About the Artist
22 years old
My upbringing was transnational. My Mae is from Bangkok and my dad from Berkeley. My parents are separated and she always went back and forth, slowly increasing her time spent in Bangkok as I got older. There was a tense duality between staying with my white dad in the more affluent Berkeley hills and witnessing my immigrant Mae struggle to find places to live, often staying with family friends. I constantly traveled between these respective realities. I alwaysfelt like I had one foot in either culture.
My Mae was more present in my life during my early childhood. She acted as the key cultural connection to my Thai heritage in the midst of a very diverse community. She cooked Thai food at home, spoke Thai with me, and took me to Berkeley’s Thai Temple to learn traditional Thai dance and language. As she slowly moved her life back to Thailand, that small community interaction faded. As a child, I didn’t understand the importance of intentionally maintaining a Thai community. The last time my Mae lived with my family in the States I was 13. When I was younger, I was angry with her for leaving my brother and I in the US. Since then, I have come to understand her motivations for leaving; Living far from her community and support systems, my mom struggled to create a life in America. Meanwhile, in Thailand my mom could flourish.
Entering adulthood, I came to an understanding that my Mae’s absence left me with a fragmented connection to my Thai identity. While I always attended school in the States, I would spend almost every break in Thailand with her. Growing up in Bangkok, I felt like a stranger in my own backyard. Because of this, I was motivated to forge a stronger relationship with my Mae and her homeland. I wanted to pursue a deeper understanding of my Thai culture, but I was like left without the proper tools. I could not speak Thai fluently, didn’t understand Bangkok’s convoluted city structure, and I didn’t know anyone my age. When I was 19 I began to see this more clearly, and I went to Bangkok intending to spend three weeks there. I had no friends and wasn’t entirely comfortable navigating this sprawling city on my own. Hoping to achieve a better sense of Bangkok, I took the train to downtown Siam Square to explore. I found a small skate shop called Preduce, which was my first exposure to contemporary Thai youth culture. I was previously unaware of the diversity and depth of this new world. Excited by new beginnings of my Thai community, I ended up staying for three life-changing months. For the the first time, I felt I had finally found a place in Bangkok.
After returning to the States, I missed the new home I created in Thailand and decided to take time off from school to move to Bangkok. At the time, I was 19 and living alone in our family condo, balancing a research internship and a bartending job. It was a beautiful period of self-growth in my life. I was discovering so much newness and furthering my self-exploration. During those few months, I met other Thai creatives who want to push social boundaries, queer Thai women, and mixed kids who had similar experiences of feeling lost growing up. It was invigorating to meet other Thai youth that I could relate with on many levels. I discovered an entire community of people who accepted me with open arms and allowed me to build my life there. I feel indebted to the people who welcomed me into their lives. I am so grateful I took that chance to immerse myself in my multicultural confusion. Because of this period in my life, I am now coming to a deeper understanding of myself in terms of my ethnic identity.
In a sense this project represents my process of building a Thai community in America. While it is very much about self-exploration and understanding, during its process I realized its importance beyond my personal narrative. My goal in this project is not to define one general experience of Thai folks, but by piecing together these individual narratives it helps paint a larger picture. My vision for this project includes an exhibition where participants can come together and forge relationships in person. I hope that all diasporic people can not only identify with the narratives represented here, but feel further motivated toward dialogue and personal reflection.
Edited by Sahar Priano
20 years old
Ash Alexander: When did you make the decision to go by J rather than Jenny?
J Srimuang: A week ago. People have asked if I wanted to be called anything different. I never thought about it, but I never really liked my name so I’m testing it out right now.
A: Why didn’t you like your name?
J: I never felt like it fit me, even as a kid. I never understood why my parents named me Jenny. It is an Americanized name, and I was confused because my older siblings had Thai nicknames. I felt kind of out of place. It just never fit me.
A: How long have you been doing makeup seriously? And what is your relationship with that creative practice?
J: I don’t know that I do makeup “seriously.” It’s just something I do that I taught myself. I started wearing eyeliner in 7th grade, trying to feminize myself after feeling insecure and tomboyish in elementary school. I wanted to teach myself how to perform femininity since my family never taught me how. They just taught me, “this is what girls do and this is what boys do,” but through conservative and traditional ideas of gender normativity. So I started with wearing liquid eyeliner, and then learned more advanced makeup techniques through the internet. I actually got certified from a makeup school last year.
