Growing up the son of Thai parents in South West Sydney, Oliver Phommavanh never felt fully Australian—or fully Thai.
He struggled at school to fit in, and was embarrassed by his parents and their pressure to embrace the Thai culture and language and food. Now as an adult, he’s emerged from his teenage insecurities to become a comedian, and has written a book for kids about the Asian-Australian growing up experience: Thairiffic.
It’s the story of a boy called Lengi who lives in his parents’ Thai restaurant in Western Sydney, and it’s now been made into a play by the Monkey Baa Theatre Company, showing at Darling Harbour in the school holidays.
In Thairiffic, Lengi eventually learns to appreciate and embrace his family and Asian background. The spikey-haired Oliver told Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe said the story reflects his own life.
“I was a little bit embarrassed by my family, I wanted to be a normal kid and fit in, but looking back now I really do appreciate my parents and their efforts for me to really stay in touch with my Thai roots and heritage,” he said.
“Even though my favourite foods are still burgers and pizza, I still appreciate my mum’s home cooking and spicy food. I also appreciate the fact that Thailand’s such a lovely place. I go back every two years to see all my cousins and relatives.
“They say Thailand is the land of smiles and it’s so true, they’re so laid back and easy going. Even more easy-going than Australians. There’s a lot of similarities between Thailand and Australia.”
Finding the ‘Funny’ in Serious Issues
He his book aims to help kids going through the same kind of experience he did.
“I grew up not being able to relate to any of the kids I saw on the cover of the books I used to read,” he said. “I wanted to write books that have an Asian-Australian voice but are also contemporary as well.”
He added that humour and comedy has helped him work through life’s challenges.
“I’m a weird guy, I write about strange kids, so humour is a great way to let that weird angle come to the forefront,” he said, laughing. “My books have serious issues in them too but you can always laugh about it and find the funny in it.”
Thairiffic is on in the school holidays from July 4 to 8 at the Darling Quarter Theatre.