Letters from Thailand by Botan

Letters from Thailand by Botan is a book that takes place in 1948 and follows the journey of Tan Suan U, a young Chinese man who moved to Thailand in search of a better life. The novel is constructed through the letters Suan U writes to his mother back in China.

Although it is far from being considered a literary masterpiece, the author uses a straightforward and clear language to narrate the story. I recognize it as a valuable source offering insights into the lives and perspectives of Chinese immigrants in Thailand.

One notable aspect highlighted in the novel is the immense importance of family for the Chinese. It appears that, for them, family connections are crucial for success, even more so than in Western cultures. Chinese migrants tend to rely on a strong social network to support each other when starting a new life in a different country, which contrasts with the more independent approach often taken by Westerners, as illustrated in the novel “Hunger” by Knut Hamsun.

Another intriguing theme in the book is the reverence for ancestors, creating a narrative rich with emotions. The story also touches on San U’s reluctance to embrace and respect the Thai culture, considering it inferior to his own. The father prohibits his daughters from learning how to read and write Thai, deeming it inferior to Chinese. This stands in contrast to the assimilation goals often observed in immigrants to America, where becoming American and adopting the local culture is a common aspiration.

Suan U becomes a successful businessman and takes pride in his Chinese heritage, valuing hard work. However, the story doesn’t mention the role of luck in connecting him with a wealthy family and eventually marrying one of the daughters. Suan U strongly believes that hard work is the path to success, but it’s worth considering how many people worldwide work hard throughout their lives and don’t become wealthy. Real life is more complicated than what Suan U seems to think. Success often involves a mix of hard work and fortunate opportunities.

As Suan U gets older, he turns into a grumpy middle-aged man who finds problems in everything around him. It’s interesting to read about his experiences with the immigration office, the tax office, new fashion trends, hairstyles, and his interactions with employees at department stores. The list of amusing stories continues.

His older son, Wan Kim, runs away with a prostitute, and against his wife’s wishes, Suan U goes to find Wan Kim. He brings Wan Kim and the lady to live with the family. One night, the lady leaves their house with money and jewelry stolen from them. On another occasion, Suan U’s teenage daughter becomes pregnant by her Thai boyfriend. One problem after another comes to Suan U.

During a family trip, they have a car accident. Suan U’s wife is killed, and he and the rest of his family escape with minor injuries. Suan U is devastated because, even though their marriage wasn’t completely happy, he deeply cares for the woman who gave him numerous children. At the end of the book, he ends up marrying his sister-in-law, a lady who has been close to him for all these years and with whom he has always had a brotherly relationship.

Athought  Suan U has several weak points in his character that have put distance between him and his children, at the end he understands and accepts that several changes must be made in his character if he wants to keep his family together.

While I may not endorse the cultural rejection portrayed in the novel, I believe it provides valuable insights into the history of migration to Thailand in the first half of the 20th century. As Suan U observes his own children embracing Thai culture, it adds a poignant layer to the narrative, highlighting the complexities of cultural identity and generational shifts.

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