Growing up in an Asian household certainly comes with its fair share of traditions and
celebrations. I am the son of Thai parents who instilled in me the importance of heritage. My
father’s parents hail from the distant land of China, specifically Guangzhou. That technically
makes me half-Chinese, and I take immense pride in it. For as long as I can remember, I
have been to family events celebrating this ancestry.
Chinese New Year was definitely the cultural highlight of my youth. For one day in
January or February every year, I dined and prayed to ancestors with my entire father’s side
of the family gathered in my paternal grandfather’s (known in Thai-Chinese families as
Agong) house he bought after having settled in Bangkok. One striking memory jumps out: I
remembering burning joss paper with my father and aunt in the front yard of the house. For
those who aren’t familiar, paper with gold foil is burnt to venerate deceased ancestors. The
paper is a representation of money and material fortunes, so burning it ensures that those in
the afterlife are well-provided for. After, we’d have a large meal cooked by my grandmother
and the aunts of the family. I recall these visits fondly; even writing about this brings a wistful
smile to my face. New Year’s Day (1st January) was also a special time for our family. My
Agong’s birthday happened to fall on this day and thus the entirety of my father’s side of the
family would have a great luncheon. This, along with Chinese New Year, significantly helped
me become closer to my dad’s side of the family. Other events surrounding the new year
included yearly temple visits to make merit and to pray for a prosperous and healthy year.
Turning back now to my identity as a Thai person, two major traditions spring to
mind: Loy Krathong and Songkran. Loy Krathong is held in November of every year to
honour the goddess of water and rivers, Khongkha. People celebrate this in two ways: most
will make a small basket made out of banana stalk and leaves, a Krathong, decorate it with
flowers, and float it on a river or lake. The other way, most common in the north and
northeast, is floating large sky lanterns. If you’ve watched Disney’s Tangled, you’re definitely
familiar with the concept. The sight is simply ethereal: I only went lantern-floating once, but it
was a sight I will never forget. The other major tradition, Songkran, the Thai New Year, is
celebrated annually from 13-15 April, and features merit-making and visiting loved ones.
Most recognisably, however, is the splashing of water on others to cool off during the intense
April heat. The Thai traditions continue mostly on my mother’s side of the family, where we
pour holy water on senior family members and pray for merit.
Now that I am at Durham, most of my time has been occupied with work and studies.
Looking back now as a third-year, I do feel a pang of regret that many of the cultural
traditions I enjoyed back at home were not brought over or maintained in my life on this side
of the world. I have not forgotten my heritage entirely however, and have made an effort to
remind myself of my Thai-Chinese background. I have invited my British friends to join in
Chinese New Year festivities, such as the exchanging of red envelopes with cash (angbao in
Thai or hongbao in Chinese) and eating a Chinese meal. In first and second year, I took my
housemates to The Rabbit Hole for some delicious Chinese food and to give them an insight
into my culture. The involvement of my British friends, especially the exchanging of red
envelopes, warmed my heart immensely. Moreover, on all the special holidays and cultural
events mentioned above, I take time to pray and make merit.
My desire to continue the cultural traditions of my homeland and people have
influenced my approach to running the Thai Society. Having been its secretary for 2 years
running now, I have stepped up efforts to bring our culture to Thais and the wider community
in Durham. Our society have an upcoming Loy Krathong dinner and merit-making event
planned to be held in Newcastle, as well as an online sermon by a Buddhist monk based in
the area, and we anticipate more cultural events will be planned for Epiphany and Easter
I hope this gives readers a sense of how important traditions are to me and many
other Southeast Asians in Durham. They are a piece of home that is not contained to a tract
of land or to the pages of history, but within the people who bring these customs however far
they settle from home. As for me, 6000 miles of distance won’t stop me from losing sight of
the culture I hold dear.
Image: Sahil Pandita via Unsplash