thai culture, in particular, has a common greeting, “Have you eaten yet?” That’s the first thing we would say to each other. I think food really was formulated into me as something that is completely foundational to who I am with my Auntie Sue. When she passed away, I think one of the things that was hardest was locating that taste again, and knowing that you won’t ever — what she created was hers and hers alone. Part of it for me, food writing — when people write about food, food writing is about loss. We’re trying to recapture and get to something that we had once. We’re trying to relive that through language, which is impossible.
There are reasons why I live an hour away from school — from Kenyon College — and one of the reasons was I need to be close to Asian grocery stores, I need to be close to restaurants. The thing that someone had asked me is, “When do you actually feel most Asian?” I can tell you, “When I’m eating. When I’m in a restaurant.” That, to me, is a really wonderful, safe place. So food is always there for me.
I have a son who doesn’t eat it at all, who is the worst eater of all time. He has become a little snobbish when it comes to rice — it’s jasmine rice only. And he loves stir-fried egg noodles. Those are the things [he eats], but he doesn’t eat [other food], which is a hard thing for me because eating is such a large part of my life and it’s something that he doesn’t care about at all. I’m thinking about when I was six, food was important then, too — really important when I was six. I can’t think of a time when food hasn’t been. I think about food, I think about all these memories that kind of come in and I connect to.
So it’s really interesting, raising a son who doesn’t have the same relationship with food — doesn’t mean that he won’t have it. He might have it as he grows up. But right now, it’s kind of a struggle to get him to try anything. Which also his grandmother [would joke], “That’s the white side of him, maybe.”
Logan Sander (LS): I’m wondering if you could actually describe or tell us about a dish and what memories it brings back.
IS: I remember, one of my favorite memories is not a particular dish — it’s not the dish itself. I was so enamored by my aunt in the kitchen. I was so enamored by the smells, the sound of what that kitchen in Chicago sounded and felt like. I remember when I was six or seven years old, cooking alongside her. She would be making a pad thai or something. And I would be making a stir-fried version of my Star Wars action figures. She would just let me do whatever I want. I would add a little milk into it and toss it around. I would put some grapes in it. So to me, that memory stands out because it was this very shared moment, of me cooking alongside of her and feeling like this is what we do, this is what our family does. This is what we value. And I remember her picking up Chewbacca or something and just licking his head like, “Oh, this is delicious.” That’s a memory that I think about often when it comes to cooking and food.
RC: How do you want your son to grow up navigating being “Thai and/or American”? Is he navigating that now?
IS: Yeah, you know, I think the biggest regret I have as a father right now, is I don’t speak Thai to him nearly enough. It’s because English has been my life. I teach English, I teach creative writing courses in English. Even though I learned to speak Thai first, English has become my language — the language of everything I do. It’s natural.
We go to Thailand, we go to Asia every six months. We try to. And that’s important to me. I think the biggest fear that I have right now is that my father has passed away, Auntie Sue has passed away, and my mom is 86, though she probably is a vampire and will live forever. She’s that strong. My fear is what will happen when she passes? Does that Asian side vanish with her? Because the visits to Thailand will be different now when she’s not there. Right now I’m trying to negotiate this, raising him to really know what it means to be Thai and really know where he comes from and the extensive family he has 8,000 miles away, and have that instilled in him.
The funny thing about — I think this is something that’s really interesting — raising an Asian, biracial Thai child is that there’s not many things that are Thai. So what he identifies with actually, is he wants to be a K-pop star. He wants to be BTS. He says, “I’m not Thai. I’m Korean,” or, “I’m Japanese,” with the Pokemon game. I think that’s something I was thinking about too, in terms of my upbringing talking about Asian and Asian American representation. I was growing up in the ’70s, and ’80s. The only Asian American representation were kung fu movies — Bruce Lee, Chinese, Hong Kong style films. So the idea of Asian America is both expansive but also can be very restrictive, because it’s easy to group everyone into one. But then I think about it, how else is my son going to access these things at this time, besides me telling him, “I got this thing Thai culture does?” I think even now, like K-Pop, BTS and all these, it’s actually more American in many ways than it is Asian. Because it’s affected the culture he lives in.
