Reconnecting with my Thai Heritage through Los Angeles

By Zoe Navapanich

When I was twelve years old, I traveled to Thailand for the first time. I met much of my extended family for the first time, tasted all kinds of different cuisine, and saw many of the typical tourist attractions that draw people from far and wide to the country. Though I am half Thai, and was fairly well connected to my culture throughout my childhood—calling my grandma “khunya” and going to every Thai festival and celebration at the local temple, I felt like a tourist when I finally had the opportunity to visit Thailand.

For many children of immigrants, especially those from mixed-race families, it can feel very difficult to stay connected to your roots. When I visited my cousins growing up, I was ashamed that the only Thai I knew was the baby phrases my Khunya chided us with like แปรงฟัน (brush your teeth) or the nursery rhymes sung to the children at temple. Now, I wonder how much of my Thai heritage I will one day pass on to my children, or how much I would even be capable of passing along considering my lack of knowledge of the language and substantially lower involvement with the Buddhist temple in the past few years.

At my high school, the only other Thai kids were my brothers, but being in Los Angeles, and at USC specifically, I have had the chance to connect with a lot of other people who are looking to also get closer to their cultures. Here, I took the opportunity to first get involved with cultural clubs like Mixed SC, which focuses on creating a dialogue and space for hapa and mixed race students. While no one else in the club has the same mix as me, getting to talk about our shared experiences growing up with two or more cultures has been really meaningful in allowing me to feel more connected to my Thai roots. Before coming to USC, I had only met a handful of other hapa people, but being here has allowed me to look at myself as beyond being half-Thai, or half-white, but as 100% Thai and European.

Aside from allowing me to connect with people who share similar experiences, being in Los Angeles has provided me with a wide variety of places where my culture is celebrated. Now, I’m not talking about the white-washed Pad Thai from the farmer’s market, or the Thai teas with boba from one of USC’s cafes (though I do appreciate those for an energy boost during study sessions), but rather LA’s diverse representations of populations and cultures. Because the city itself is so sprawling, I feel that although much of the “culture” in LA has become sensationalized instagram-bait spots, it has been a hub for immigrants and people of all parts of the world, and lifestyles for so long, that LA also has some amazing hidden gems of authenticity.

In LA’s Thai Town, for example, I was able to pick up some Tiger’s Balm and Thai Boxing Oil, the remedies my grandmother used for our headaches and bug bites as a child. I also got to explore some of the many beautiful textile and clothing stores in Thai Town, which feature outfits representative of both traditional and more modern styles. Aside from the many stores staffed by kind and interesting vendors who proudly display pictures of the Thai Kings on their walls, or flaunt patriotic yellow shirts, the food in Thai Town is incredible. I have always felt that food was one of the ways I relate best to my Thai heritage and am able to incorporate it into my daily life, so getting that true comfort food experience from the restaurants was very exciting.

Here in Los Angeles, although I am a hundred miles from my home and the temple I grew up around, and nearly ten thousand miles from all my family in Thailand, I feel more connected to my roots than I ever have before.

Featured image by Owen Lystrup on Unsplash

Zoe is a second year undergraduate student studying Global Health through USC’s Keck School of Medicine on the UPC Campus. She is passionate about healthcare and helping others and wants to pursue a career in hospital administration. Zoe is also specializing in Applied Analytics through Viterbi’s Information Technology Program. Zoe is from San Diego, California so she loves swimming, surfing, and all things ocean-related. She grew up in a multiracial (half Thai, half French and Swedish) household so she has a soft spot for exploring the differences and similarities among cultures. Some of her hobbies and passions include all things food or cooking-related, being outdoors–she is an avid hiker, camper, and backpacker, all kinds of music, and giving service to the community through volunteering.