A: At the age you started learning about makeup, we’re unsure of our identity. Now that you know yourself better, how does makeup plays into expression of your gender identity?
J: It’s a way to channel my femininity when I want to, but it can be androgynous too. It’s like a diary of how I feel that day, even if you can’t tell off the bat. For example, I might wear colorful makeup because that day I feel very depressed. I’ll do a very bright look to channel how I’d like to feel. It’s also just my most familiar medium for self-expression.
I think it’s interesting as a non-binary person to appear femme and wear makeup. People will say, “If you’re not a girl, why are you doing girl stuff?” But makeup is for everyone. I’m reclaiming it by saying, “I’m not wearing makeup because you feel that I should, since you perceive me as a girl. I’m wearing makeup because a lot of people think I shouldn’t if I want my nonbinary identity to be taken seriously.” I’m redefining the initial femininity I thought I had to perform, as something that I choose to perform.
A: That’s so powerful. When did you start feeling at odds with the gender pronouns assigned to you?
J: I felt it when I was in my tomboy-ish phase, around 4th grade. I had just moved to white suburbia from LA’s Chinatown. I stood out in so many ways. During that time, I stared to disassociate with what people projected onto me, but I didn’t relate that to my gender.
I first started questioning my identity towards the end of an abusive relationship in 2015. I was with someone who had certain expectations of how I should be and they manipulated me a lot. Going through that pushed me to question if the person I thought I was, was actually real. The more I learned about the socialization of gender identity, the more I realized that I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to confirm to cis-heteronormativity.
A: During your times of questioning, what resources did you have to understand yourself?
J: I grew up on the internet. Once I got more into Twitter I started following more academic folks and marginalized people who were sharing their experiences. I slowly learned words to describe my identity and lived experiences through watching others converse.
A: Have you come out to your family as non-binary?
J: The only person that knows is my 14 year-old sister. My parents saw how difficult it was to force me to wear girly things when I was younger, but they didn’t think much of it because eventually I learned to “be feminine.” Maybe they just thought it was a phase. In a weird way, my mom passively supported me. When my hair was shoulder length she told me, “You would look good if you cut your hair into a boyish hairstyle,” but when I actually did, my mom said, “Oh my god, you look like a boy.” She was the only person who gave me shit for it.
This made me unsure about whether I should come out to my parents. I’m not very close with them, so I can’t even say that they know I’m queer.
A: Growing up in Chinatown and the suburbs, did you have a Thai community around you? How did you relate to your Thai identity in those settings?
J: When I was really young I had a best friend who was half-Chinese, half-Thai. They were the only other Thai person I knew so we hung out a lot and our parents could communicate with each other. I also went to a Thai temple for Sunday school. That’s the only other time I interacted with many Thai people at once, but I had to travel half an hour to get there from my suburb.
A: So you were going between these two distinctly different worlds, one being white suburban Americana and the other being very Thai. Did this ever cause you to struggle with your Thai identity?
J: Definitely. I was really ashamed when I was younger because I was different. When I was living in Chinatown everyone was Chinese except for me. I am part Chinese, but not enough for people to recognize me as such or for me to feel comfortable claiming that as my identity. I didn’t like Thai food, I hated going to temple, and I thought Thai culture was weird. I was always ashamed of it, especially when I moved to the suburb. Oh my god. I stuck out even more, especially with my last name. No one could pronounce it. All my teachers would mispronounce it in front of my peers. They would ask me to say it during roll call, but after I said it, they would just say, “okay,” and never try to pronounce it ever again. Microaggressions like this led to a lot of self-hatred throughout my childhood.
A: Was there a moment when you started to reflect and unpack that?
J: I can’t think of a specific moment. I definitely have to unpack as I go because I’m still learning so much about what it means to be a Thai-American and how my identity has shaped my life.
A: Have you been back to Thailand?
J: I’ve only been back twice in my life. Once when I was a baby so I don’t remember anything. The other time was in 2013 for two weeks with my sisters and mom. It was really nice there! I’d love to go back soon, since I now have found empowerment and strength in getting closer to my culture.
