By Dionne Jirachaikitti
On September 22, 2009, the Berkeley City Council voted 9 to 0 in support of the Berkeley Thai Temple. The vote came as a relief to the Thai community in the Bay Area who had been waiting for over a year to know whether they would be able to continue their tradition of merit-making in Berkeley.
The Berkeley Thai Temple is oldest of the three Thai Buddhist temples in the Bay Area. As a second generation Thai American, I spent most of my childhood at Wat Buddhanusorn Thai Temple in Fremont. Most of my weekends and summer vacations were spent at the temple learning Thai language and traditional dance and practicing Buddhism. Like most of my Thai American peers, temple was where we learned about our culture and connected with the Thai community.
It was a shock then to find out that the temple in Berkeley was being threatened. Although I had not frequented the Berkeley temple when I was younger, I was a four year resident of Berkeley where I attended UC Berkeley and was highly involved with city affairs as a student leader. What struck me most about this issue was the blatant contradiction between Berkeley’s reputation as a liberal and inclusive city, whose history is full of movements promoting equal rights, and the targeting of a small minority community known for being peaceful.
The neighbors had concerns about parking, noise and odors; all of which the temple tried to address by putting up signs to not block drive ways, securing extra parking at a nearby lot, and moving food preparation indoors, just to name a few. It became increasingly clear that neighbors wanted to push the temple out completely when all of the temple’s compromises were met with more and more requests. In the four hearings before the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB), neighbors complained that our food smells bad, the noise is intolerable and several other comments that have me cringe and question whether Berkeley is as accepting as it is known to be.
At the hearing on September 25, 2008, a woman likened the temple to an “American Capitalist Organization” that expanded like McDonalds and alluded to the temple’s Buddhist shrine as the “golden arches.” The woman went on to say that the food was “almost addicting like Supersize Me, the movie” and asserted that “everybody here [in support of the temple] eats their food and everyone against them doesn’t eat their food.” In truth, hundreds of supporters signed petitions, wrote letters and called city council members reminding them that the Berkeley Thai Temple is an integral part of the city and provides a service of not just food, but community building and cross-cultural learning for all residents.
To many Thais in the Bay Area, especially first generation Thai elders, the temple is the only place they feel at home, where they can speak Thai, eat Thai food, and practice Thai Buddhism. To a new generation of Thai Americans, this issue marked the first time second generation Thais in America have come together to organize for a cause. The Save the Thai Temple (STTT), collective that came together to advocate for the temple spanned generations and involved community organizations like the Asian Law Caucus.
During a hearing, a Thai woman passionately explained that, “Berkeley is a very unique town. I am so proud [to be here]. This city is the center of the universe for me. And Thailand is my home country. To join the two of them together is a blessing.”
I feel the same way about the Berkeley Thai temple, except that Thailand was not where I was born and my memories of Thailand are only of few trips I have had there to see my family. Instead, the Bay Area is my home and Thailand is where my roots are. The Thai temple is where I can connect to my culture and community in a way that I cannot do anywhere else. To have a place like the Thai temple to go to while growing up was truly a blessing in my life and hopefully will be for many young Thai Americans to come.
Dionne Jirachaikitti is a Community Advocate in the Juvenile Justice and Education Project at the Asian Law Caucus. She is also a organizer with the Save The Thai Temple (STTT) collective.