Degrassi Talks: Drugs

Siluck Saysanasy – his story

by Catherine Dunphy


The host of the Drugs show, Siluck Saysanasy, is optimistic that these stories about using drugs will be effective in giving a positive message about recovering from drug abuse and living drug free.

“It’s very informative. There’s so many things I didn’t know about drugs. Like I thought I knew the whole thing… I’ll never get into drugs. That’s for sure.”

Even Siluck though, is a cigarete smoker and finds it difficult to quit. He realizes that this too is an addiction and while it may not affect his everyday life like the more potent drugs, giving it up may be almost as difficult.

Siluck Saysanasy doesn’t do drugs. Any more. Not that he ever did them much. He “dabbled”, he says, for a couple of years starting when he was about 14. Dabbled means that he never bought his own stuff, never did anything other than weed or hash, never more than once a month and never anywhere other than in parties. Okay, so why is Siluck the Degrassi kid who stands up and talks straight about drugs on the Degrassi Talks series? He shrugs. He is embarrassed about it, but he’s a smoker, and the nicotine in cigarettes can be classified as a drug.

As well, his character, Yick, who started off as Arthur’s nerdy (and bratty) buddy in glasses has become a party animal. In every scene in the Degrassi television feature, School’s Out, Yick has something in his hand – a drink, a cigarette, a joint. But is this just Yick or is this Siluck too? They both love to party. Siluck has friends from Toronto’s Chinese community and friends from the Degrassi series. They all know he won’t miss a good time.

From a funny-looking, awkward little kid who uses to hunch over his desk at the back of the class, he has changed into one smooth, very well-dressed dude, thick hair in the latest cut, stud or silver hoop in his right ear, always ready for a party.

“I’m a drinker”, he says in a matter-of-fact voice. “I drink. I do. But I don’t need it.”
He is sure about that. A social drinker, he keeps an eye on his intake. He’ll cut back if he finds himself drinking too often or too much. That’s one reason why he decided to stop experimenting with drugs. He realized every time he smoked up, he says, he drank too much.
It was clear what he had to do. So he did it: He quit drugs.
It was no big deal, he says. Nothing dramatic or stressful. No big lifestyle change. Now if he goes to parties and there are kids there smoking, he’ll exit the area. “The smell makes me nauseous.”

That’s why he holds some strong views about teens who blame others for what they do to themselves. “Peer pressure is a lot of bullshit”, he says. “No matter how old you are, everybody experiences it. It’s out there, but it is up to you whether you give in to peer pressure, it is your own choice.”if you are not sure what you are or who you are and you give in to things, don’t put out this bullshit and say it was peer pressure, because ultimately it comes down to you saying ‘yes’ or saying ‘no’. “If this sounds like plenty tough talk from a guy who’s got it made because he knows who he is – an actor who is well known as Yick in the Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High series – it is.

But it is also something more. Knowing who you are is harder for some people than others like Siluck Saysanasy. For he is not only what he looks or sounds like now. In fact, Siluck Saysanasy is not even his real name; it is a made-up name. His real name is Chang, but he took a Laotian-sounding name (along with his entire family) because back in the mid -’70s where they lived, it was not smart to flaunt anything about their Chinese heritage.

Siluck came to Canada, October 6, 1979. He was almost six (his birthday is January 30) and he was a refugee. His family was just about broke and not one of them knew a word of English.
Back in Laos, his parents had been rich. They were among the Chinese merchant class, prosperous business people and merchants who traded and had homes in Laos and across the Mekong River in Thailand as well. They drove a Mercedes, had a company with a fleet of 10 trucks and had three Jeeps for family use. It cost $10,000 a year to keep a child in school. There were eight kids in Siluck’s family (he’s the youngest); yet the education bill was not considered any problem.

But their fortunes changed around 1975, when the government did. During a visit to his grandparents in Bangkok, in Thailand, Siluck’s dad was arrested and thrown in prison for three months. Siluck explains that this move against his father was not because of his politics but because he was well-off and he was of Chinese heritage. He was a target for government forces who were interested in getting the head of the household out of the way so they could get into the family’s vault, where most of their money and gold were kept.
His father escaped from prison because Siluck’s mother bribed guards with bags of jewelry from their jewelry business to look the other way. And even though Siluck’s equally prosperous grandparents were not being threatened, his parents decided to leave Thailand and go to a refugee camp in Laos, where they would wait until a country would accept their application to immigrate.

It was a dangerous trip back across the river to Laos. Armed guards prowled the banks. The children went ahead in one boat, the parents followed in another. Silently, in the middle of the night, they stole across to the Laotian side where some relatives of his father were waiting.
Siluck remembers nothing of the trip. And he says he remembers having fun the three years they lived in the refugee camp. “Camp was cool. I liked it. We were the richest people there.”
What he doesn’t talk about is the time he witnessed a man shot to death. Instead, he laughs about being the first people in the camp to have a flush toilet.