A: I got through the general questions I had, but this conversation is really about you. If there’s anything else you’d like to speak on, I’d like to open the floor up to you.
J: I want to mention how Thai people really only know about trans women who have gotten transitional surgery and look “real”, AKA are cis-passing. They also know about Toms, which basically describes butch lesbians and trans men. These groups are given a lot of visibility. There are limitations within the Thai language to describe gender and sexuality that only a narrow scope of the queer community is represented or talked about. It’s a shame that the only words in Thai that describe queer or trans folks are usually slurs or pejoratives. It makes it incredibly hard to open up dialogue if there is no language for the dialogue that needs to be had! The language barrier is definitely one of the most frustrating things about learning about my own identity and trying to learn from my family. This is why I so desperately want to connect with other queer Thais to share and consolidate our experiences to try and make sense of them.
23 years old
Ash Alexander: Why did you delete your social media?
Sy Digiore: I felt like I was drowning in this something. It hit me that I didn’t know who I was. Deleting instagram was the main thing because it was always on. I asked myself, “Why am I even doing this?” I was so focused on holding people’s attention that I wasn’t focused on what I was keeping their attention for.
After a week of not having it, I felt like I could breathe and I realized how much it was consuming me. I started writing things down, just documenting myself. Ideas and songs would come to my head. It was so effortless because I was really focusing on myself. I was asking myself, “What is the core of Syam?”
A: In terms of your Thai identity, what is your background?
S: My mom is Italian and Irish, my dad is Thai and Irish. My dad was born in Thailand. My grandmother—I call her Jah—and my grandfather moved the family out here when he was two. My Jah is the only one we can see and feel the culture through, and we’ve never gotten to go there.
A: So she keeps that alive for your family?
S: Yeah, especially with her cooking, her home and the way she dresses. And of course how she looks because she 100% Thai, and so beautiful. She still has her accent too. I’m starting to get to the point where Thailand is becoming an option for traveling. I’m kind of sad to say that I’m 23 and I’ve never been there. It’s probably going to be so beautiful for me.
A: What do you remember growing up with that was distinctly Thai? In Buffalo, what is the Thai population like?
S: Literally it was me, my grand ma, my dad, my cousin, and my aunt.
My Jah would teach me colors. numbers, and greetings in Thai. And it’s always been her and my Papa chilling at the house. They are the most beautiful couple to me. When they met in Thailand it was forbidden for them to be together because he was there for the military. She barely knew any English and he didn’t know Thai, but they fell in love. I thought that was so beautiful. I think these are the things that matter most to me—her stories and her life. You would always be able to feel a piece of Thailand in her. She’s the only one of her family that’s over here, so she hasn’t seen anyone in her family in over 40 years.
I always loved to capture moments of my Jah. Even the way that she eats it’s like she still lives in Thailand, she still has that in her. She’s been here for so long, you would think those things could go away. It’s those little things that you can appreciate.
A: It really is a part of you and your life. And of course your name Syam is very Thai.
S: Yeah, it’s the original name of Thailand.
A: Do you think that’s influenced how you identify, as opposed to if you had an Americanized name?
S: It’s funny because Syam is my middle name, but I always felt more connected to that part of me. I felt like that’s who I am. It’s such a beautiful thing I felt I needed to embrace.
A: So how would you identify your medium? And what’s your artist name?
S: I recently started going by Sy. I found that when people call me that, it’s a sweet sound to my ear.
In the future I’d like to be a film artist, making short films and documentaries. At the moment, I am pursuing being a vocalist. I call myself a vocalist because it doesn’t limit you to just being a singer. I’m working on my debut album and I feel like 2018 is going to be crazy for some reason. I’m just being super patient with the process. That’s another reason I got rid of Instagram. I saw that your age gets to you when society keepings telling that if you’re not this by this age, forget about it. You just have to decide which route you want to take. We’re always learning, always discovering. It sounds so cliche, but tomorrow is really never promised. I am I’m learning to embrace living in the moment: “I am breathing right now, I am alive, I have been given another day.” I’ve been expressing gratitude to God everyday.
A: Are you religious?
