Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Father Tongue


"How long have you been selling here?" my dad asks the young man at the roti stand.

The man smiles and watches his flat, blackened, iron plate. "Five years." He smears butter and it hisses. He slaps and pulls a ball of dough on the shiny surface of his cart until he achieves a tenuous, leaf-thin circle.

My dad translates the Thai into English for my American mom and husband, who are standing behind us and nod and say "oh" and "hmmm." My husband holds our two-year-old daughter. The father and daughter duo towers over the locals negotiating the carts of sliced pineapples, glistening roasted meats. We are in Bangkok at the end of a two-week visit to my father's country of birth. I have been here many times before, including one three-year-long stay during which I learned Thai, a language that haunted the surface of my childhood without ever sinking into my linguistic neurons.

In high school, we once extracted and replicated our DNA from our cheek cells. We twisted the long, slippery strands on to glass dowels and slid the genetic material into tubes of rubbing alcohol. A translucent souvenir I have long since lost. What did I know about saving my DNA? I was just a kid.

"Is this a good spot?" my dad asks, referring to where the roti man makes his nightly business.

"Yes. It's a good spot." The vendor swipes pieces of banana onto the thin pancake.

A dark-haired Asian couple arrives and stands next to us. They speak to each other, their heads together, conspiring, it appears, in new love. My dad looks at them, leans an ear in.

"They want to know how much the roti costs," my dad tells the vendor.

"25 baht."

My dad translates into Chinese for the couple. They exchange a few more words with my dad before walking off. Did you see that? I want to say. My dad just translated the Chinese into Thai and then Thai into English! We kids sometimes tease him when he confuses idioms. ("This cold weather is not my cup of soup!") But I hold a quiet awe for my dad's languages. After scoring high on his final exams and as part of post WWII reparations to Thailand, the Japanese government paid for him to go medical school in Japan. He had one year to learn the language before his classes started.

A few days before, as we sped along a highway that cut through watery rice paddies between my dad's hometown and Bangkok, my dad told my sister and me why he had sent us all to private schools. As a kid in public schools, he'd been ostracized because Chinese, his mother tongue, had been his first language and he spoke Thai with an accent. He'd been different. He hoped that private schools would offer his children the acceptance he'd missed.

I step up to the vendor. "I'll have the same as you just made." In Thai, I lack the ability to be more specific, so it seems easier to say, "What he had." He pulls out a stretchy ball of dough, pushes it flat with his fingers, and begins slapping it against the metal. He works with the comfort of having done this thousands of times.

We wait together under the bare vendor bulbs. The roti man finishes and hands me the warm styrofoam plate. We turn to walk back to our hotel. At the top of the alleyway I offer bites to everyone. My daughter shakes her head. She wants the bag of pineapple I'm holding. Sapparot.

She resists me when I try to speak Thai to her. Pay hong-nam, mai? I ask her. Go to the bathroom? No! she tells me. Where Dada? Dada won't speak this nonsense to me, she seems to say.

She also senses my hesitation. My accent and my vocabulary limit what I can communicate in Thai, with its words too textural and sharp in the flat, snowy climes of Minnesota. In Minneapolis, far from my dad in DC and from Thailand, the language feels lonely. I know that as an adult, my daughter will probably curse me for not having taught her another language. Or else she'll curse me for sending her to public school.

We wave good-bye to my parents, who are staying at an uncle's house a few blocks away, and walk down the alley to the hotel. We hold hands, my husband, my daughter, and me, forming a sort of double helix.

Rhena Tantisunthorn received her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University in 2007. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and daughter and is currently working on a book about her experiences working with Karenni refugees on the Thai-Burma border. You can find her blog here: Rhena Tan.

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Beautiful, Rhena!!
Of course I love this! Your dad is amazing!
Oh Rhena, this is lovely!
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