by Ploi Pirapokin
During the summer, after my first year of graduate school, I borrowed my father’s Royal Bangkok Sports Club card to pay for two papaya shakes. My friend and I gulped them down as the waiter held the brown card up—eyes darting between the tiny headshot of my wrinkled father and my oops-expression—then accused me of breaking club rules.
“He told me I could pay with this,” I confessed.
Shaking his head, the waiter explained he still had to inform the membership office of this transgression.
A Sports Club letter materialized on my family’s dining table that evening, which I interpreted, “She’s no longer a child and shouldn’t be mooching off your membership.” Terrified that I’d lose my spot in a future of comfort, prestige, and authority, my parents alleviated part of the club’s debenture with a one-million-baht donation. This immediately secured an interview with the board and ushered me off their membership waitlist.
“Why would I want to be a member when they don’t even want me?” I asked.
“Because we’ve put your name down for over ten years,” my father said.
“What if I don’t want to be a member?”
“That’s fine. You can cancel it when you get married.”
“I don’t even live here, what a waste of money.”
My father exploded. “Do you know how long I’ve waited as a placeholder for your interview spot to open?” he said. “Do you know how lucky you are?”
We whipped back and forth that night; them pointing out that all I had to do was to return next year to attend one short interview; me conceding with an “I’ll think about it.”
In hindsight, the argument appeared insignificant and forgettable. My parents were simply ensuring that no matter what happened with my writing career in America, that I would still retain some social standing should I come back to Thailand. At the time, I thought, what would it cost for me to surrender just this once?
* * *
When those familiar with Thailand ask me where I hang out when I go back for the holidays, I’d say, “Sports Club.” I’m often met with an eye-roll and a dismissive comment along the lines of, “You must be a princess.”
Before everyone became familiar with the club’s reputation of being a bastion for Thailand’s high society, the club actually began as a domain for horse breeding; the idea being introduced by a farang, of course, since horses are not native to Thailand. In the late 1800s, Englishman Franklin Hurst asked Prince Devawongse Varoprakar (then the Minister of Foreign Affairs) if he could rent land to hold horse races. His wish was granted, and there was a Royal Racing Course that lasted for a few years before closing, presumably, as Thailand was fending France’s advances away from their borders.
In 1901, King Rama V issued a Royal Charter that sanctioned the construction of a club focused on “improving the standard of horse breeding, the holding of race meetings, and other sport,” due to a request by the Consul-General of Russia, Alexander Olarovsky. King Rama V donated his land to Olarovsky, as he served as a Western ally to the country, working “tirelessly as the Tsar’s envoy in Siam to protect the kingdom of Nicholas II’s friend.” As France and Britain edged closer on colonizing nearby borders, Thailand depended on Russia’s influence in their alliances with the West to protect their sovereignty.
This history is barely mentioned on the club’s website. People praise the club for its exclusivity—there are only 12,500 members and that membership is inherited. In high school, I asked my parents if we were related to royalty.
“Back then, your grandfather was invited to join,” my father said. “They needed members who could afford the dues. A club can’t sustain itself with only royals and foreigners.”
* * *
My background is also often overlooked and barely mentioned within my family. I’m adopted, and my parents are technically my uncle and aunt. My mother—my aunt by blood—is my birth father’s younger sister, and twice a year, we eat with my birth family at fraught meals where they try to connect and relate with me.
Last December, my birth family asked if I could have lunch with them after Christmas. My mother declined politely, “It’s the day of her Sports Club interview, but she’s free the whole week after.” She added that we had to schedule this interview years after the club had requested me, since I was busy abroad.
My birth parents and blood brothers oohed and aahed, “Do you need any advice on how to ace that interview?” They scoured their contacts for a member, or someone on the board who could expedite the process. When they learned that our other extended family members were my recommenders to apply, they complimented my English, my status as a teacher in the American public school system, and my colorful dresses from J.Crew—all of which made me sophisticated, all proof that I came from a respectful family worthy of endorsing.
Finally, my younger brother said, “They’re not going to say no. It’s an old, elitist club going out of fashion. There are so many more trendy clubs opening now to join if you want to use a gym.”
* * *
Thais have long and arrogantly celebrated the fact that we are not colonized peoples. We fought bordering countries with swords, spears, daggers, and bows, and in armies riding elephants. My father, intent on teaching me Thailand’s history out of the fear that I forget because I live in San Francisco, always emphasized the power of Thai negotiation, which is how Thailand has maintained its independence.
