Language Loss and Diaspora Grief (with Dr. Joel Selway)

Thu Mar 02 07:00:57 EST 2023
Episode 9

Here’s an interesting question: How many generations ago were your ancestors speaking a different language than you are now? When Dr. Joel Selway lost his mother when he was 12 years old, he also lost a tie to his Thai ancestry. But shortly before his mission he came across an old book about learning Thai, and something sparked inside of him. Little did he know then that he would embark on a decades-long journey to learn the Thai language and, in turn, discover more about his family history than he could have ever anticipated.   


Michelle 0:00

Hey friends, I have good news and bad news today. The really bad news and I literally have a tear in my eye right now is that Miya is sick, and she is not going to be with us today for this episode. The good news is, today, our guest is someone who is equally maybe more passionate and can nerd out with me on family history stuff. So I'm so excited to introduce them to you. But I want us all collectively together to think of a question. How many generations ago did your ancestors start speaking a different language than you're speaking right now? Or another way to phrase that would be how many ancestral languages have you lost?

I think this is such an interesting question. And so I'm gonna go ahead, while you're thinking out there, I'm gonna go ahead and answer this for myself. My first language is English, American English, since there's lots of forms of English. And so I speak Mexican Spanish, because there's lots of different kinds of Spanish as well. But my Spanish isn't perfect. It isn't the same as my first language, English. But if I'm looking at my Irish side, they spoke English but also Gaelic. And then I have Swedish ancestry and Norwegian ancestry. I also have indigenous Mexican ancestry, which they spoke Nahuatl. Oh, Italian is another one. No one in my family speaks Italian anymore even though I have a very Italian last name, Franzoni. There is a lot of language loss in my family. And if this is not something that you've ever really thought of today, we're gonna get into it of how language loss might affect your family history story, and maybe some ideas about what we can do about it.

You're listening to the Love Your Lineage podcast by LDS Living: a multifaceted, shame-free approach to family history. I'm Michelle, and we want to help you find your space and claim your place in your family history story.

So today, I want to name this feeling that I often have felt during family history work that I've never had really a name for it. In Spanish, there's this saying, "Ni de aquÃ, ni de allá." And that means "I'm not from here or from there." It's this feeling of rootlessness. It's this specific kind of grief that comes with not being connected to our roots, not being connected to our family history story. And I want to name that feeling today. If you've ever had that feeling, we're going to name it today, so you know exactly what you're experiencing. It's called diaspora grief. And di-AS-pora, or dee-a-SPOR-a, I'm not even sure how to say it, but it's the dispersion of any group of people from their original homelands. So anyone that's emigrated, been kicked out, had to flee in the African diaspora, enslaved, stolen from their family, anyone that has had to leave their homeland and is living somewhere else right now. That's a lot of people. I think we hear when people emigrate from different places, they often say, "Oh, they sacrifice so much to come to this country." And we don't really talk about the specifics of what they sacrificed, and I think that's a big part of diasporic grief. But, to talk about this more, I really want to introduce you to my friend, Professor Joel Selway. So Joel, thank you so much for being here today. It's a pleasure. Thank you. I'm looking forward to it. So yay. Okay. The one thing I love most about Professor Selway is that we met at his sister's birthday party. I could tell we had this kinship of understanding how important family history work is. Professor Selway, would you mind giving us a brief introduction of like, who you are professionally, and then maybe a little bit of your family history background.

Prof. Joel Selway 4:13

I teach at Brigham Young University. I am an associate professor there. I've been there for 13 years. I teach classes on Southeast Asian politics. This semester, I'm teaching a class on the international relations of Asia. I also teach a British politics class as well. But those classes and my interest in those things professionally, I think stemmed from this feeling that you've described it. I never had a name for either that I had, I think throughout my entire childhood. And then as I kind of entered adulthood, it was something that I was really trying to, again, subconsciously tackle in some way and the way that I did it was by going into the academia and learning about the history and the languages of Southeast Asia. It's just kind of like this melding of both personal interests and academic interests. It's kind of a real privilege to be able to do that in my career.

Michelle 5:13

That is so cool. And I love how you have made this connection, like what I do today, right now is very much connected to my family history and this feeling of diaspora grief. And I think there are so many people out there who are feeling the same way, whether they've made that connection or not. So thank you so much for telling us about your professional bio, but could you tell us a little bit about your family history. And just to be transparent, I've heard a little bit of Joel's family history before, but it was so fascinating. I'm really excited to learn more about your history. So if you could go ahead and share that with us.

Prof. Joel Selway 5:49

I'm from England, I was born and raised in England, in the SouthEast of England. My mother was from Thailand. And you know, this is back in the 70s-80s, when I was growing up. And in our town that we grew up in, she was probably one of the few ethnic minorities in the town. And so we as kind of bi-racial children were quite visible in the town. And that was definitely part of our experience growing up. My mother used to speak Thai around the house, not to us, we never learned Thai language. I think back then, there was this kind of belief that children shouldn't learn more than one language, it might confuse and might be bad for their development. Or it could have been a personal decision, I don't know, but regardless, we didn't grow up speaking that fluently with our mother. She would teach us basic things, you know, numbers, basic introductions, and things like that. But we had this fairly traumatic experiences as children, my mother died when I was age 12. We were seven siblings together, and the youngest was I don't think she was even 1 yet, our youngest sister. It obviously left a whole in our family, for numerous reasons. But in terms of this kind of connection to that side of our family, that culture, that was just kind of ripped away from us. All of her family lived in Thailand, and obviously, this is pre internet days, so I guess if there are young listeners, listening to this, they may not appreciate this, but you can't just FaceTime them or Messenger them on Facebook or anything like that. I don't think we even knew their address, because my mother had done all of the communication, obviously, with her family. I'm not even sure how long it took my dad to write a letter to her family and let them know that my mom had passed away.

Michelle 7:49

What were your thoughts about Thailand? You knew you weren't 100% British With your mom gone, how did you feel about your identity?

Prof. Joel Selway 7:58

I don't think I've thought much about the implications of what it meant to be of a different identity or things like that. Every so often, it would show up on the football pitch. I like to play football. I remember, there was one team and I think I did a particularly strong tackle on this guy. And he pushed me to the ground and he called me a racial slur. And I think it was one of the first times that, at least since my childhood that I had experienced that. So I kind of flipped in that moment. I don't know where that came from, and I think it was just a lot of things bottled up, and that was subconscious. And there was something about the way that he treated me in a way that he used that just... yeah.

Michelle 8:39

And I would say it's hard being like a multiracial child, not having the parent of the other race to be there to help you process what just happened. Because having someone say something racist to you, it's a form of trauma and just having your dad to process he probably didn't nothing like that's ever happened to him, so he was like, I don't know how to help you process this information. And that's a huge part of diaspore grief is this feeling of disconnection and not having like someone to guide you on how to like process things that are happening in your life?

