HOW TO BE HI-SO
Aom Supaporn, of whom we are about to speak, was born sometime in the year 1959 in a wealthy family of émigrés.
Her origins remain contested to this day. Since the dark gangly girl with a mole so large and black on her upper-lip did not resemble any of the Supaporns, she was deemed a charity case. The polite Supaporns, similar to other descendants of Chinese elites before them, were lighter-skinned and unblemished. Aom’s mother, Rose, had given birth to their only son a year before, and tended to him with a flat belly until Aom came along. Even at five years old, when many girls were at their most enchanting age, Aom carried herself like an injured calf, with a confused expression on her open lips and a wide forehead much browner than the rest of her muddy face. Aom’s father, Victor, travelled most of the time to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma, to set up casinos and hotels on inexpensive land devastated by the war. Rumor had it that Aom was a love-child, created by Victor’s negligence over a midnight tryst in a brothel, brought back to Bangkok to be raised as his own, saved from living out a poor and hard life in the countryside.
This sounds like the usual dreary small talk, but it would help to explain why we betrayed her. We’d like to think that it was because she was never one of us, a fungus that fed on our contempt and shed spores that remained even long after her death. This is how karma worked. Buddha had bestowed the Supaporns, a righteous family, with a strong, healthy, creamy-hued son, Tim, and a real estate empire built from the ruins of others. While the rest of the country was still picking themselves up, transferring their savings into local banks, and bringing over their family members from closed Communist states, Buddha answered Rose’s greedy request for another child to keep Tim company. Some of us had two daughters, stillborn sons, or no children at all. Some of us had businesses to grow, employees to pay, and maids to house. We prayed and made offerings for the Supaporn’s wealth to come crumbling down and cursed their every move, but nothing happened. So it was only fair that Aom would end up being taken away from them, and her pugnaciousness made the entire ordeal easier to swallow.
Throughout her childhood, Aom conducted herself like every other child in the neighborhood following the customs and traditions we had established over the centuries. She waited with her mother outside their mansion’s gate early in the morning to donate food to the monks. Finished her sentences with ka, showing respect for her elders. Smiled without showing teeth, even if it made her look like a serial killer. Started every conversation with, “How is business?” and acted as though it mattered. Her parents taught her well, but her combative behavior arose when she entered high school and discovered books. Unlike Tim, popular and well-loved, who found joy in play-wrestling with his neighbors and threw birthday parties every boy wished to attend, Aom planted herself in the sunny nooks of their house and immersed herself in the world of words. She read everything. Her memories consisted of arguing with her teachers like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, washing the dishes with her confused maids like Sara in A Little Princess, and asking for seconds with wide eyes and a pleading voice like Oliver from Oliver Twist.
Her parents granted her freedom that other parents felt uncomfortable gifting their daughters with, and encouraged Aom to imagine what life would be like in another person’s shoes. The truth was much harder to bear than fiction. The girl initially believed these characters existed only on paper, and her capacity to understand and infer how others felt and thought would be to the Supaporn’s detriment. The more her mother berated Aom for turning darker like the maid’s children after a noon pool dip, the more her father lectured her on memorizing the times table to leave her slower classmates behind, and the more her brother teased her for wearing his clothes and not looking feminine enough, the more Aom felt rejected from her family life and sought refuge in stories. She also discovered kinship in her nanny, her chauffeur, and her servants—the people that did not judge her—only she was too young to understand the complicated relationship between money and what the help were allowed to say. Nonetheless, the flashpoint of her radicalization occurred when her mother came thundering into the dining room demanding that their chauffeur burn his Gucci loafers because what kind of servant wore designer shoes? Servants must dress professionally and with deference while their employers could afford to be flashier. Aom had said something to the effect of, “Well, they are obviously counterfeit,” but her outcries did not save her chauffeur from keeping his shoes from the fire.