When English and French forces sailed in with guns during the late 19th century, Thai Kings had to modernize or accept defeat. Instead of building more canons, Thai elites studied their pink-hued invaders’ mannerisms, behaviors, and genteel leisure activities to appear as equals. According to scholar Thak Chaloemtiarana, “If Siam appeared to be modern like the West, then colonial powers would have fewer reasons to want to save Siam from itself.”
* * *
The most famous Thai equestrian is our current HRH Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, who “began horse riding at the age of nine following in the footsteps of her elder sister.” She has seven horses in different disciplines and practices every afternoon six days a week. Her interest in dressage has allowed her to compete with the best, taking part in international competitions such as France’s Concours de Dressage Internationale de Saumur in order to demonstrate “the capability of Thai athletes.” Even though most of her work keeps her abroad, she “established the “Princess Cup,” in Thailand with the main objective to “promote awareness of equestrian sports among Thais and show the world Thailand’s ability to host major events.”
Horse-riding is a lingering passive-aggressive 19th century version of Annie Oakley and Frank Butler’s duet from Annie Get Your Gun (1946): “Anything you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you.” Thailand is proving her capabilities of mirroring colonizers so that she remains untouched.
* * *
In a way, the Royal Bangkok Sports Club is a Thai Trojan horse, except that instead of being built under the leadership of colonial forces, it was a negotiation between Thais and foreign forces, with Thailand allowing those forces to emerge from the belly of Bangkok. I can’t find one dissenting voice that sang the Thai version of “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.” Instead of “Beware of Gifts from the Greeks,” it would be “Beware of Gifts.” We didn’t even have a Helen to return.
* * *
“Thai nationalism is not about an armed struggle against colonial oppressors,” but rather, Chaloemtiarana continues, “it is about mastering Western civilization in attempts to appear equal,” with a constant sneering of what is not.
Clearly, the rest of the Thai population were dwelling half-naked in swamps, festering in the mud beside the Mekhong river, scratching their scalps in their free time. “Unlike in neighboring countries—such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, in each of which struggles against Western colonialism defined nationalism—in Thailand, nationalism was based on an embrace and mastery of Western modernity and on harnessing that modernity to raise the nation to the same level of civilization.”
Therefore, to be Thai means to imitate, not adapt.
* * *
I find it ironic that such a fancy club exists in order to remind the rest of Thailand of its horse racing roots, particularly when that root acts like an invasive plant, changing the ecosystem around it.
When I was ten, my mother asked me if I was interested in horse-riding lessons because Toey, my cousin, took them. “She moves so gracefully with such good posture,” my mother would say, as though one session of horse-riding equaled years of etiquette school she couldn’t force me to attend. I wish I could say I wanted to ride horses—that desire never bubbled over.
My parents never held back their comparisons to how un-Thai I looked and behaved. Always too dark, too tall, too wide, I was also too mouthy, too physical, and too expressive. Toey—obedient, petite, and polite—could endure the heat atop a horse that trotted in circles around a pen.
As I watched Toey pop up and down in tune with her honey toned horse, moon-face, drenched in sweat, and baby-hairs matted along her forehead, my skin burned from imagining a slow, boiling death in the same black helmet, britches and boots.
* * *
Horses, like calf-leather Chanel purses, cannot survive a tropical climate on their own. Instead of filling airconditioned dressers, horses in Thailand are usually stabled, and brought out to covered arenas between dawn and dusk. Since breeding imported horses with Mongolian horses found in the north resulted in stillbirths, most tall, impressive racing and competition horses are imported.
Before I met Toey at her riding lessons, I’d roam the Sports Club stables peering through wooden panels to catch a glimpse of those thoroughbreds, some of them meeting my eyes with theirs, the size of my fists. They were exotic to me, unlike elephants, crocodiles, or tigers, and those farms famed for their tours where tourists took photos with animals in their drugged states. These horses at the club were free—or at least, free to nuzzle their noses into the cracks where my fingers poked through, and they exhaled heavy, wet, grassy breaths onto my palm. Some of them paid no attention with their backs turned to me, tails swaying from side-to-side swatting away droning fruit flies. I’d join my parents in the car, sour-smelling and muddy, and they’d ask if I had showered while rolling down the windows.
* * *
My parents built their travel agency in Hong Kong. Bangkok is no place to start a business without connections and they had none. They brokered large-scale tours cheaper than their competitors, and accumulated profit from between the margins after paying back airfares, hotel rooms, and guides. They said yes to every tour group, no matter how many thousands of them came by, and worked for foreigners that no one else wanted to work with in the nineties like Michael Jackson, whom my parents claimed they had no idea was famous until they caught their staff photocopying his passport as a keepsake. They spent late-nights signing checks, missing all of my school plays, and leaving me to roam my friends’ houses for dinner. Throughout my childhood, I was shuttled back and forth between my hilltop, government-owned complex in Hong Kong and a sparsely decorated Bangkok apartment to meet my grandparents. When we arrived, my parents would offer their parents checks, balancing accounts so that everyone wore house slippers, had gas and electricity covered, and ate roast duck for dinner.