Prof. Joel Selway 9:13

Yeah, and, you know, I think for various reasons, I think my dad's personality and maybe just English culture, he was quite distant from us. And so even at church, people would say, "Oh, who's your dad?" And we would point out to our dad, this hazel-eyed, light haired, you know, blond haired when he was younger, man, and people will just like laugh and say, "Nah, you're joking. That's not your dad." I think my mum was very excited and interested in living in England. She was a very internationalized child, as I've kind of learned as an adult growing up. And so for her, I think it was very exciting to live in England and my dad had not really experienced Thai culture. He didn't speak it. And sadly, I don't think he could appreciate a lot of the things that will happen into us. So there we were. in this little town of Folkston, in southeast England, and kind of like the heart of our family had just been torn away. And so we had a number of traumatic years over the next few years. We just have some very interesting stories about you know, my dad actually came over to America with the mission missionary who had baptized my mom, and I think he was trying to find a new wife. And so we actually all were split up and went to live with different people. And I can't even remember how long that was. I want to say it was a few months, I lived with one of my friends in the ward. And then my dad came back announced he was getting married. We came over to America in 1990. It lasted three months. After the marriage, we went back to England, we moved towns, a friend of my mother's who had lived in a different town where there was a church ward community with a larger kind of youth group said, "I think it would be good for your children to move here." And again, there was some more physical separation of the family of the siblings for a while. I won't go into the craziness of that period. But essentially, it was like a two year period where not only had our mother kind of been taken away. But all of our stability had been uprooted.

Michelle 11:20

So when I say rootlessness, you're like, I know that word. So intimately. Yeah.

Prof. Joel Selway 11:25

I understand that I have memories of walk in the streets and in the rain in England, feeling very disconnected from lots of things in life.

Michelle 11:36

And were you still at that time very different than your peers, like you looked? multiracial? So yeah,

Prof. Joel Selway 11:42

so the town that we moved to Raleigh, it's right next to Gatwick Airport, it was a lot more racially diverse. I think I grew up the rest of my life in a very kind of English culture. You know, I went to church of England School, we grew up in council houses. So definitely lower class. And that was kind of part of my entire childhood experience about my identity. And so I went to a school. And that was a place where I always felt like, I could kind of escape these things. Because I was good at school. I wasn't necessarily particularly good at languages, I think my French teacher didn't like me. And I ended up getting a B in French, you can only get an ABC, I think, if you've got a B, you could go on and take an A level. So you have GCSEs and a levels. And so I got a B and then I went, because I thought at like age 16 This last two years of high school, I thought, you know, I think I might actually be interested in languages. So I went there with my B, which was kind of wanted to rub in a face because they knew she didn't like me. And she basically said, I'm not going to have you in my class. I was quite naughty in their class to be quite fair. So I went on, and I took business Spanish, there was a business Spanish class. So I took I took that for a year. Yeah, where it's really just Spanish. I don't know why they call it business, Spanish. But I think I was beginning to be interested in languages at that point. And you know, it was during that period of time where I really kind of grew, to have religion be an important part of my life, and to kind of feel the differences that could make in my life. And so I decided to go on a mission. And of course, I really hoped to go to Thailand on my mission. This is where I knew that I had start to become a nerd because I was working to save up for my mission. And, you know, mostly English people at workplaces, go down the pub and have lunch and things like that. And I obviously would do that every so often. But I found myself wanting to go down the library. Yes. So I used to go down the library, maybe at least three out of the five working days and read up about different languages and cultures. And it obviously started off with Southeast Asia and things like that. And after a few months of that, I was like, Huh, I wonder if there's any books on Thai? Is it and I know you would think that might be one of the first things but it wasn't. And so I had never really thought of learning Thai before at all. So I looked for books on learning Thai and I found this old book, I don't know when it's published, because it looked like it was from their 50s or 60s. It taught the language in a very old, traditional way. But there was something about finding that book that I don't know it kind of sparked something that I had never felt before. And I thought, Ah, I wonder whether I can start learning this language in in strategically I was thinking, I wonder if I put down on my mission application papers that I had learned some Thai could speak some Thai, whether that might increase my chances of going to Thailand. So they ended up sending me to Greece.

Michelle 15:00

Of course, obvious choice.

Prof. Joel Selway 15:02

This is back in 1996. I guess one of the reasons they probably sent me to Greece was they had a hard time sending American missionaries there for all sorts of visa problems, and there was a lot of anti American sentiment. So it turns out that about 75% of my mission were Europeans. At first, when I got there, I was really annoyed because all of the Europeans could speak two or three languages fluently. So I had, I had two Dutch companions in MTC, there are some of my best friends in the world now. But I remember just being so annoyed by them, because they could speak Dutch and English flow. Yeah, really well. And also German, I also am annoyed with them. Yeah. And then one of them could speak French as like, these people think me, I'm gonna learn Greek better than them. I'm a little bit competitive. So I thought, Okay, I've had a disadvantage here. I kind of speak bad French, a little bit of Spanish. But I'm gonna learn Greek, and be the best at this. And I studied really hard throughout my entire mission. And I just, I fell in love with the Greek language to Greek people, I served half of my mission in Cyprus. And I remember near the end of our mission, we did this testimony meeting on Mars Hill. And the mission president said, I want everybody to give their testimony in their native languages. And this was actually one of these identity crisis points for me. Because I was like, Well, yeah, I'm English. And I love England. And I, that's probably my go to identity in general, right? That's where my culture is, all of my sensibilities, my wakey. Yes, there was something about the way he phrased that there was like, No, I'm not going to give my testimony in English. So I gave it in Greek instead, Greek had become part of my identity in some way. Maybe lots of other missionaries feel this. But it was kind of like, there was something beneath the surface there that was like, Huh. So it started to be more of a kind of an emotional feeling, if that makes sense. And there were some other things on my mission that happened that kind of reinforced those. So when I was living in Cyprus, and of course, I grew up in England, where the sun never shines. My skin was fairly pale. But when I lived in Cyprus, and you're out, every day, on the streets, I just got really dark, like, really dark. And I remember we went to a British base there, because there's a couple of British bases on the island of Cyprus just to go get some fish and chips. And my companion was a six foot something Swedish guy with blond hair and blue eyes. And I remember, you know, thinking, Oh, this feels very familiar to me, right? This looks like a fish and chip shop. And this looks like a British army base. I grew up near a British army base, in Folkston. But then they would kind of like turn away and talk to my Swedish companion. I was like, you know, and so you start having these feelings, like, what is that about? I

Michelle 17:58

just want to validate like, I experienced that as a missionary to.

Prof. Joel Selway 18:02

And I was like, huh, and this was the first time where I had a conscious thought, whereas, like, they're not regarded me as fully English here, right? Or maybe not even English at all. That was another kind of strange event.

Michelle 18:15

Like I'm, I'm more of a countryman to I am British and Swedish, but yet you are talking to him as if he's more of your countryman than I am. What's happening?

Prof. Joel Selway 18:26

Exactly. And so, you know, that was probably more, maybe the demographic of people that were in the town that I first grew up in. Whereas for most of my teenage life, I was closer to London. And so we have more just kind of multiracial, London, identity, right and way of seeing our British identity, right. And it still involves all of the quirky parts of English and it's like Doctor Who. Just a quirky sense of humor and all of those things. But there I was on this British outpost on Cyprus, and I started feeling invisible, maybe as that's the best way to describe it. Then when I got back off my mission, I think all of this began to surface and I was like, you know, I really want to reconnect with my Thai side. So here I am, age 21. And I thought to myself, you know what, that dusty old book by found in a library before my mission where it seemed incomprehensible and totally unachievable.

Michelle 19:25

And maybe like, super intimidating?

Prof. Joel Selway 19:27

Yeah, really intimidating. I was like, yeah, I was like, you know what, I can learn a language fluidly now. I can do this. And so I went and picked up another book from the library. Maybe it's the same book, who knows. We decided as siblings that we were all going to go on a holiday to Thailand. We had never been there before. I mean, I had been there when I was three years old, so we'd never been there since so that time.