S: I don’t consider myself religious, although Christianity is a religion. Calling it a religion takes away from what it really is, which is just a personal relationship with God. My church wants to get past the religious performance because it becomes this act. Really your church is in you, it’s your body. That’s what I believe. I am a Christian, but I know that God is love. It’s literally about love; Love is the answer. Love is the only thing that can transform. Love and hate are not equals, they’re not even rivals because love is way more powerful than hate. Love can drive out hate in any situation. That’s a part of who I am and what I’ve learned. Thank you for letting me say that. A conversation like this should be able to just flow. I’m not trying to push anything on you. You could tell me you were an atheist and I would look at you the same.
God wants you to imagine all the good things that you desire, he wants you to live your best life. In church you become almost naturally committed. You want to be involved because you’re around people who are so loving and accepting. They will tell you, “You don’t have to put on an act. You don’t have to act like you’re okay all the time. You don’t have to act like you don’t make mistakes.” The church is for all those people to feel that spirit together. Before started going to church I was by myself with God a lot, but when I started going I saw the difference. I feel like both are needed as long as you don’t feel obligated to attend church.
A: What do you talk about with God?
S: I prayed for God to reveal my identity in him. I know that is going to be what is truly me. And that’s when it all began falling into place. Prayer really works. He wants the best for you. He wants to be your provider and he wants to bless you. I’ve been seeing that so much.
Today I decided that I wanted to talk to him as if I’m looking at him. I imagine him as this glowing light. Sometimes I’ll imagine running in a field holding his hand and things like that. It’s such a personal relationship. It’s so important because you’re never alone and he’ll never leave you. It’s such a different feeling than you could ever describe. Earlier I said that all my fears and my anxiety were gone, but I know that’s because of God. Thank you God for our imagination, thank you for these things you’ve given us. I’m just praying for wisdom and understanding, to be guided and carried through this life and in this entertainment industry. Because it’s so heavy in such a toxic way sometimes so I want to make sure my relationship is good with him. I know that if I have him then I have everything.
My relationship with him is really strong at this point. It’s what keeps me going everyday. How could I ever want to let go? I found peace and I found myself. I found my identity in him, and he wants to use me for the greater good of this world. It’s such a beautiful, beautiful thing to me.
Thank you for being open. You never know what could come about from a conversation and I would be the same way in return for you.
A: Thank you for being so honest. Honest with yourself and honest about yourself.
S: I can feel you being open and letting whatever come. I could cry right now.
30 years old
Ash Alexander: You’re from Chiang Mai, right?
P: Yeah born and raised, I lived in Chiang Mai for 20-something years. I moved to Bangkok and studied there for four years, and then worked one more year there.
A: What were you studying there?
P: I got my degree in photography at KMITL, which stands for King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang. It’s a commercial program. Back in the day, it was very good, but can’t really compare now.
A: What made you want to come here and pursue another degree in the same field?
P: I wanted to learn how other people think, and compare with how we learn and think in Thailand. I wanted to know how people work here because it’s so different in many ways. Getting another undergraduate degree was better than going to graduate school because in masters program you expand on what your previous work and education. But here I could start over and learn about the industry, not just expanding on my personal work. A master’s degree is going to be doing more of what you did in undergrad, but going deeper. it’s good for me to start from the bottom. This way, I can build a new foundation of knowledge.
A: Before you came here you said you were working in Bangkok. Were you working in photography?
P: Yeah in the photography industry, being a photo assistant and photo production with my friend. I would help build the props for set design.
A: Once you moved to Bangkok, how did you break into the industry?
P: It’s not complicated. Once you know someone, you can find a way in there. My friend knew somebody and they kind of introduced me to people so I could get jobs.
A: In your experience there, what was the photo industry like? Did you want to shoot, or you like the behind-the-scenes work?
Pi: Honestly, it is better to be a photographer. You get more money obviously. Behind-the-scenes jobs you don’t get paid much and it’s expensive to live in Bangkok. You can live off that, but it’s difficult. I’m from the countryside so I don’t have a home in Bangkok. Some people have homes already with their family so they have more of a support system in the city. I was on my own, but I lived with friends and all of us came from the countryside. We rented a house together.
A: Did you enjoy working in Bangkok’s industry?