“No, wait”, he corrects himself. “It wasn’t flush, it was one of those that you throw buckets of water into.” It was still a first. His family had two huts – rare in the camp – but that still added up only four rooms for a total of 10 people. His parents ran a general store out of one of the rooms. Every morning his mother got up at about 4:30 and walked into town to the market to buy the produce she would later sell to the people in the camp. His father looked after the paperwork and their visa applications.

They wanted to go to Australia where another relative already lived and had set up his own Midas muffler franchise. But they were turned down – probably because of the size of the family, Siluck thinks – and won entry to Canada instead. They were sponsored by a Toronto university professor who shared his large, rambling downtown house with them for a year. Siluck’s parents wasted no time getting jobs. In two weeks, both were working. The older kids spent months taking English classes, but the parents never did.

To this day, neither can speak the language. Siluck and his older brother were sent to school right away. He remembers his first day well. “I bawled. I didn’t want to leave my mom. I didn’t speak the language. For three days straight I sat at the teacher’s desk and cried.”
Then a little girl named Anna Manderanno approached him, carrying a toy. She did the same thing the next day and the day after that and it was as if the sun had broken through the clouds for Siluck. They became fast friends and now, years later, they are still in touch.

But from that point on, life for the Saysanasy family took on a pattern. After a year, they moved out of the professor’s home into their own rented house.
“It was $300. We had the first floor. I remember you walked in and to the right was a living room/bedroom were my parents slept. The next room had four beds, or rather four mattresses stacked to the side; then there was the kitchen; then the last room with a bunkbed.”
Siluck’s mother worked as a seamstress in Toronto’s garment district; his father got a job on the line in an auto parts manufacturing plant. The kids went to school and their job was to do well. Which Siluck did. He was in the gifted class in Grade 5, the day a representative from a film company came to the school asking for four or five Chinese kids who were smart enough to miss a couple of months of school to try out for a part in a movie. That’s how Siluck won his lead role in the Canadian movie, The Peanut Butter Solution.

“But word got out about how much I was making – it was $600 a week – and the son of the landlord we rented the house from was a classmate of my brother, so they told us they were kicking us out.” Siluck and his parents used the money he was making to put down payment on the downtown Toronto house where the family still lives. By this time Siluck was beginning to see the plus side to working in movies. He went to one of the movie’s producers about getting more work and was told to go and get some professional photographs taken to show agents and leave at auditions. They would cost about $200, he was told.
“Forget it”, Siluck said, then. But about six months later, one of the staff of Playing With Time, the company which makes the Degrassi television series, saw the movie and phoned the people who made The Peanut Butter Solution about Siluck. Luckily, the production manager had a photographic memory and was able to pass along Siluck’s phone number.
“Yeah, I was really lucky. Totally”, Siluck grins. “But then it’s in my name. Siluck. Luck.”
In the beginning, he was anything but happy being Yick in front of the cameras.
“Oh God, I hated it. I hated him. He was always being so bratty. They always had Yick to do the stupidest things”, Siluck recalls. He wanted to quit, but then, Degrassi producer, Linda Shuyler, and director, Kit Hood, explained the “X” factor to him. The “X” factor is an important acting concept and exercise which helps actors separate who they are from the people they are playing. And then there was the money he was earning. He turned it all over to his parents who used it to help pay down the mortgage on the house.

“We’re the type of family that financially, if anything needs to be, then it’s done. I feel obligated to help my parents”, Siluck says. “Besides, what was I going to do with $13,000 ?”
But a couple of years ago, he got tired of going to his mother for money, so they worked out a deal. She got half and he got half of all his cheques. It means he owns half of the family home and it also means he has been able to help his parents get closer to their dream of returning home, now that things have changed for the better there, and re-starting their import-export business. For years, his father has worked at a factory job he hated. Now he commutes out of town to a plant in Guelph, so he leaves the family home each afternoon at 2:30 and doesn’t return until 3 a.m.

“I don’t see him much”, Siluck says. His mother recently quit her sewing job to look after Siluck’s two young nieces, the children of the sister who owns Thai Magic, a very popular and successful Toronto restaurant. Other brothers and sisters are in university or out working, but a few of them want to join their father back in Thailand when he starts up the business again.
Not Siluck. “I love Canada. I don’t want to go back. There’s nothing there for me.”
He’s finishing up high school at an alternative school, trying out at auditions all over town, plus hanging out with his best buddy, Pat Mastroianni (Joey Jeremiah on Degrassi),shooting pool and shooting the breeze. A couple of years ago he went through a rebellious stage, “playing dumb”, he says, not caring about anything much, hating the “bureaucracy and politics” of school and the rules at home. Anything his mom said to him he figured was nagging; everything around him was boring. Then one day, he came out of it. Just like that.
“Yeah”, he laughs. “I just got it together.”

It was also then that he decided to quit even casual use of drugs except for alcohol. And even with alcohol, he decided it was time to keep an eye on his intake. So now he knows what he wants. He’ll keep on acting and he’ll study film at Ryerson in Toronto, because someday he’s going to produce his own movies and television shows. And that is because, he says firmly, “I’m going to produce things with my own message up there. I want to put something across that is from me.”