Michelle 19:56

So you felt your diaspora grief as individuals. Like it isn't really like a eclectic, which I think is really common for people who are wanting to engage in family history work. Maybe other people in their family are not interested or they're the only ones that feel the fire, feel the spark. But that's so cool that individually you kind of all were feeling it and then you decided let's go to Thailand.

Prof. Joel Selway 20:19

That's right. Yeah. We never had a conversation about it. But we're like, we're no longer teenage kids stuck in a counselor states, right. We have some means now.

Michelle 20:31

Did you have any connection to your aunties and uncles or did you know their names?

Prof. Joel Selway 20:37

We knew their names? I remembered them from growing up, but we have no connection with them for the entire time since my mom died.

Michelle 20:44

So I just want to set that up. Like it wasn't like, easy.

Prof. Joel Selway 20:47

No. But we went there. We flew over there. And I think because we were poor, we just got the cheapest flight possible. And again, this is pre-internet days. I think we found this flight, you'd have to like look up the number of some shady travel agent and there's Becky Stan airlines.

Michelle 21:08

Who knows?

Prof. Joel Selway 21:09

Yeah, I didn't even know where as Becky Stan was. But we got on this airline awesome. It routed through as Becky Stan Tashkent, which had this very interesting airport, which actually looked like it was very Soviet style. And concrete walls looked like they were bullet holes riddled throughout the whole floor. One tiny little shop to buy things from. But we went through them. We got to Thailand, we were able to all go with siblings. And I think maybe we stayed a month there, something like. You know, we have longer holidays in Europe, so. And yeah, we got off the phone. We didn't have a hotel. Because again, no internet.

Michelle 21:48

I love this image of us siblings all are just like, showing up in Thailand and be like, Okay, now what, like.

Prof. Joel Selway 21:55

Yeah, I mean, you know, I can I know how to handle myself in a different country. I've done this in Greece, I was like, we get there we find a hotel. Right? So I think we got somehow got down to the center of Bangkok. And literally me and one of my brothers just started going into different hotels, and asking them how much it was a negotiating with. In in English or in English, it was in India and again with this was all very new to us. And it was also there was a financial crisis in 98 in Thailand, so the price of hotels had dropped significantly, and the value of the pound was was strong. So we were able to get, you know, really good deals and in probably a nicer place than we'd ever stayed in our entire life. And then we were kind of like hunkered down in the middle of Bangkok, doing some touristy things, right?

Michelle 22:47

Can I ask you when you got to Thailand, did you immediately feel like, Oh, these people look like me, or were you still ni de aqui ni de alla? Like we're not from here nor from there?

Prof. Joel Selway 22:59

We felt like foreigners. We felt like tourists. But you know, there was a time I think my brother had set up a time for us to go visit our aunt and my granddad was still alive then. He was in his 90s. So I think we went there. And we had some type of dinner there met a couple of our cousins.

Michelle 23:18

I feel like this is family but not family.

Prof. Joel Selway 23:21

Yeah it did. It felt exactly like that. And again, it was great, right, you know, talking to the cousins my age, but then they also lived in very nice in a very nice place in a very nice house. And again, I think some of us were thinking, what happened to us, like, we got disconnected, not just in terms of communication. But there's a clear disconnect here between the lifestyle that all of that side of the family clearly live in, in Thailand. I mean, they lived in this gated community in a very nice, big house. And we lived in council housing over in England. And it wasn't just that we didn't look like them and couldn't speak Thai. But for us and meeting this family was like, Whoa, we're in a completely different social class here. Like, I don't even know how to act in this setting. Right.

Michelle 24:17

I grew up you know, living under the poverty level raised by a single mom. And then when I went to Mexico, I mean, they lived in gated community maids Yeah, they have maids, right. Yeah, my uncle was a doctor and so they had like access to a private plane and would like fly to Canada to go skiing and I was just like, oh, this is so so I'm just I can totally understand what you're explaining here. So.

Prof. Joel Selway 24:44

So so there was that but then there was also something just like a little bit. I don't know restricted about the interaction like especially with one of my aunt. Yeah, my aunt was very guarded. Don't want to get into all of that.

Michelle 24:57

So you probably have like questions like, who was my mothe? Like, because this is different.

Prof. Joel Selway 25:03

This is different. And so, you know, we knew some of the stories, we knew that my grandfather had been in the Thai Foreign Service and had been stationed around the world. And we have some pictures of, or at least some memory, or some pictures of our mom or some stories that she had once crashed her dad's Mercedes Benz when she was a teenager or something like this. But that was just a story. It wasn't anything palpable that we could really understand. But here we are, in this house having this very kind of, it's almost like formal introduction to the family room.

Michelle 25:39

And I think this is very common for people when they reach out to distant family members or even close family members. Yeah, there's been this separation very much. We want it to be like, oh, they met us with open arms and hugged us and welcomed us as if we were theirs. And they're guarded. It feels a little awkward. It's uncomfortable.

Prof. Joel Selway 25:59

Yeah. You know, with that particular aunt very guarded. And she, I mean, she actually is kind of like a very successful and high up person. She has worked in the Department of Agriculture, but worked very closely with the queen of Thailand, I think she like helped coordinate like the queen's annual flower show or something like that. And now she has some special appointment, I want to say in some type of royalty related foundation. So that's her background. And then here we come her sister's children out of the blue. And we're very rough around the edges, right? We don't understand any of the customs or norms of Thailand. My mum always spoke very highly of that aunt. But I've never been able to make a connection with her, to this day, it's still very guarded. But with my other run to have kind of actually given up the whole, almost like aristocratic upper middle class life, and moved out to the border near Burma, partially for health reasons. She said Bangkok was too polluted. But I think partially to get away from some of these family dynamics, which I still don't fully understand. When we eventually met her, she was more of the type like, welcomed us with open arms. She said, I always had dreams that I'm supposed to look after you guys. She invited us out to her house out of the country. And it was like this place with no air conditioning, just mosquito nets and things like that. But you know, you could definitely feel the love that she had. And so I have very close relationship with that aunt.

Michelle 27:33

How did you feel in that environment where you were welcomed?

Prof. Joel Selway 27:38

I mean, she was just very lovely from the beginning.

Michelle 27:42

Did you feel like a sense of like, okay, I, this is part of who I am.

Prof. Joel Selway 27:47

Yes. Yeah, the first time. And I think especially for me and my siblings. And this is more an experience. I've had come into America, actually. Because in England, there's actually very few kinds of people of East Asian origin. There's mostly South Asian, Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi. But I don't look East Asian. Right. There has also been kind of a part of, you know, just thinking, what am I? Because I don't even know what I look like, right.

Michelle 28:13

And even when I go to Mexico, depending on where I am, I still look like a tourist. Right? Even though.

Prof. Joel Selway 28:19

Interesting. But yeah, that interaction. It was a foreign feeling. But it was like, Yeah, I do have a place here. And I think that gave me a little bit of encouragement to pursue a path, right. And it's, it was a very organic path. It's not like I sat down and like, here's my 20-year plan to get to where I am. It was like, bit by bit, realizing I can be interested in this and that. So I came back from Thailand. And I thought, I really want to learn Thai like seriously now. And so I began looking at university programs where I could learn Thai. There was one in London, called SOAS. And then BYU actually taught Thai as well. I ended up coming to BYU. In the kind of like the six months after we came back from Thailand, and before I came out to BYU, again, partly because we had made some of these family connections in Thailand, we realize that one of my mum's cousins, was posted in a Foreign Service in London. And so we went out to meet him and his wife and his wife was just really nice. I would go up there maybe every other week, and she would kind of give me little Thai lessons. I'm not trying to make tons of practice, it was more of the connection that was meaningful to me.

