By Ira Sukrungruang
My mother was a champion bowler in Thailand. This was not what I knew
of her. I knew only her expectations of me to be the perfect Thai boy.
I knew her distaste for blonde American women she feared would seduce
her son. I knew her distrust of the world she found herself in, a world
of white faces and mackerel in a can. There were many things I didn’t
know about my mother when I was ten. She was what she was supposed to
be. My mother.
At El-Mar Bowling Alley, I wanted to show her
what I could do with the pins. I had bowled once before, at Dan Braun’s
birthday party. There, I had rolled the ball off the bumpers, knocking
the pins over in a thunderous crash. I liked the sound of a bowling
alley. I felt in control of the weather, the rumble of the ball on the
wood floor like the coming of a storm, and the hollow explosion of the
pins, distant lightning. At the bowling alley, men swore and smoked
My mother wore a light pink polo, jeans, and a golf visor. She put on
a lot of powder to cover up the acne she got at 50. She poured Vapex,
a strong smelling vapor rub, into her handkerchief, and covered her
nose, complaining of the haze of smoke that floated over the lanes.
My mother was the only woman in the place. We were the only non-white
I told her to watch me. I told her I was good.
I set up, took sloppy and uneven steps, and lobbed my orange ball onto
the lane with a loud thud. This time there were no bumpers. My ball
veered straight for the gutter.
My mother said to try again. I did, and for the next
nine frames, not one ball hit one pin. Embarrassed, I sat next to her.
I put my head on her shoulder. She patted it for a while and said bowling
wasn’t an easy game.
My mother rose from her chair and said she wanted to
try. She changed her shoes. She picked a ball from the rack, one splattered
with colors. When she was ready, she lined herself up to the pins, the
ball at eye level. In five concise steps, she brought the ball back,
dipped her knees and released it smoothly, as if her hand was an extension
of the floor. The ball started on the right side of the lane and curled
into the center. Strike.
She bowled again and knocked down more pins. She told
me about her nearly perfect game, how in Thailand she was unbeatable.
I listened, amazed that my mother could bowl a 200,
that she was good at something beyond what mothers were supposed to
be good at, like cooking and punishing and sewing. I clapped. I said
she should stop being a mother and become a bowler.
As she changed her shoes, a man with dark hair and a mustache approached
our lane. In one hand he had a cigarette and a beer. He kept looking
back at his buddies a few lanes over, all huddling and whispering. I
stood beside my mother, wary of any stranger. My mother’s smile disappeared.
She rose off the chair.
“Hi,” said the man.
My mother nodded.
“My friends over there,” he pointed behind him, “well,
we would like to thank you.” His mustache twitched.
My mother pulled me closer to her leg, hugging her
purse to her chest.
He began to talk slower, over-enunciating his words, repeating again.
“We … would … like … to … thank…”
I tugged on my mother’s arm, but she stood frozen.
“… you … for … making … a… good … chop …suey. You people make good food.”
The man looked back again, toasted his beer at his friends, laughing
smoke from his lips.
My mother grabbed my hand and took one step toward the man. In that
instant, I saw in her face the same resolve she had when she spanked,
the same resolve when she scolded. In that instant, I thought my mother
was going to hit the man. And for a moment, I thought the man saw the
same thing in her eyes, and his smile disappeared from his face. Quickly,
she smiled—too bright, too large—and said, “You’re welcome.”