No one blamed Rose for what became of teenage Aom after that. She did only what other mothers in our community did and punished her servants more severely to command their respect. Rose never graduated high school. She shopped for the family’s groceries by matching the words neatly etched on a sheet of paper to the signs posted underneath each item at the supermarket. If the words were misspelled, she’d leave without purchasing the product. She couldn’t ask for help, realizing well into her motherhood that if the help perceived that they were equal to or smarter than her, then they would not be willing to work for the Supaporns. She acted on every instance of disobedience with fervor, swiftly tackling every potential moment where her illiteracy would be discovered with contention.
Which is why we’re surprised that the Supaporns never said anything when their daughter started spouting lines from speeches of troublemaking counter-revolutionaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Che Guevara and Gandhi. Victor had left a war-torn, lawless China for a better life for his children, and if anybody knew how words could land you in prison, how words could disrupt the way of life for generations to come, and put all relationships in danger, it would be him. But maybe Aom never said those words out loud at home. Maybe she only recited, “I have a dream…that all men are created equal,” in secret, underneath her covers. Maybe she lisped, “Tienes que hacerla caer,” with inflections on the wrong syllables under a hot shower.
She wanted to be the change she would see in the world and craved attention for doing good. But this was not our way. No one enjoyed being shown up by a child who used all her monthly pocket money to buy lavish gifts for her maids. No one approved of a child turning down birthday presents in favor of a donation to the temple. No one liked Aom telling them how frivolous their spending habits were, even if she said the right thing. She may have looked Thai, but she knew nothing about being subtle, personable, or charming.
Two houses down, in an air-conditioned mansion identical to the Supaporns, their neighbors bemoaned, “Poor, poor Mr. and Mrs. Supaporn, not even in their fifties and already slaves to their daughter! And to think we welcomed her to dinner. That Aom, full of opinions, if she only cared about what came out of her mouth, how she frightens her mother so…”
When Aom turned eighteen in 1977, to everyone’s surprise, she enrolled to study at Thammasat University. Tim couldn’t even place in a second-tiered school, and the Supaporns had no connections with powerful institutions at that time.
That’s when the troubles started.
Aom acquired a large group of friends, all of them arrogant young Thai-Chinese, who cared more about the ever-changing landscape of politics than how to fund their futures. They spent nights out at bars dissecting theories on what life would be like with a fully functioning democratic government. They kissed one another on the way home, Aom letting a few interested candidates paw her in a secluded alleyway where she threw up her whiskey. They swapped letters with dirty poems under the guise of romance. A certain radical tone was established. “Down with corruption,” or “The poor have nothing to lose but their chains,” or “Democracy or nothing!” All sorts of popular catch phrases, chants, imitating Communist-rebels that overthrew their governments, except these students had never experienced hardship before.
What did they know about backbreaking work? What did they know about eating insects because you were starving? What did they know about living in shanty-homes, where rain fell through the cracks of tin roofs? When Aom came home with flyers and bracelets and flags depicting a classless Thailand, her parents and Tim pretended she was no different than the harmless, bumbling girl they raised.
The Supaporns were not interested in politics. They were not interested in the rest of the country that didn’t concern them. If they had climbed up the wealth and influence ladder, why couldn’t anybody else? They didn’t think the decisions of those in power and those vying to democratize power would ever affect their lives until one cool September night, Victor and Rose received a two a.m. phone call from their dear friend Maggie Kanomtong, claiming to have seized Aom from the gates of her university for safekeeping at the local jail. Maggie’s husband, a large, fat, bald intimidating Army General, had warned the Supaporns to watch their kid. All Rose could think of were the rough routine searches these perverted policemen carried out on their eighteen-year-old teenager, and the tiny, damp cell in which Aom and all her friends were crammed into. They went and paid the guards a bribe to bail her out shortly after the phone call, and Victor covered his disappointment by imagining that Aom had simply returned from a long holiday abroad. Rose, furious, scolded Aom on the way home in the car until her throat turned dry. How could you be so callous? We should have never let you go there. That school is a sham, full of lessons that will get you killed. We should have sent you to an all girl’s school. You took us for granted. Dad never said anything about what you were reading because we wanted you to learn English, but how can you be so reckless like a termite flying into a fire. I should have stopped you there. Hello, are you going to say anything? Am I playing the violin for a cow? Do you know how worried we’ve been? Why? Why?
[ END OF EXCERPT ]
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