Michelle 29:32

And I think when I'm hearing you tell the story, you're just kind of like going through the motions. But me as an outsider listening to this, I'm like, the braveness the vulnerability to just be like, I'm gonna try to learn the language. Like, I think a lot of people might be feeling fear, and I think it's so cool how you're like, I'm just gonna take it bit by bit and see where it leads me, and I'm doing this and I'm asking for help.

Prof. Joel Selway 29:56

Yeah, and so I learned Thai for that time. I got to BYU and for some reason they weren't offering first year tie classes, just econd year. That was kind of strange. But because I had kind of done enough from that dusty old book and with my art, I jumped kind of like straight into that second-year Thai.

Michelle 30:14

And was it really hard? Because from what I know about Thai, which is very little, it's a completely different alphabet. There's no spacing in between the written language. So, how did you?

Prof. Joel Selway 30:26

Yeah, so the Thai alphabet is technically phonetic. It has 44 consonants, 33 vowels. Some of the consonants just repeat each other. So like, there's like four T's or something like that, and three S's. And you got to learn which one to use when for different words.

Michelle 30:44

I just think of myself and so many other people be like, this is too hard. I can't do this. What did you say to yourself, when you're like this, this is really difficult?

Prof. Joel Selway 30:53

I guess, maybe this is where I have a little bit of pride because I was like, well, there are some returned missionaries over there in this class. And if they can do it, I can do it.

Michelle 31:01

This is my birthright! I love that.

Prof. Joel Selway 31:01

I did very well in the class because I can study what's given before me and then I can ace everything, right? So I did that, I aced all of that stuff. But then, in the third-year class, when you have returned missionary starting to join you.

Michelle 31:18

Who lived in the culture with the people, listened. Yeah.

Prof. Joel Selway 31:21

Yeah, and they can speak it fluently. And I'm still speaking like a robot, still trying to piece together the flow never haven't really lived there. So yeah, I could ace every test and beat everyone in the class on the tests. But I couldn't sit down and have a conversation. And that felt really embarrassing, because I was half Thai, and painful. Yeah.

Michelle 31:43

And I don't think a lot of people realize, or even returned missionaries that for us where this is our heritage is our family history, and we've been disconnected from the language. And then people who have no connection to it are learning this language fluently. They're learning songs, or folk stories, or whatever, and they come back and they're like, oh, it's a shame, you don't speak Spanish. And it's like, you have no idea how painful it is that you can speak my ancestral language that you can connect to my heritage in a way that I cannot. I would have given anything to be able to be in that culture and listening to the sound of a people talking at a restaurant or whatever, and to gain that sort of language learning. But that was something because of my family history, and the separation from my roots and my culture that I never got. And so I wish more people understood that part. So thank you for touching on that topic.

Prof. Joel Selway 32:40

Even today, because we so much pain every time I go back to Thailand, because nobody assumes that I'm Thai. At the very best once they get into a conversation with me. And they're like, actually, your Thai is pretty good. I still very conscious of my Thai as the fact that I know I don't sound like a native. But they're like, Oh, well, then you must be half Thai. Because nobody else learns Thai to this degree, right? And then they look at me, they're like, yeah, we can kind of see that you're half Thai. But just the average interaction I have on the street, right is.

Michelle 33:11

Ni de aqui, ni de alla.

Prof. Joel Selway 33:15

So something else at BYU, I took an Asian Studies minor, and they had nothing on Southeast Asia, it was all East Asian. I grew to have a real love for Japanese literature and culture. And fascinated by that. But every paper I wrote, every one of those classes, I asked the teacher, can I write something on Thailand? And they said, Sure. So I would go off and go research that. As part of my PhD, I went and took a bunch of classes on that, and I continued taking Thai. So I chose University of Michigan, because it has strengths in Southeast Asia has a very good Southeast Asia program. And it had Thai language there. So I continued learning Thai. After I'd done the fourth year of Thai, I did just basically one on one classes with the teacher there. But then I also took all of these classes on the history of Southeast Asia. And that has turned out to be, I think, a real benefit in doing family history. And this didn't this doesn't click until much later in the story.

Michelle 34:13

But I love that you bring knowing the general history of a place even if you don't know specifics.

Yeah, and I think everybody can go and do that, right.

Especially with the internet. Now that we Google it. Yep.

Prof. Joel Selway 34:20

I eventually get back to Thailand in 2006. So this is like eight years after I first go back with my siblings. And now I've taken what like five, six years of Thai, I'm actually going back there to an advanced study of Thai program. It's an intensive two month program up in the north of Thailand.

Michelle 34:47

Were you scared at all? Or were you like, "Yes, I have prepared for this. I'm doing it"? Or were you like, "Oh, man! What did I get myself into?"

Prof. Joel Selway 34:53

Well, I mean, both because you know, there's only, what, 15 people on the program, and they're all from these big universities. And so again, It's like, I'm the one with Thai ancestry.

Michelle 35:02

Okay, so these weren't other people with Thai ancestry?

Prof. Joel Selway 35:05

No, yeah, I don't think there was a single person there was like, there was a Laotian person and then like a Chinese American, but then the rest were kind of like European American. So I go through these two months. And at the end of the two months, it's my first time I've had this like intensive in countries experience. I don't even feel I'm as fluent as some returned missionaries. But I feel for the first time that I've got this. I mean, it's been a lot of years work, right.

Michelle 35:31

You move through the spaces naturally in the communities.

Prof. Joel Selway 35:34

That's right. And most importantly, I could read Thai and I could read newspapers and books. And so my vocabulary, especially non religious vocabulary, is much higher than my Greek, non-religious vocabulary. But yeah, it's more just about for the first time, I feel like I can express myself, I can understand most of conversations, and I'm feeling like I can kind of fit in.

Michelle 35:58

You can enjoy the music, and you can understand the joke, or you even tell a joke. That's huge.

Prof. Joel Selway 36:06

Yeah. That is huge. So right on the back of that, as I'm finishing that program, I get informed that I have a Fulbright scholarship. And then I'm gonna get to spend the whole academic year in Thailand.

Michelle 36:17

I don't wanna cry right now. Like, that is so awesome.

Prof. Joel Selway 36:20

And it was it was just like, I can't even explain it. It was just I think the ability to go to Thailand for a year was way better than the prestige of getting the scholarship. I'm like, if two mums can give me that I've now got a whole year ahead of me.

Michelle 36:35

What a beautiful gift. During that moment, what were your thoughts about your mother? Did you feel like she was proud of you or happy that you did this reconnection?

Prof. Joel Selway 36:46

Yeah, I think, probably for a lot of these years, I think I just pushed all of those feelings underneath. I certainly feel a connection with her now that I know. Her story can kind of like, track had different movements throughout life where she was have had conversations with her cousins with her sister, and can kind of put some color into that, like, what was her personality like? And why was she doing this over here and different things like that. One of the things that I found out while living in Thailand, and obviously you know, you go to some Thai restaurants and you eat Thai food, but you are never ready for the full color of Thai food unless you've lived there is so amazingly flavorful. There's just so much more than years of flavor. There's a flavor. And there's so much more than just Pad Thai and curries, right, which is what a lot of Thai American restaurants have. I mean, you get into the depth of Thai cuisine, and it's just this amazing experience. And then it just clicked as like, my mom ate this food growing up. And then all of a sudden, at some point, she moved over to England. And she never ate that food. My mum, at every dinner, had his little bottle of chili powder, and she would like sprinkle that on top of her food to give it flavor.