My birth parents were worse off. They lost their money in the stock market and invested in cars they couldn’t afford, large houses without furniture, and on business deals that tanked. They were consistently bailed out by my adopted parents, who didn’t want me growing up and assuming that my birth parents didn’t care about where I came from.
I can’t decide who suffered more—the parents who left or the parents who stayed?
Sometimes, my birth father would reach in his wallet to fork out crumpled red notes for our meals. My adopted mother would confess to having already paid, but I knew she tried to spare him from embarrassment. He would then try to change the subject to how much I was making in dollars, and that hopefully one day, I’ll be the one treating everyone to meals.
* * *
The fight that separated my birth parents and adopted parents was over not conceding.
My mother owned a small piece of land in the rural area of Thailand, and unused land is heavily taxed. Since my parents lived in Hong Kong, they had asked my birth father to act as their broker to finalize the purchase amount with an interested buyer, a famous real estate company.
“If you don’t take this fair offer now, they will leave,” my birth father had told him.
“Then let them leave,” my father said.
“If they leave, we don’t get rid of the land,” my birth father said.
“Who says we are desperate to get rid of it?” my father asked.
Eventually, my mother didn’t sell the land but gave my birth father his commission anyways. My father to this day, still turns red when he retells the story. Her reason for giving her brother his commission is because he needed it. He has a wife and two sons to feed.
My father agreed to the payout but considers this a betrayal because family should act in the best interest of family, not yielding to strangers.
I think with every adoptee, every act we make can signal which set of parents we side with. We question which parts of our behaviors are innately ours, and which facet is learned. Sometimes I wish what was originally exchanged was a horse and not a little girl.
* * *
Nowadays, a Trojan is a type of deceptive code of software that appears legitimate but can take control of your computer. Instead of fluorescent pink ponies galloping across the screen, a Trojan could look like an email attachment, or a form to fill out, or malware for you to download, and once completed, the scammer who created this Trojan has access to your information, flooding your network with traffic, or demanding money to remove it.
When I was fourteen, I dyed my hair green, and skipped class to play basketball. I hung out with older boys at back-alley tattoo parlors and my grades plummeted. I cut up dresses my parents had bought me and wore low-waisted jeans to show off my thong. My parents, unsure of how to handle a rebellious teenager, asked if I wanted to be sent back to my birth parents.
They’ve since apologized, though I’ve often wondered if I had been so egregious to warrant being refunded.
When I told my parents that I had been accepted into a creative writing graduate program, my father accused me of wanting to spend their money partying in San Francisco.
“You are not the Steve Jobs of language,” he said.
My mother reasoned that at least I would return with a master’s degree.
I never really understood how disappointing them amounted to a betrayal, or how they thought I had been downloading all the comforts they gave me only to spit it all back in their faces.
* * *
When we arrived for my membership induction ceremony, my father said with his chest puffed out, “Now you would have gone to the right schools, met the right people, and will be a part of the right club.” He couldn’t stop straightening his crisp button up every humid step of the way from the car to the ballroom, radiating with pride. You would’ve thought that I had won an Academy Award rather than falling heir to a father who insisted on paying the club’s monthly dues.
There were thirteen or so of us at the ceremony with our referee fathers. My father didn’t warn me that everyone else would be much younger, dressed in Balenciaga, and toting limited crocodile-skin Hermes bags, so I had to make do with my J.Crew-sale sundress and leather slides.
Walking in, my father explained to the staff that I had just arrived from muang-nok, which literally translates to foreign lands, but also means, “Please excuse her lack of comprehension of formal Thai and our customs; anything weird she does is because she doesn’t live here.”
We can look different but not act different. Muang-nok differentiates Thais-living-in-Thailand from Thais-living-elsewhere, as though being a lotus bulb rooted in mud made one more authentically a flower than blooming from an indoor container.
* * *
* * *
Trojans are also unanimously linked with condoms, meeting the American marketing ideal of replacing a noun with a proprietary eponym. The brand was credited to Merle Leland Youngs. In 1873, the Comstock Law “forbade the sale of birth control, so condoms were instead sold as protection against disease.” Still, asking for condoms were met with disdain and furrowed brows, and so even during World War I, America’s condom-makers sold their wares to European armies, as their own countrymen contributed to spreading a large number of venereal diseases like syphilis. Youngs knew condoms needed to have a new image, and so “favored austere packaging emblazoned with nothing but a Trojan helmet, a symbol meant to connote protection and virility.”