RC: And this is something that I read about you when I was looking at your books. But it said on Amazon, your favorite food is McDonald’s.
LS: Iconic, American food.
RC: Right, and you’re really Thai, right? Because I experienced the same thing with green bean casserole and cheesecake alongside my mother’s fried rice.
IS: You know, that bio that you probably found was probably earlier in my career. I think I wrote that bio — I love McDonald’s, don’t get me wrong, I love McDonald’s. But I think I wrote it as a way to connect with readers because I think this is what I wanted to connect with. One of the things that’s really important to me, right, is connecting to readers who come from the South Side of Chicago who come from the working-class roots. The world that I lived in in South Side Chicago, we had a McDonald’s down the block. That was the hangout for all the kids. That was where we did everything. I wanted to write to them because people often forget them. They forget this part of the world and the people in it. It’s easy to forget them. So I think when I put that McDonald’s out, it was a weird homage to what it was like to find food that was accessible to all, that we shared.
Now, if you ask me if I like McDonald’s or dim sum, dim sum wins hands down all the time. But I think, you know, part of me when I created that bio a while ago, it was a way to play on my roots growing up in the south side.
RC: These stories that are really compelling and, I think, specific — what do you want the working class of Chicago, for instance, your audience, what did they get from your specific story?
IS: One of the things that I’m always thinking about is this idea of audience and who reads my work. I’ve always been asked who do you write to? First and foremost, I think I write to my family. I write for my family — I’ve written for them because they didn’t have a voice. We were very often silenced. In fact that was one of the biggest fears in my family. My mom was so deathly afraid to say anything because she didn’t want to say it wrong. I think there was this one story where she confused the word, civic and cervix and it mortified her when she found that out. So, she just stopped talking. I think that fear is a common fear that Southsiders of Chicago share too — working-class people share. They don’t often speak up. It’s an area that’s grayer than any other color. I think that’s kind of seeped into their being. And I always think if I can write to my buddy who works in the lumberyard, if I can write to that guy, who — if I can get my buddy in the garage, who reads my book, then that’s something right? That’s communication and they get something other than, “Oh, here’s my buddy, the Thai dude back in the day?” No, no, they get something like, “Oh, this is about finding a comfort in self, finding comfort in body. Finding what it is to be home.”
I think one of the things that’s really interesting about the South side is that — I think a lot of my working-class students often feel this— there’s a guilt when you leave, when you leave working-class communities. There’s a huge guilt that you’ve abandoned them somehow. And I think part of my writing, actually why I write about Chicago so much is, “No I haven’t abandoned anyone.” That life was so deeply within me that I’m trying to pay respect to. It’s deeply part of what made me.
LS: I feel like the environment that you’ve been describing this time in which you grew up is really, really crucial with your story. And I’m wondering if you could, with whatever details you remember most, describe your neighborhood and then maybe even more micro, your home that you grew up in. The smells, the sounds, the sights — describe it for us.
IS: It’s really interesting. So, I grew up in this block and bilevel where most of the houses look the same but different colors. And our house was different from the rest. Why? Because my mom would come out every day and put a shot glass of coffee in the backyard for the spirits. Auntie Sue would go in the garage and deep fry spring rolls or fish cakes or whatever. So there’s a bubble of wonderful Asian food smells. But you know, back then, my friends were like, “Oh, it stinks man. What’s going on?” My aunt grew in the house Thai peppers and kaffir lime leaves, because this was essential to making Thai cuisine. Holy basil. So I remember just the plant lights everywhere in our living room. I remember during the summer, the trays of the chilies, the dried chilies that she made. We gardened. She taught me to garden, which is amazing. I love gardening. Again, part of her goal in gardening was to create bitter melon, which you know, you couldn’t get anywhere. You couldn’t get at the Jewel, you couldn’t get at the grocery store. And so our house was this kind of anomaly around this kind of really gray, depressed [place], where our neighbors were working in the factory or our neighbor to the left was an old World War II vet, who also fought in Japan, a really wonderful human being and helped my family out a lot. But he grew up in the factories, too.