Michelle 38:09

And as a kid, you're just like, that's just something my mom does, but...

Prof. Joel Selway 38:13

Exactly. I never really understood it. And then all of a sudden, I'm eating this Thai food, and there's a lot of hot flavors in there. And that memory just came I was like, oh, that's why she did it. And yeah, I would just had all of these thoughts as a parent because I was a parent by that point within game. I wonder what what she was thinking the fact that she could never feed us any of that food. And that we never got to experience that such because food is such a social thing. Right? You share it. I share it with my kids now. So when I have learned to cook Thai food, and I share it with my sister. That was one of our favorite experiences actually, with my sister.

Michelle 38:52

To connect to your culture. And just to point out that is family history work, connection through food and culinary experiences and culinary practices. That is family history work. It's so fun and awesome and delicious. I love that part.

Prof. Joel Selway 39:08

So, I finish off my Fulbright, I finished off my PhD, I come out to BYU, I'm teaching at BYU. And again, you kind of get busy with life, right? And then I think maybe it was in third or fourth grade, my daughter, my oldest, had some genealogy project. And she came to me and she was like, can you tell me about my grandparents or great-grandparents? I can't remember what it was. And as like, for all of these years that I've been studying Thai language in history and things like that, it was like I think I'd forgotten why I had done it in the first place. And now I couldn't even answer some very basic questions in a fourth grade ancestry project. I was just kind of embarrassed for myself. Like, I didn't start all of this just to write a book, you know, for an academic book on Thailand. I started this to reconnect with my Thai side with my mom. And here I am, what I don't know, 1520 years later or something like that. I actually don't know any, any of these things. I can't even answer some basic questions about my mum. Right. And that's when the journey began. I want to say it was like 2010, something like that. So we're talking about the last decade or so. And now it's like, okay, I felt like Liam Neeson has a very specific set of skills. Like, I'm gonna use these skills now. I'm gonna do something about my family history, and I'm gonna do it in a very serious way.

Michelle 40:48

So that way that only a passionate history nerd can do. Yeah, yeah. So when you got this spark of like, okay, I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna do my family history work. Were you thinking more traditional? Like, I'm gonna get names go to the temple, which I mean, it's awesome. Or were you more like, I want the stories? I want the whole view, the 360 view? Or what? What were you thinking?

Prof. Joel Selway 41:10

It was definitely both. I at once felt some type of I don't know, do you want to call it Mormon guilt?

Michelle 41:19

Yeah, that is a very normal thing that many LDS people can connect to is the feeling of guilt that we haven't done the work.

Prof. Joel Selway 41:28

Yes. And I was like, I've spent a good decade or so doing this. And yeah, I haven't got any additional names, except I know the names of my grandparents, not even sure how to spell them in Thai, which is kind of a strange thing, right. But then at the same time, because a lot of the questions in in my daughter's project, were asking for stories and things like that, and I didn't know any stories. And then that's when you kind of have this adult thing. Like, I don't think I ever knew my mom. I have a lot of emotion during this period of time. Like, I haven't passed on any stories to my children about my mom, is it too late? Yeah. Is it? Is it too late? Like, I reached out to my dad, I was like, did my mom do any family history work ever? And he had some papers. This is my dad, my dad. He's not a hoarder. But he keeps paper. Yes, this is this is his one of his strengths. That generation. Yeah. So he has lots of papers. And so he went through papers and found some things written in Thai that looked like it was like a family history branch or something. And so he sent me these papers, and I looked at them. And I was like, Yeah, this looks like some generations, and it goes back a few generations was in your mom's handwriting. And my mom's handwriting awesome. And written ties very difficult, especially if it's like classes.

Michelle 42:47

And once again, I think many people would walk right up to this line that you're at in the story and just be like, this is too hard. I can't do this. And I'm just like, what made you think you could do this? Or were you just so excited or maybe driven?

Prof. Joel Selway 43:01

I was so excited to have those, that little list of names, and it was just like, one direct line or something like that. And then I think on my grandmother's side, there was a little bit of a branch. I actually go and visit that arm member, the guarded arm. I took this list with me, I'm like, Do you know anything about this family history? And she said, You know, I remember your mum asking about this. And so she wrote me a letter, I went and asked around the family, and I'm the one who sent her this little lineage chart or something like that. And she said, I remember speaking to the family member who had had this information, we descend on my granddad's line from an ethnic Hmong ancestor. And so again, it's just a piece of information where I'm like, Ah, that's really interesting. The clue is a clue. Right? So the man were the ethnic group that lived throughout Thailand and Burma before the Thais and the Burmese kind of came down. They were the primary group there along with the Khmer, the Cambodia, so they like the indigenous area, these huge civilizations, and then the ties came down and basically took over and they were kind of pushed over to the side. And then she said something like, Yeah, I think there's like a family temple in a UTI, which was the old capital of Bangkok. And she said, yeah, she said that, I think if it was called Wacka, wrong, which is the temple of squawking crows. Okay. So I'm like, I gotta go to the temple of squawking crows after you've got Yeah, which sounds like it should be in like some martial arts movie, and I should end up fighting somebody there. Maybe, well, we don't know. Okay, keep going. So I went there, and it's kind of a strange temple and I was hoping to find maybe some places where my ancestors were buried or something like that. I spoke to the monk there. And there was nothing there. So I was I came away really disappointed and, yeah, so I was like, Okay, I've got to do this more systematically. I've got some names and one of the things I started to notice in the names were but there were some titles in the names. It's from some type of peerage system very similar to kind of like the English period system. So I guess if you make it high up in some bureaucratic position, you can be given some type of lifetime marriage title. Yeah, like a lot different things like that. So then I began doing research on the different ranks and what those were. And then I found out like one of them, like had a really high rank that was like, this was the oldest one on the list that was like a VI count, I think you pronounce it. But then so I knew something about this from having done professional research that once you kind of tap into those types of things, there's probably written records on them somewhere. So that's when I begin kind of trying to search for these things in the archives.

Michelle 45:52

Do you have to be like a special professor to access those archives? or can anyone walk in like, how did you know what to do?

Prof. Joel Selway 45:58

I'm not sure. I don't know if anybody could walk in. But I certainly just walked in, I walked in, and then they're like, you're a professor from this university. Just fill out this form. So yeah, and that's just totally overwhelming, because I don't even know where to look. And so I didn't find any.

Michelle 46:13

Yeah, what, can you describe, when you walk, what is this place look like? What are you seeing?

Prof. Joel Selway 46:19

Yeah, you're seeing a desk and you have to ask for things. I think there's a computer, you have to know what you're looking for. I was just so overwhelmed that I just like shelves of where you are, you can't see the shelves, because they're okay, they're in wherever they store them to keep them safe. And so I didn't spend very long there before I left, because I was running away, like, I have no idea what to do. So that kind of Avenue stopped for a little while. And I thought, Okay, well, here's something else I can do. I'm just gonna go and speak to every single family member that's live in and ask them for as much information as I can. So actually, the next few years next, maybe two or three years was me taking oral histories. So I spoke to all of my mom's cousins. So she grew up with these cousins in the same kind of family you ever turned away? The garden? I never, I don't think we've ever got into any stories about my mom. And then there's a couple of her cousins that were just not interested at all, but a lot of them actually were awesome. And they gave me stories. I found that stories, like one of them said, oh, did you know your mum was a really naughty teenager, really rebellious. And then he was like, then I went over to visit her in England, like she had married your dad, she had children. She was like a changed person. And he was like, I didn't believe that this could happen. I love right. And so I had all of these like little stories here. And then I began asking stories about my grandparents, and then my great grandparents, and then just collecting as much information as possible. And then eventually, everybody said, Oh, you've got to speak to this one cousin. And he's actually now moved to America.