P: For work, it’s good. But I didn’t really enjoy it because of the low pay. It’s really hard to live. But I met a lot of good people and all the photographers I worked with were very nice.
A: I remember from our previous conversations, we’ve talked about the classism within the industry.
P: If you want to get into that, it’s true that if you’re not hi-so and you don’t study abroad then you have to start from the bottom. People will look down on you. Are you gonna put this in the interview?
A: Yeah I think it’s important. It’s something I learned recently. I told you the story about my friend who was trying to help me find assignments in Bangkok and everyone would first ask her if I had money. That was so weird for me.
P: Yeah if you’re rich then you’ll have a chance to go to the right places and hang out with the industry people. All of those places cost a lot of money. You have to pay to be a part of the scene. It’s not said outright that you have to be rich, but it’s obvious that if you want to have that kind of lifestyle you will have to pay a lot. So much. If you work as a photo assistant, you won’t have money to hang out with these industry people. You will have a different life then the people you work for.
A: Knowing that, and knowing that they want people who study abroad, did that motivate you to come here?
P: For me, I’m not going to go back. The reason for me to study here is that back in Thailand I was really interested in the artwork from all over the world. I studied that by myself a lot. I wanted to know about these artists and think in that way too—how they came up with that idea, why they work in that way. When I came to Art Center, I could expand my knowledge and explore new ideas. I can meet people who have different motivations as photographers. I think that’s the main point. We have a saying for studying abroad and going back: “dipping into the gold”. So regardless of where you came from, once you dip into the gold, you are the gold. And people are going to pay attention to you because of that. But I don’t want to go back because I feel like they have no place for me over there.
A: But if you felt like there was a chance for you to go back and find work, would you?
P: No...I prefer LA. I met a lot of nice people back then in my work, but I met a lot of mean people too.
A: What type of photography are you interested in?
P: There’s a lot of confusion right now around my work. I normally shoot portraits with digital manipulation. I used to shoot film and then use digital manipulation to tell the story. I focused mostly on social and political issues. But since I’m here, I feel like no one is going to give a damn about work concerning political issues back in Thailand. So I am interested in the relationship between people and media. I am kind of looking for an answer in that. How do people react to media? Not only photography, but altogether.
A: What kind of social issues were you focusing on in Thailand?
P: I used to focus on stereotypes, like for example, the idea of the uniform. In Thailand, everyone wears uniforms. Most of the jobs tend to have uniforms and it’s almost sacred for people. If you have a uniform, you have to be that. You have glory to work in that job, whether its government, soldier, nurse, doctor, those kinds of things. Other social issues I focused on were political, like addressing the crisis in Thailand with democracy and the military coupe.
A: What kind of work were you doing in those topics?
P: I was telling historical stories. Stories that have been forgotten. But it’s very heavy and nowadays people who try to speak about these issues always somehow end up in jail.
A: But you’re not in Thailand anymore!
P: My family is still there so I worry. There are other photographers that work with these issues too. One photographer named Harit Srikhao, he seems like he’s not afraid of that. He’s from the same college as me back in Thailand, but younger. He got an award from Foam Magazine. His issues are very heavy and risky too.
A: Very risky, people get disappeared.
P: Maybe not disappeared. But you might get a call one day, and then you will see what will happen to your life.
A: Being in LA, how was that been for you immigrating here and navigating a new city and new school? I know that you work as well. What has it been like balancing that?
P: It’s very tough. I can say that it’s very stressful. When you try a new thing, it’s very—I don’t know how to say, but it’s a different life. It’s kind of perfect for taking this artistic path and I feel like I’ve learned a lot in the past several years. Not only just photography, but everything in life. If I still lived in Thailand maybe I wouldn’t know how to live my life properly.
A: Do you get homesick?
P: Not homesick. I don’t miss home. But I feel like sometimes I just wanted to go back for visiting. But not exactly homesick.
A: Is your family happy for you to be here?
P: Yeah they are happy. First of all, they don’t have anything to give to me. What they have back home is all that they have.
A: So they’re happy for you to go out and find new opportunities?
P: Yeah some people say I should go back to help them, to visit, “You need to go back and take care of your family.” But they’re okay and they’re happy that I’m here and I can lead a new life. Still, it’s very hard to live here.