So, there was this kind of like, “Who are these people?” In this way, there’s a lot of curiosity in that, too. But amongst all that, too, there is this sense of, we try to really hide in that house. We felt safest in the confines of that bilevel. If we extend outside that — if we go beyond our driveway, there is a fear that sets in, of issues of safety. So, every time that home was actually like a real place for us to really be ourselves and do what we wanted to do, eat what we wanted to eat and listen to Buddhist sermons endlessly, or Thai movies, soap operas endlessly. So yeah, that home was a safety, situated in a really weird neighborhood.
LS: For context, was there a Thai community around where you lived?
IS: Not where I lived. But there was a Thai community. So all the Thais gathered every Sunday, and they came from all over Chicago. One of the things that’s really interesting is most of the Thai community during the ’70s and ’60s were medical. They were doctors. They were nurses. And then you had my family, who my mom was a nurse, but my father came illegally and worked in the factory. And we did not have money the way that some of the other communities had. They were from the north side. They would all gather in this abandoned elementary school that we made into our temple. And every Sunday, that’s when they would sell Thai food. Someone would be frying up chicken, and having yen ta fo noodles and all that stuff. It was trying to simulate what Thailand was.
One of the things that’s really interesting is that though class was such a huge thing in my work, there was a sense of classlessness at temple. They didn’t care that my father was a towel factory worker, at least I felt that they didn’t care, among all these rich doctors. But my father always was also trying to be or appear like them. He played golf because he wanted to appear like that. He wanted me to be a golfing champion: “Let’s play this bougie sport, and let’s show them that we can do it too.” So there’s this element of passing that happens there too. But no, in my neighborhood, there were no Thai people. And we’re very isolated. A lot of the time, a lot of tight communities lived in the north side of Chicago, or more of the affluent suburbs.
Samuel Chang (SC): I’m wondering how that experience has changed or shifted in your time here. I think some of those memories for your children, for your son, who doesn’t have those vivid memories of adversity or challenge — is that something that you think about?
IS: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I teach at Kenyon College. An article just got released of being the most expensive school in the country with a tuition of $68,000 a year. So the student body at Kenyon is very affluent. There is a sense of “Am I really here? Where I came from and where am I teaching now? Am I really here?” And I think to me, that sense of who I was, where I came from, is even more amplified now that I’m teaching at a small, liberal arts college and have a wonderful income and am raising a child who doesn’t have to struggle much. So for me, I talk to my kids a lot, talk to my son a lot about this sense of how privileged we are, right? I always talk about Yaya, his grandmother, and how she came with nothing. She didn’t speak the language. And then she raised a son, put him through college, and sacrificed so much. Those were to get me where I am so that I can help you get to where you are. I have these conversations with him, often, all the time.
I think to me, part of the reason why we go to Thailand is to also recognize and see issues of class that he has never really been exposed to in Ohio. So he goes, and we walked Bangkok, and then he would see all these people that don’t have homes or their homes are tin roofs, right? Or he begins to understand what it is to have and what it is to want. He begins to then differentiate, hopefully, that sense of what is need? What is necessary, right? But he’s also six, which means what’s necessary for him right now are Beyblades and Pokemon cards. There’s that too. But I’m always constantly reminding him — I think that’s how I was raised. My mom was saying, “Listen, when I grew up in the 1930s, we canoed to school. We lived in a room that is as big as this office. And there were eight of us. Look at where you are now.” So I think parenting as a first generation, and then parenting now is really interesting, because I know where my parents came from. I knew what poverties they had, especially having experienced World War II, and Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia during that time period and hearing her stories of that time period, just thinking about coming here and working and raising a family. I tell my son, “She’s the bravest person you’ll ever meet. You won’t find anyone braver than her.”