Rackham student Sirarat Sarntivijai said she was confused and offended when a restaurant called No Thai! opened on South University Avenue in September 2005. She thought the name suggested that Thai people were not welcome in the restaurant.
Members of the Thai Student Association, including Sarntivijai, its president, said they find the name deeply offensive.
Victor Kim, one of the restaurant’s four owners and a Ross School of Business graduate, said the name isn’t intended to be offensive. He said No Thai! was named after the restaurant’s head chef and co-owner, Noerung Hang, whose nickname is “No.”
“(TSA students) are taking it offensively, but we do not discriminate against anyone who comes into our restaurant,” Kim said.
Kim, along with two of the other owners, is Korean. Fourth owner and head chef Hang is Hmong, but his family has been in the Thai food industry for years.
Sarntivijai said the heritage of the owners doesn’t matter. She said would still be concerned even if the owners of the restaurant were Thai.
Kim said he was shocked to learn that members of the Thai community were offended by the name. Upon learning about the letter, he e-mailed Sarntivijai immediately and requested a meeting. Kim said he and the other owners wanted to explain the name to TSA members.
After hearing the reasons for the name. TSA offered “No’s Thai,” “Noe Thai!” and “No Thai!: by Mr. No” as possible alternatives to the existing name.
“They said that the name was not discrimination and claimed that we were overreacting,” Sarntivijai said. “We thought it was ridiculous, but we understand that changing their name would be difficult.”
Kim said the name is essential to his restaurant’s success.
“This is the identity and name of the restaurant,” he said. He added that changing the existing brand would be unrealistic.
Instead, the No Thai! owners offered to post a letter in the restaurant explaining the context of the name.
Sarntivijai said that though the letter explained the name, it did not apologize to the Thai community for what she said could be construed as an insult.
Kim said he understood the concerns, but the story behind the name shouldn’t be ignored.
“They’re taking it out of context,” he said. “There is no hostility or discrimination implied. Of course, I can see why someone would be offended.”
TSA member Yingluck Thongpenyai said the context is irrelevant and the name is still offensive.
“It’s the name of the person, but the first impression is that they’re saying ‘No Thai people,’ ” she said. “It seemed obvious that they didn’t care about the effect the name had on Thai people.”
Sarntivijai discussed TSA’s concerns about the name at the recent Climate Matters conference, a University-sponsored forum held Nov. 5 at the Trotter Multicultural Center for students to discuss their concerns about campus atmosphere.
LSA senior Jim Schreiber said he got Expect Respect, a University group that aims to ensure a campus climate of acceptance and diversity of which he is a member, involved in the matter after hearing Sarntivijai’s concerns at the conference.
TSA and Expect Respect have since started the “No Taste Campaign” to raise awareness of Thai students’ concerns. Part of the campaign includes a Facebook.com group, which, as of last night, had 98 members.
“We’re not saying that we want people to boycott,” Schreiber said. “We’re trying to raise awareness. However, when people become aware of the issue, the end result tends to be that they decide not to eat there.”
Kim said the restaurant has loyal customers, including people of Thai descent, who continue to eat at the restaurant, which also has a location on North Fourth Avenue.
He said the name was meant to be a “clever play on words” and “somewhat ironic.” He said the name was meant to inspire curiosity in customers – not because it is offensive, but because it could mean the restaurant doesn’t serve Thai food, even though it does serve Thai food and the word “Thai” is prominently displayed.
“We wanted a name to show that we weren’t some generic Thai restaurant,” Kim said. “We wanted to be unique.”
But Schreiber said the name is still troubling.
“It’s an ambiguous name that can be taken offensively,” he said. “Using nationality and ethnicity in a negative way is a bad marketing gimmick.”
Sarntivijai said that not all Thai students are upset with the name. She said most were puzzled, and some were indifferent.
“To be honest, I’m pretty neutral,” said Kongkom Hiranpradit, a College of Engineering senior and TSA member. “I feel a little offended, but I don’t really care. I think the best solution would be for them to make a slight change to a name that is more clear.”
Kim said he might change the name if enough people are still offended by it after they learn the history of the name.
“If it turns out that people understand the context of the name and feel that we are doing a true wrong, we would consider changing the name, but I don’t feel that this is the case now,” Kim said. “It’s not a statement – it’s a name.”