Michelle 48:00

There's always that one person. And he was in America the whole time?

Prof. Joel Selway 48:03

He was in America. He had gone there to study at Berkeley, maybe studied Berkeley, but he lived in Berkeley. So I had a conference out there at Berkeley. So I decided to go to contact him and meet with him. And he was actually named after my great grandfather. And I'm like, everybody says, I've got to talk to you. And he was like, Oh, I think what they they're talking about is the fact that I think he was maybe the youngest, but he was very close to my great grandmother. But also he was the type of personality that had constantly asked my great grandmother stories about her life.

Michelle 48:36

And was he so excited that you wanted to know this?

Prof. Joel Selway 48:38

Yeah, he was like, finally somebody who's as nerdy as me. He's like, oh, by the way, I've got all of these photos that I've taken. He just gave me. He gave me a whole file of things. But it was the stories I was most interested in. And so he began telling me stories about my great grandmother. You got to think these people were born in the late 1800s. And so this is where my historical context comes in. Because during the late 1800s, Thailand had just kind of like staved off colonialism. They were never colonized. But they were trying to mimic Western countries. And so all of the elite in the kings were like, "Let's create these Western institutions. Let's create a university." So in 1890, my great grandmother's born, my great grandfather's may be born like 10 years before her like 1880. But so my great grandfather went into a military career and he was in the king's bodyguard corps or something. He wasn't like a personal bodyguard of the king, but he did protect the royal family and he had interactions with printers and things like that. Wow. He was kind of in this elite circle. My great grandmother was in his elite circle. And this uncle told me stories and said, Yeah, she used to go over to the royal household, and the Royal households are big during this period of time because they have multiple wives. But she was very famous for having cooked Vietnam for cooking Vietnamese pay pancakes. That's what she went over. They love the family. She cooked those things.

Michelle 50:04

And just while you're saying this, I'm just seeing, like you're saying before, we're talking about feeling rootless, and why you're telling these stories. I'm just as an artist, I'm like, visualizing these roots. Yeah. Coming down, like coming down. Yeah. Connected. Oh, my gosh, okay, keep going.

Prof. Joel Selway 50:18

I mean, so the stories, they have so much power in, you know, maybe they're not so meaningful in and of themselves or objectively, but to me, you're right. They're just like, drawing me in and—

Michelle 50:29

They turn the heart.

Prof. Joel Selway 50:29

Yeah, they do turn the heart. So there they are in a circle. But my great-grandfather apparently has a really bad temper. And the story is that one day he goes off with one of the princess, and like, gets up in his face threatens him. I don't know what happened. So this prince, whoever it was, and we don't know the name, but somehow orchestrated a move a transfer for my, my great grandfather, up to the northeast. And during this period of time, the Northeast is like complete backwaters, right? I mean, we're talking like no roads, no everything. Again, my uncle says they had to pack up a horse carriage and travel, you know, hundreds of miles, this was a punishment, right? It's him and his whole family and this whole family. So my great grandmother has to go there. Yeah. So here they are, with Royals, and now all of a sudden, they've been sent up them. And again, we don't know much about it. But I pieced together a history because I'm nerdy, and I go look up the number of roads that have been there. Yes, you know how hard that must have been. And so she gets there, and he actually dies, I think he falls off a horse in an accident. So here's my great grandmother left up in the north, she begins having to sell stuff just to make her way back to Bangkok. And then of course, when she's back in Bangkok, she's kind of cleansed out of these elite circles. And she has to sell off so much of our stuff. She can basically see the writing on the wall. And she's like, okay, the one thing that I'm going to do to make ends meet or to kind of this completely new future is she's going to buy the state of the art sewing machine. It's a Singer sewing machine. And somehow my uncle knew the exact model of the sewing machine. And he had a picture of it. It's one of the pictures he sent me. And he said, this isn't the picture of her sewing machine. But this is the exact model is like this really old fashioned foot peddled sewing machine. So here we are in like the early 1900s, maybe the 1920s. And my great grandmother, who's in the midst of this vast social change, has the forethought to say I am going to send every single one of my children to university. I don't think there's even a university officially opened in Thailand at this period of time, or is maybe just open, but it's not like a real university, or something like that. But she's like, that's the future. I am going to like work as a seamstress.

Michelle 52:57

And this is new technology.

Prof. Joel Selway 52:59

This is new technology. Yeah, it's manual labor, I'm not sure whether she had to do manual labor when she grew up, it seems like she grew up with a lot of pivot a little bit more wealth and privilege. But she figures out if I do monk robes, I get more money. So she began to sew monk robes and sell those. And she had four of her own children and four children that were stepchildren, from my great grandfather who had been married before. And I think his first wife died. She got all eight of them to university. And then she said, I'm going to look after all of your children, you go off and be as successful as you possibly can. This amazing woman like somehow has this foresight, and works that hard. And like every single one of my my grandmother's generation is like, you know, top in the bureaucracy. And yeah, so I have all of these amazing stories that I got just from these oral histories. And then another thing that I begin collecting as more that I realized that that exists that I never knew existed is when people die, especially if they have a little bit of money. They produce basically like a memory book, or they call it a funeral book that has some of their life history is freaking out some other things that are meaningful to them. And so I'm like, I never knew these existed. So I go snag a specific tie thing. Yes, a specific tie thing. Yeah. And so I go around trying to collect as many of these funeral books as possible. I have one for my great grandmother, my grandmother, and lots of other people in the family. I've just been collecting these as as much as I can.

Michelle 54:36

Were they, like, did people not want to give them to you or they were pretty special?

Prof. Joel Selway 54:40

I just don't think they realized that that I wanted, yeah or is it special? So I was like, no I want every single one.

Michelle 54:47

And were you freaking out? You were just so excited.

Prof. Joel Selway 54:50

And they're all with these Thai language resources. So this has been a big source of stories, right in addition, so I've got oral histories I've now got, at least for some of these ancestors from my, at least from my grandmother's generation, and I've got one for my great grandmother. I've got some actual things written down. And then I'm like, okay, so the last maybe four, I would say, four or five years, I've been trying to tackle the older ancestors. And I'm like, I want stories from them. I want to find out all about them. And so I began just doing Google searches in Thai for all of these names. And then by this period of time, the National Archives now has like a, an online searchable website. So I stumbled on this book, that is basically what's the translation of it like?

Michelle 55:39

You can say the Thai word.

Prof. Joel Selway 55:41

So so it would be like the word trakūl and then [FOREIGN WORD]. So it's kind of like, the word trakūl means like, your clan lineage or something like this. Or family lineage, it's it's more like clan or something like that. So it'd be like the history of the Selway clan, right. So then I found the history of this clan called [FOREIGN NAME] That clan book that I found had the history of the first ancestor that was on my mom's list from all of those years ago that my dad had given me. And then I begin translating this and we're like, this story is amazing. So it turns out that that first ancestor who lived in the late 1700s, he was the chief of the elephant department, and which was a government kind of formal government department, because elephants were used in warfare. It's like being chief of the cavalry, or something like that. He wasn't military, per se. I don't know whether it was a military ministry. But he was actually in charge of finding elephants and training them. And then in Thai culture, the white elephant is very special. And so he went out and found this white elephant and bought it back. And then the white elephants are given these special names.

Michelle 56:56

I have like goosebumps.

