There was a Sunday kids section on the newspaper my grandfather subscribed when I was eleven years old. The paperboy would ride his motorcycle and throw a newspaper, heedlessly, at the front porch of our house, and I would jump at the sound of the roll of the paper hit the wall and run like a dog fetching the bone.
In Thailand, newspapers are heavily headlined with frightful murders and tragic accidents, but this newspaper isn’t one of them. My grandfather, an ex-doctor and a war veteran who went to Vietnam War, wasn’t the kind of man who would easily draw to the sensational garbage, so he selected the paper that was keen to expose the corrupt politicians. On the weekday, or even Saturday, the paper was reasonably dulled; the political and the economy were strange territories for me and they spoke with such a language I didn’t understand, but on Sunday, the kids section of the newspaper was the rainbowland.
It was colorful–bright even—and consisted lots of cartoons and games the entire two pages. My favorite was the drawing section where they open submission on the weekly theme and publish the selected works with the name of the kids and, most important of all, his/her school name, in bold letters.
Their weekly themes such as ‘My Neighbors’ or ‘My Pets’ should be awarded for being so usual. There was a boy in my class his drawing got selected once from ‘My New Year Celebration,’ it was the picture of him making merit in the temple with his family. I’m not a big fan of temples but I loved castles. I drew a lot of it in my sketchbook without having visited one, it felt like it wasn’t a farfetched dream to visit a castle one day when in fact I was just a kid living in a country with no castle. I stared at the bold letters of my school name, soaked with sweat from the sweltering heat and jealousy, I imagined myself being brought up to the stage during morning assembly in Thai school and congratulated by the principal.
When the weekly theme came to ‘What I Did Last Summer’ I drew a picture of a castle by a riverbank with a caption, ‘Stay indoor’.
“But isn’t that when you go outside?” my grandpa asked me after I showed him the drawing. But I didn’t care. The morning after I went to the post and mailed it to them.
Unlike any other pages on the paper, the kids section had very little word and they told the story in shapes and colors, which was great for me since I didn’t have the habit of reading textbooks or browsing bookstore at the time–except the occasional visit to the thrift shop that also sell secondhand Japanese manga at the back of the store. I spent most of my times on drawing castles and reading comic books. I had no idea how a person could find joy in reading book with no picture in it.
I lingered with that thought until one day the new reality hit me in the face. Literally hit me in the face. I swung the door open at the sound of his motorcycle arrived in front of our house and felt something hard hitting the center of my face. My nose bled as the result of the impact from the projectile’s trajectory of the roll of a newspaper. The paperboy quickly took off without realizing it.
I turned the page to the kids section while having a small roll of tissue stuck in my nostril and dumbfounded that it was shrunk to one page. I looked for an explanation of the downsizing but they offered none. Instead my gaze was draw by the feature story of the week: a single article that would later change, not only my childhood, but, my entire life. It was about the first Harry Potter book.
I didn’t read the article but the faint smell of blood in my head and the first sight of the cover: a boy flying on a broom, a unicorn and a castle on the background, I thought Harry Potter was one of the comic books, so I asked my grandpa, who had the habit of visiting bookstore, to buy it for me.
When I flicked my finger into the first chapter, I was totally disappointed that it wasn’t a cartoon. Then I rechecked every page and found that it’s full of text and has no drawing –except the small drawings at the beginning of each chapter. Seeing a book like that was an equivalent to the disgusted feeling when I was eating broccoli for the first time.
The following week the letter from the editor of the kid section arrived with the return of the drawing I submitted. My childish excitement was astonishingly cockblocked by the letter saying that they weren’t going to publish my drawing. It was because –as they put it—very beautiful but didn’t rhythm with the theme of the column. I was sulked for a moment thinking the world was unfair. But then I had an idea for the upcoming art lesson that I should bring the letter to class and wave it around my friends as well as my rejected masterpiece. It was the first letter I’ve ever received from a person who works at a publisher.
Even though the real story was sketchy, I told my friends that my drawing almost got published while trying to remain distance from the boy whose drawing actually got published. These are people who lack the enthusiasm in making art, who rather spend most of the time sharpen their color pencils and arrange it from darkest shade to lightest than actually working on an assignment.
As I almost successfully tricked them into thinking that I was somebody. A girl who has been listening behind me asked a question. ‘Where did you get the inspiration?’
It was actually derived from the Disney logo but I would rather say ‘I got in from my head.’ Which is true, though, derivative isn’t always the loyal relative of plagiarism.
‘So you’ve never been to a real castle before?’
‘No. Have you?’
She adjusted her brand-new Mickey Mouse drawing set with the derisive look on her face suggested that she has something out of ordinary to tell.
‘Yes, I’ve been to one before. It was… okay.’
Turned out that Mickey Mouse drawing set was from Disneyland when her parents took her to the States for a family vacation. It was odd for a kid studying in a public school in Thailand to experience that kind of luxury–travelling to America—so the other kids were more excited to hear about the place where they had always dreaming about than the story about my short almost arisen fame.