The horse has moved from a symbol of subterfuge to hacking to conquering land in physical, metaphorical, and emotional realms. The horse is privilege in need of a new image.
* * *
When I failed my first year of college, my birth father sent me an email insisting I study seriously. “Not everyone has the chance to go to America. People will look at your GPA first, whether or not it relates to whatever you intend to do afterwards,” he wrote.
I replied, “Who do you think you are, my father?”
For a long time, I blamed him for being the reason our two families hated each other. My parents tried to comfort me by saying that he gave me to my mother—that kind of surrender is true love.
After college, my younger brother yelled at me for not stopping our birth father from taking his third mistress on vacation.
“He pays for his other kids to go to school but not his own kids. He asked your mom to pay for our older brother and I to go to school,” my younger brother typed on Messenger. “He gets a monthly allowance from your mom and Grandma. I can’t prove it, but how else is he paying the bills?”
A month later, the younger one sent me another message: “Why can’t he just give us the love he keeps giving out to other people with children that are not of his own flesh?”
* * *
Recently, I asked Toey how she trained her horse when she rode. She admitted that there was always a handler present.
“We couldn’t ride the horses by ourselves, that would be dangerous,” she said. “If the horse did what was told, the guy would pat or scratch the animal’s neck, and sometimes even give me carrots to feed it.”
When I told my parents that I would think about attending the Sports Club interview, they treated me to a seafood dinner. They ordered curry crab, a large plate of sugared taro fries, and wok-tossed egg noodles. Their comments about my weight subsided. They even asked me about how my book was going.
* * *
I’ve often wondered what Thai people thought of horses outside of standing in as vehicles crucial for transportation and war. On Thailand’s largest communications conglomerate’s educational website, True Plook Panya, educators recommend that interested riders must love horses, and be honest and diligent in their duties related to caring for a horse, off and on the arena. They also asked interested riders to be compassionate and forgiving, since horses can’t speak. They weren’t trained to race either, so riders must be patient since we can’t relate to horses. This is a tender way of surrendering, of understanding that not everything can be aligned. Only surrendering didn’t necessarily mean losing, but rather, giving up on old trodden paths to reach a different destination.
* * *
The first part of the Sports Club membership induction ceremony began with watching an animation on the codes of conduct to follow if we became members, like how it was a cardinal sin to lend your membership card to others. I tried smirking at my father who quickly returned my smile with a tight lip. The second part of the ceremony was to obtain the signatures of board members on a piece of card after interviewing with them, to show them that you were serious, that you’d actually use the club facilities.
I raised my hand. “How do we get their signatures?”
“The board members just want to know who you are, what you’ll bring to the club, and what sports you play,” the staff member speaking said.
After the video, we were escorted to another room, made to stand in a line akin to a firing squad where the male board of directors introduced themselves before passing the microphones our way. Standing tall in dark suits, golden pins and medals attached to their chests, regal and impressive. I wondered if this was part of their intimidation game. The first pair began with the girl’s father buzzing about who he knew, how long he had been a member, and where he worked before one of the board of directors cleared his throat.
“Sir,” he interrupted, “please just give us your name, who you’re with, and let her talk.”
We went down the line parroting what we deemed defined ourselves as important and influential. There was a girl who was studying English literature at Williams College who loved to swim. Another girl graduated from Carnegie Melon with an architectural degree and was now working at the firm that designed the Burj Khalifa in the Boston office. She enjoyed tennis and badminton, though only playing on a varsity level in college. Another girl read law at the University of College London, hoping to return to practice here and play volleyball. Then my father stated his name and gestured towards me.
“My name is Ploi Pirapokin and I’m a writer,” I said.
If there’s anything that silences a group of people faster than yelling, “Fire!” it is announcing to a crowd of the powerful and wealthy that you’re a writer.
“I also teach creative writing for UCLA Extension, and I played rugby for Hong Kong.”
Strangely, this became a talking point during our awkward mingle. One farang board member reminisced about his time as a prop at his boarding school, whereas another Taiwanese board member wanted to know about how such a young woman like me managed to score a lecturer job at UCLA. They signed my card, thanked me for my time, and as I bowed back, one of the Thai board members stopped me.
“When you’re done with America, we look forward to your return back to our motherland, where you can play rugby for our club’s team and teach here.”