Prof. Joel Selway 56:59

It was like, as I was translating, I was like, oh, my goodness, like, what is what is going on here? And then he died in the attack of the Burmese on the city. Now I know about this attack. This attack is the most infamous war in Siamese history in Thai history, because it's the day that their old capital got burned to the ground by their sworn enemy, the Burmese. And so it's this huge event in Thai history, this transformative event. And he was the chief of the elephant department when the Burmese attacked. So I don't know if he had military skills, per se, but he did train elephants for military purposes. But I then I was like, you know, he probably got on his elephant. Because it said that he died in this attack, he probably got on his elephant, while everybody waited for this huge Burmese army to come and basically burn down the city. So I have all of these like, Lord of the Rings pictures on me, like, you know, some of those battles were there in that valley with that big wall and and like they're waiting, like, we're basically gonna die, the orcs and the elves are gonna get us. And they have this vision on my of this great-great-great-grandfather on an elephant, waiting for his impending death. Because they knew they were gonna die. I actually began telling some of these stories. I was recently in Thailand to with a bunch of political scientists from around Southeast Asia. And they were listening to all of these stories. And they were like, Joel, you've got write a book on it? Yes. They were like, you know, because all of our histories on Thailand are about kings and things like that. So they would like the fact that you have these stories that just just like amazing, everyday people, yeah, everyday people that made Thailand. And so you know, again, he must have had some privilege to have made it to the top of the elephant. But it's not like he was a royal or anything. But he has this just amazing story that he died for his country, on this elephant on this very special animal. So then, the raja wee pad clan name gets tied to this individual. And so we kind of have a family emblem, as it turns out, that has the elephant on it is like, basically the emblem of the elephant department. So I get on this Facebook group, which has this picture up here. Then I begin just, you know, because I'm a nerd, I begin sending out lots of messages and like trying to get people to answer these things. And like, so is this our official family crest or anything like this? And then people get involved in this, like, Yeah, we really want to know this. And other people are like, well, we don't really have family crests in Thailand, but we chose this because, you know, this was the crest that was important to that family. Apparently, his son also worked in that department. His son survived that attack. Of course, we have to come from somewhere. Yes, was taken captive by the Burmese Oh, somehow later escaped. And then I guess continue the family line. But this book, this clan history, have those stories in there. And it like they were just waiting for me to come and translate them. So I spent a lot of my spare time my nerdy spare time.

Michelle 1:00:08

And this is where family history like people were like, oh, that's boring. Why should I do this? And you know, we talked about that Mormon guilt. But like, once you realize what is possible, and this is what I always say, you need to be optimistic and unrealistic about what you can find in your family history, because you just never know what is there. And you never know what steps the Lord is going to give you to get to that point. Yeah, your entire story. I feel like slowly, very slowly. You've been guided, you've been given these little teeny steps to get to where you are now. Because it's something you desired. You wanted to heal that diaspore grief, you wanted to build a bridge? Yeah. And it's just incredible. And I, your sister's Alessia, you're my friend. So I'm just telling everyone, publicly that we're friends, when I met her, how excited she was about what you have done, and how much she valued the gift you have given their entire family to have these roots, this connection. And your story is so amazing, and so beautiful, and so exciting and thrilling. And I just hope everyone out there realizes that like, Professor so is amazing, Joe's amazing. But like, I know from my own personal story of where if this is something that you want, the Lord will make a way for it to happen. It might not be a name or a date, yeah, might be a recipe, it might be something else.

Prof. Joel Selway 1:01:40

Exactly. So along the way before I got to I mean, it sounds like amazing. And I'm sure there's probably some of the listeners out there who are thinking what else never gonna happen to me, I never had ancestors like that. But remember, I only really found that stuff out within the last five years, people want to start out, I would certainly recommend getting oral history sitting down, trying to hear as many stories as possible, because you will be surprised at what random member of the family remembers this or that detail. So I think collecting those oral stories can be very important.

Michelle 1:02:11

And even in your case, it wasn't like these were relatives you grew up with. And it was so easy to just go over who you are cold contacting them, basically just like hey, and yet for the most part, you are received really well. Right. And that's the same in my that I was cold contacting a lot of these these relatives, through Facebook through WhatsApp. And I thought they would reject me, they would say I'm crazy or think that I'm trying to trick them. And I've actually been received really well. So I was like, you have courage and hope to any of you out there who are like considering gathering these oral histories that you can do this. You can do this.

Prof. Joel Selway 1:02:50

Yeah, You can do that you can do like you can look up standard histories, right? And so you can put things in context. So even if you only have a name, you can say, well, they must have lived during this period of time. What must have that been like, there are no ancestors before 1770. But the record says, we think that our ancestors came from this ethnic Hmong migration, not we think, but they come from this ethnic mon migration a couple of 100 years earlier on. Now, I obviously don't have any names from that migration. But I can go to the history books, and I can find out oh, here are some names of the leaders that bought that one group over. And this is why they came over. And these were the circumstances. So I have no names from 200 years before that. But I still feel connected to that. And that's just from kind of, like basic history you can get from history books, if that makes sense. So I wouldn't discount doing that history, oral histories. And like you said, even small things like a like a recipe. I don't think I had a real Thai meal growing up. And and just thinking about, I wonder which foods my mom really liked. Obviously, she liked hot food, right? And so here are all of these recipes in in Thailand that are hot. And then you know, it may not be true. It may be myth or fantasy, but you can picture your mom like eating these different dishes and

Michelle 1:04:10

your ancestors and like, yeah, maybe it's not the perfect, most exact thing. But it's like you are reaching out to them. And in my mind, they would reach back and be like, I see your attempt to connect and I'm here like, I love that so much. What's your mom's name? Can we

Prof. Joel Selway 1:04:26

so her name is Vietri. In Thai. It's actually pronounced sawI three, which is kind of funny because we just called a severe. But anyway, so we three is actually a name that comes from Hindu and there's an epic tale about Sufi tree. There are parts of that poem, where I'm like, wow, that's, that was a really well given name, right? You know, maybe not everybody's gonna have an ancestor that has a name from a Hindu epic poem where you can do that. But these are some basic things that you can do. Like, what does my mom's name mean? And where does it come from? Rob and writing some of those things down.

Michelle 1:05:03

So Joel, one question I want to ask because in our podcast, we talk about genealogical consciousness and the connection of past, present, and future. And so all this work that you have done, how are you ensuring that these family stories, these, these roots, deep, deep roots in Thailand, are not lost a future generation. So like you growing up without knowing these stories, that that never happens, again, as much as you can control to future generations and your children?

Prof. Joel Selway 1:05:32

So I mean, I'm writing things down and recorded them, right. So I'm translating the things. And again, this is kind of like the nerdy academic side of me, right? I'm trying to produce things that I can just pass on to physical things. Part of it is also I think, sharing it right. And so, like you mentioned before I share this with my sister and her children. Because I'm a professor, I create slideshows. Yes. And I go into the whole history and context of things, because I think that builds up to now you can understand fully,

Michelle 1:06:06

it's like seeing a whole puzzle. Just a small piece. Yeah,

Prof. Joel Selway 1:06:09

exactly. Yeah. So I'm very conscious of doing this, you know, I don't know, at least once a month, putting together something telling my children about those things. So even some of my Thai cousins are like, oh, when you figure all of this out, or you know, like, digitize it, like pass it on to me as well. So I do think that, yeah, I would say to the one individual right, to maybe feel like they're doing this alone. And especially at the beginning, it can feel very lonely that some other people, members of your family, who, for whatever reason, might not be able to do it, to that extent, are definitely going to appreciate it and could be the ones that pass it on to the next generation.