‘Come on guys. It’s just a Disneyland!’ I would yell, but her story was too powerful and contagious. Who would have thought that the inconsequential baffling could have been picked up by our teacher who then asked her to share the experience with the entire class?
At the end of the day, I asked my grandpa if maybe he could take me to a Disneyland. He laughed hysterically, and suddenly the world is unfair again, so I screamed. ‘What good are you if you’re a grandparent who can’t take your grandkid to Disneyland?’ The event ended with a whoosh of a broomstick lashing my ass. I ran to my bedroom, bitch-slammed the door shut and sobbed.
The Harry Potter book had been left untouched for a week. After what seemed like a long interminable cry, I picked it up again. This marked the end of me waiting for the Sunday kids section because my head was clear for the first time and my once dulled and black-white world of literature sprung into HD color with the well-translated narrative of the book. After the defeated moment in the art class I was quiet and all I did was reading Harry Potter. At the time, it was only me who understood the beauty of reading young-adult novel with only text in it while the rest of my peers still see it as a broccoli.
This was how I later acquired a valuable asset for gaining the attention from my friends after the movie version became mega worldwide sensation. Hogwarts replaced Disneyland. Those who care to read told their parents to buy the book for them but those who just wanted to get the information right away came to me for the spoiler which I was happily giving it away.
And then it was over. The Thai translated version had only four books at the time. When The Order of Phoenix came out I was the first one of the line of four-five kids waiting to buy the book at the book store. It was the original English version—the first English language book I’ve read—because if you want to know what going on with Harry Potter and his friends in the fifth book you don’t have much choice except to learn how to read English book or—otherwise—wait six months for the translated version.
My grandfather perceived me as a complete crackpot when he saw me busying with the Harry Potter book—jotting the vocabulary on a pile of A4 paper that scattering around my bed—trying to understand what written in there. ‘Stop cracking the Nazi’s code,’ he would say, ‘go kick some balls.’
I did kicked some balls but the only ball I seemed to kick was mine. I have to fight the fear of not knowing what happens in the new Harry Potter book. While the rest of the world can effortlessly enjoy it, I have to struggle with an Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as if I was preparing for the final exam of Defence Against the Dark Arts.
Being one of a few people who knew what happens in the end of The Order of the Phoenix when the so-called Harry Potter fans have to wait for the translated version felt like a small triumph. It was kind of superior thought that you have something no other kids wanted to have—the ability to read English book—but they didn’t. Some kids have parents who owned sport cars or a big house with swimming pool that were the package that came with the birth. It occurred to me that I didn’t read Harry Potter for the sake of learning English; it was for the sake of having that things no one has. But English is what came afterwards.
It gets to the point where I just took the TOEIC and TOEFL exams—which people take the test when they’re applying for a job or have a plan to study abroad—for the sake of having some kind of certification to show that I am, at least, having a possession of something good.
Smart people can see me through and realized that I was just an irrelevant shit head, and then rejected my drawing that seemed to be of someone whose skill is advanced beyond my year. I came to realize that my drawing—even though it looked realistic with the architectural drawing style—has some kind of delusional feels attached to it while the straight-forward, childish style drawing of a family making merit in a temple get published.
Ever since I read an English book, I don’t know how to get back to my own native language. I know there’re treasures out there in the form of alphabet and I have to be able to speak the language most of the world’s population are speaking. The down side was being a bookworm introverted in Thai school kind of pushed me to the edge of irrelevance. Apart from telling friends what happen in the next book—which was excited them for twenty minutes top—I had nothing else matter to share.
People often ask me to teach them English and I always tell them this story because without Harry Potter: the poor, wounded, studious but brave and was the iconic figure throughout my childhood, I wouldn’t be able to advanced my English. So I set them out to find their own reasons why they want to learn English. It could be anything that give them the drive, strong enough they couldn’t give up. For me, of course, it was Harry Potter (what would be a better reason for a twelve-year-old living in Thailand than that) and when I become older it was the fear of not addressing my message properly and my voice would get lost in this noisy world whenever I try to speak out.
This, too, doesn’t feel like a farfetched dream as when I was a kid drawing castles in my sketchbook and dreaming of visiting one. At twenty-five, I still haven’t visited a castle and I haven’t visit Disneyland. The reality of traveling to Europe and getting visa sort of scare the lights out of me.
When I tried to read the whole Harry Potter books again, the magic failed to do the work. (This explained why some grown-ups didn’t enjoy the book that much.) It’s would be the same as visiting Disneyland when you’re twenty-five that you wouldn’t get the experience of a 9-year-old. But lucky enough I have something I can regard as a treasure of my childhood. When the deadline of adulthood’s looming over, I would look back at the joyful difficult-time when I was reading the book on my bed and surrounded by those scribbled notes, instead of Transformers models, learning to grow up with the boy who lived.