Shhhh…I’ll tell you a secret. Despite all the blogs I have posted of my ancestors whose immigration dates to the 1850s, 40s, and earlier, I am a first-generation American. The daughter of a modern day immigrant.
I am asked all the time if I have done any research on my mother’s side of the family and the short answer is…not much. I have a plethora of information on my father’s family. So, what about my mother’s ancestry? My lack of information is not due to disinterest. My mother is Thai. This single statement poses several problems. Now to the long answer.
I have always been interested in my mother’s heritage. I have asked her questions about her culture, her family, and her country of origin. I own and have read one of the first comprehensive histories of Thailand written in English. I have attempted to learn to speak Thai, but it’s hard to learn with no one to practice with (I live 2000 miles away from mom, and my mind just goes blank when we talk on the phone). Her influence in my life has given me a broader view of the world and her people, and it has also provided a unique opportunity for an American Genealogist to study an Asian heritage.
One of the first problems I face with Thai research is the most obvious; all records are written in Thai (which is actually three problems in one). The Thai language is nothing like any of the western styles. It has an unrelated alphabet, script, sentence structure, and idioms. When I come across records written in German or French, I can type them into the Google translator tool because they use the same script. Not only does the western language share a similar alphabet (mostly), but the foundations come from the same root languages – Greek and Latin. This means the sentence structures are similar, so the translation is pretty close. The foundation for the Thai language comes from an Asian root language, presumably the ancient and extinct Yue language. It does not translate cleanly using the handy Google translate website. In fact, it is virtually useless.
The Thai script represents more sounds (or tones) than the English language, so my idea of spelling will differ from someone else. Example: Sawa dee, ka means hello and goodbye (female), which can also be spelled sowadee, sawadi, sow a di, etc. The male version is Sawa dee, krap – which can also be spelled krup. Another example: lay-o means faster. This is also spelled reo, leou, riew, etc. They don’t pronounce ‘L’ or ‘R’ the same so to different Western listeners they hear either letter even though the speaker pronounces it the same. Then there is mah, ma, may. They could be the same word, but they are not. One of them means dog, but I can’t remember which one. Think of the viral video/audio of Laurel vs. Yanni.
Thai sentence structure is simpler. We say, “I am going home.” They say something more like, “go return home.” Their idioms and slang are different also. One of my Thai cousins once told me, “Look at that man! He has a snake on his head!” I looked and told her I didn’t see any snake and she laughed and tried to explain but her proper English made it difficult for her. So I asked my mother (who has lived in America all my life), she said it meant “Dirty old man.” They also use Aunt and Uncle more broadly than us. These words apply to any family member or close family friend who is not a parent but in our parents’ generation. Same with Grandmother and Grandfather. They don’t have “great-“Aunts, just Aunts. When I try to translate my cousins Facebook posts the word “cuddle” comes up a lot, but when you read the context of the rest of the post, they clearly are not talking about cuddling (usually it’s something to do with a complaint – I still haven’t figured it out).
The second problem transcends the first. Even if my mom were to help me translate or do the research for me, she wouldn’t find many records to research. Thailand didn’t start keeping vital records until 1909, didn’t begin enforcing record keeping until 1917, and didn’t build registration offices until 1936. Despite earlier laws enacted, recordkeeping didn’t make significant strides until the 1970s. Two exceptions to this are social class and foreign records. Thailand, like England, is a parliamentary government with a Royal family. The higher your social class, the more likely you have records pre-dating 1909. Thailand has only recently begun to digitize records. Online databases are nonexistent. Even Family Search’s wiki only lists digitized records for Western Government and religious records collected through embassies and churches. By the way, Thais are predominantly Buddhist, and they don’t keep records.
Compounding the second problem is the third: the names. Thailand produces some of the longest and unique surnames. I asked my mother about her surname once, and she was told by her mother, that it was an old name. This is significant in Thailand because they make their own last names. They have a “tradition” of creating new surnames every few generations to maintain a distinction between families they feel they are no longer technically related (distant relations). There are no surnames like Smith or Jones (variety of unrelated families sharing the same surname). Anna Surassa Fhaumnuaypol explains this phenomenon well in her blog. Older surnames were supposedly bestowed on families by the King. Families with this kind of surname had some connection to the royal house. Not necessarily royalty, just some affiliation like government officials, palace servants (whole families), etc. That should make research easy, right? Not so much. Swing back to pronunciation and spelling. English spelling of a Thai surname is never the same. I spell my mother’s maiden name at least three different ways depending on the weather.
Surname examples (listen to the pronunciation here)
All I know about my mother’s family is passed down by word of mouth. Any time my mother goes back to visit her family, she asks her mother questions and relays them back to me. My grandfather has unfortunately passed away, so we will never gain any new insight into his history. As a result of her efforts, I can record her mother’s side at least four generations, and her father’s three generations. But that is as far as I ever hope to get.
In the end, Thai genealogy research online is a little heartbreaking. All the genealogy forums are filled with people looking for their biological parents (one or both). All they have, in many cases, is a first name, a description, or just a place and time of an event. Many are children of the Vietnam War, whose fathers were GIs or whose mothers were from poor farming areas and gave them up early. The DNA forums are the same. Children of Thai descent (mostly mixed race) use the DNA on Ancestry to locate biological parents.
I have submitted Thai infused DNA on Ancestry, and the closest match I get is very distant – beyond 5th cousins. And since none of the other donors know who their parents even are, they do not have a tree to compare research and see where the connection may even be.