Michelle 1:06:51

How has finding this information? I don't want to say healed because I think healing is a journey. So on your journey to healing, how has this work helped you? Like, why is this a commandment that we are supposed to turn our hearts to our family member? Yeah.

Prof. Joel Selway 1:07:09

I mean, I always knew I was Thai. Yeah. But I had no connection to the language to the culture to any of the stories to the food to anything like that. So I always felt primarily English. And I still do feel primarily English. But there are now times and contexts especially going back to Thailand, I think I care a little less about the fact that people don't see me as Thai per se, because now I know that I'm Thai, right? I have these connections with Konami members, right? And I know deep histories. And so it's kind of funny when I, I do just like to talk to random people, especially to practice my tie. This past summer, we went up to a UTI. And I found a temple that the ethnic months had built, they've been given a space to build. And so what some of my ancestors probably participated in building that temple. But then I was talking to the park attendants there and telling them, you know, my story, and they were just like, fascinated by the story that I knew about that temple and its history and had ancestors there. And it's just random conversations like that, where then then you're like, Yeah, I may not look tired, my time may still not sound like native Thai. But if I can have a conversation, like with a park attendant about my ancestors, and tell them stuff they don't know, right? Yeah, then then I really feel kind of connected to that. I remember I went to this East Asian Club at the University of Michigan. And like, most people there just looked East Asian, and they were like, looking at me like, Oh, yeah. And so I, you know, in those kinds of contexts, I feel a lot more kind of confident, talking about my Thai ancestry and feeling like, I'm just as Asian as you are. And, and I know all of this heritage, and stories and things about as well. So there's kind of been a confidence that has, like I said, helped with the healing and

Michelle 1:09:05

confidence or even like this authenticity, authenticity, yeah, no one, no one can challenge that are taken away when you are connected to your family history. The sense of being rooted the sense of authenticity, no matter what anyone says to you. You are secure. Yeah. And it's so beautiful. And

Prof. Joel Selway 1:09:23

I like that phrase that no one can take it away from you. Because that was a feeling that I had before like a it had been taken away from me. And B. I mean, I think I felt like I had this imposter syndrome. Yes. Many of the early years doing this. It's like well, you're not really Thai. What are you here doing in our country?

Michelle 1:09:43

And you never will be enough. Like, yeah.

Prof. Joel Selway 1:09:46

But now I do feel enough that it is my country. And so that is very healing right to be able to go there and and feel like it's yours, at least in part.

Michelle 1:09:57

In your opinion in your experience, why is family history work a commandment? Why is it one of the three pillars of the church?

Prof. Joel Selway 1:10:07

I have this rational side of me thinking is not possible ever to find every single name, especially for, you know, some of the these minority communities, right? So just very true. Yes. And so you think, Okay, what's the point in all of this? So I do think part of the point is, there is something that I think we need in this generation of the church, for whatever reason. And this is my political scientists, maybe it's because we're in this highly advanced industrial, capitalist society, where connections to individuals and histories can sometimes just be lost and meaningless or made into some type of, I don't know, commercialized product or something like that. Just stepping away from that. And connecting with those histories, I think is a religious experience, it humbles you. It's like, who am I to be better than this ancestor that was born in the 1500s, in the jungles of Southeast Asia, that has no connection to the restored gospel. That is what I think temples about. And that's what it does, for me religiously, is, is it gives me this kind of humility, that I can't ever explain how this is technically going to work. But but that is the wonder of God's love. And the Atonement is that you turn your hearts and that's enough for you, right and for this generation. So I do also think it helps illustrate that the universality of the Atonement that stretches back in time to all peoples and places.

Michelle 1:11:51

I feel that deeply, I can also witness to what you're saying. Anyway. That's beautiful. So Joel, you've had this incredible journey, reconnecting to this Thai language? What advice would you have for anyone out there listening? Who wants to restore their ancestral languages, their family history languages as way of encouragement?

Prof. Joel Selway 1:12:16

I mean, I would just say, to start, you don't have to look at those at the other end of this process, or at natives and say, That's where I've got to get to start, right. I think part of the spirit of Elijah, since we've been talking about that is just effort is just a start. And I think that helps create the connection. So my sister recently has kind of asked me and said that she wants to start on this journey. And she's probably more typical of the average person out there, right. She's not going to have a ton of time to especially do—

Michelle 1:12:50

She's not a professor. Even though she's wicked smart and amazing.

Prof. Joel Selway 1:12:56

She's very smart. But she is not like, she's going to make this part of her profession and merge into that. So she's got to do this in her spare time. You know, she's like, Oh, I'm never going to be as good as you or this or that. I'm like, well, let's just start. Just start on the journey, and do whatever you can do in your spare time. You don't always have to be a producer of this stuff, you can be a consumer of it, and still benefit from it greatly. So you shouldn't feel any guilt about, maybe you're not able to learn a language. And maybe that's just not your thing. But you can at least reach out to family members who may have done this or that and say, Tell me, you know if it's just a word, right, like you said earlier on, what does your mother's name mean, right? I don't think my sister's ever actually even asked me that question. But I can answer her that question and say, Hey, you should go read this Hindu epic poem, right about savatree. That would all take place in the English language, right? But there are things like that where you can say, Okay, what does this word mean? And I'm sure there's, there's a whole bunch of very basic things like I love you, right? Or I love you, Mom. Oh, right. Gosh, I love this. And I think that would be very meaningful to her right to be able to say I love you, mom in Thai. So I'm sitting here, on the verge of getting very emotional about this, because I do think that it's like, we were never able to express that to our mum, right, growing up.

Michelle 1:14:22

But you could say it to your kids.

Prof. Joel Selway 1:14:23

Yeah, I could say to my kids.

Michelle 1:14:25

That "I love you," in that familial language. I love that. Thank you so much. Well, Joel, if I can compose myself, because I'm feeling very emotional, grateful, excited for all the listeners out there that are feeling maybe empowered or excited to start this journey. Thank you so much for being here today. I know we were supposed to meet and huge thanks to celestial and making this happen. I'm just so grateful for you to be here.

Prof. Joel Selway 1:14:58

Thank you for having me. Just being No. I mean, it's been an amazing experience for me. Because, obviously, you go through this you don't. There's not very many people, they're interested in hearing the ins and outs of all of these things. Yeah. And I'm sure my children have gotten tired of me just like geeking out about finding this little piece of information. But how much work went into finding like that little piece of information.

Michelle 1:15:21

And building this connection and authenticity. I think when you have that your whole life you don't understand how sorrowful, what a grieving, how emotional is when you don't have it. And to give that as a gift to the next generations is huge. We talk a lot about in this podcast, transitional characters, that one person that changes the trajectory of the family history, and I can confidently say that you are a transitional character in your family. Your grandmother with her Singer sewing machine was a transitional character in her family. And that sort of confidence, bravery, creativity, optimism for the future. What else would be better to send to your descendants than that and to your children? So I hope as adults somehow your children find this and they listen to this and appreciate the beautiful gift you have given them. So thank you so much.

Thank you for joining us for this episode of Love Your Lineage. You can find all the references and full transcripts for this episode in our show notes at And if you have loved this episode, please leave us a review or a rating. This episode was hosted by me Michelle. It was produced and edited by Erika Free and Katie Lambert and mixed by Mix at 6 Studios. Thank you for being with us today, and we hope you feel empowered to love your lineage and embrace your authentic family history story.

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