“Isn’t it funny that it’s a horse racing club but no one here rides horses?” I said, smiling.
“Maybe you can take a class when you have a longer break,” he said.
* * *
After the interview, I met with my older brother for dinner. We laughed about how nervous I was as we dug into plates of spicy papaya salad, hot basil-garlic fish, and sticky rice. He asked me why I felt that way, considering that the interview was only a formality.
“Don’t you lecture in front of students all the time?” he said.
I thought of the snippets of polite conversations I had overheard, like, “Lovely to bump into your mother at the Aquaman premiere,” and “Did you see his new Porsche?” and “Have you been to Riverwalk?” My father guessed who was in the room based on abbreviated surnames hastily scribbled on nametags: there was the daughter of a grocery-chain scion; the son of a real estate development mogul contracted to expand shopping malls into residential buildings; and children of military generals. They all knew each other, and avoided our table planning their interview responses.
I saw myself in my brother—sharing wide cheekbones, flat noses, and raised foreheads, and answered, “I just didn’t want to let them down being myself.”
* * *
In the wake of a global pandemic, a Reuters article reported that, “Thailand began vaccinating some 4,000 horses in a bid to contain the spread of the deadly African Horse Sickness (AHS), a disease that only affects horses and other equine animals.” There is a correlation between coronavirus and this, of what could be contained by mass vaccination. The news gave a stern warning, “If veterinarians don’t act quickly, it could wipe out all 11,800 horses in Thailand, where they are kept mostly for racing and leisure riding for tourists and private owners.”
I learned that AHS is spread by biting midges, unseen in Asia in more than fifty years. Other news sources commented on how these biting midges came over from Zebra importers. Since the story broke, Thailand had lost its AHS disease-free status with the World Organization for Animal Health, thus halting its imports and exports of equine species, wild and domestic. The country must take at least two years to reapply for its disease-free status again.
I asked my parents to call the Sports Club and ask about what might be happening in their stables. The news article had photos of horses separated by thick mosquito nets wound so tight, they almost seemed cordoned off in separate rooms. I couldn’t picture hundreds of their horses rolling over, their limp, heavy bodies carried out in wheelbarrows, or hauled on the back of pickup trucks for burial.
“Where would they bury these imported animals, and do they send these horses home?” I asked.
My parents said they would follow-up later, but I know they are too shy to follow-up.
I pressed the numbers on my screen and called the club myself. Cradling the phone to my ear, all I heard were beeps.
* * *
What do we do when the things we believe defined our status implodes? What are we left to confront with then?
* * *
Back in May, after I cancelled my parents’ flights out to see me, we reminisced about our last holiday together and having gone to the Sports Club interview.
“Such happy times,” my father said, adding that the moment we were allowed to travel again, him and my mother would run down to the U.S. Embassy to renew their visas.
Over the past few weeks, they’ve sent me photos of them eating out, even at the Sports Club, sitting at a table wide enough for eight to maintain social distancing rules. They update me about their day, how their snake plant has quadrupled in size, how my grandmother sneaks sticky rice balls into her bowl despite the doctors’ orders to stay away from starchy carbs, and how my brothers are looking for different jobs. Everyone’s furloughed. Business is dead. My parents are brainstorming about how they will pay their office rent—no one can travel during an airborne pandemic, and hotels in Thailand are offering their rooms for free, even though no visitor is allowed in the country.
I’ve seen videos and photos of Bangkok during the first announcement of shelter-in-place; construction workers, waiters, and cleaners crammed into the back of pick-up trucks with covered faces; Thais waiting for the Skytrain in masks; and monks even sporting plastic shields over their upper body when asking for alms.
We all had to surrender to survive. My family is confronted by being—just being—and we lost sight of that in our desperate race to preserve, contain, and ride on top of it all.
“Are you still teaching?” my mother asked over the phone.
“Yes, we’ve just moved everything online,” I said.
“Lucky. You’re very lucky, do you know that?” she said.
“I do,” I said.
Ploi Pirapokin is the nonfiction editor at Newfound Journal, and the co-editor of The Greenest Gecko: An Anthology of New Asian Fantasy forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2021. Her work is featured in Tor.com, Pleiades, Apogee Journal, The Offing, Jellyfish Review, and more.
Carol Radsprecher earned her MFA in painting from Hunter College, CUNY. A longtime painter, she discovered the wonders of digital image-making and found that media well suited to her need to make a succession of rapidly-evolving narrative images based on distorted representations of the human body, especially the female body. Her work has appeared in several solo shows and numerous group shows and has been published in print and/or online publications.