We Are Family
We were so blessed that my cousins, uncles, and aunts got together with us for a wedding reception (10 years later or an early 10-year wedding anniversary party. You can take your pick whichever one you choose that sounds the best J). I actually had no idea of the heart-felt connection I had with them even though I am not fluent in Thai. We all ate a la carte meals of tasty Thai dishes including yum nua (beef salad), fried fish (bla tod), coconut chicken soup (tom kha gai), etc. Thai food can be a commonality in the U.S., but authenticity is unusual. To top it off, my uncles had stood up and had given us a commemorative speech (my father being the Thai to English translator and vice versa) about how they all welcomed us to Thailand (and Ted to the Kawewong family) and congratulated us for our 10-year wedding anniversary (or late 10-year reception). There was live music in the background and, unbeknownst to me, they expected me to sing karaoke (of course I didn’t mind because I enjoy it) in spite of my forewarnings that my best singing originates from the shower and not from a stage. I sang “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” by Elvis Presley. Yes, I became Peachy Presley (my nickname for the night). My dad immediately followed with a Thai love song. One of my uncles followed suit with a karaoke Thai love song of his own. They also presented us with a beautiful (and tasty!) cake that had coconut filling. It was a wonderful evening filled with family love and laughter. Each set of my uncles/aunts/cousins also topped the evening off with monetary gifts for our anniversary. It definitely was an unexpected, pleasant occasion! “Wai” Hug?In America, people who haven’t seen each other for any length of time usually hug (the intensity and duration of the hug is usually parallel with the length of time the huggers haven’t seen each other). As some of you may know, my mother died in 1986 and, since then, I have only seen my aunties and cousins twice since then (once in 2001 and the second time, a few days ago in Bangkok) on my mother’s side of the family. In spite of this, I knew that my aunties who were raised old school Thai would only “wai” (hands placed together with fingers pointing up with a slight bow) to the only niece of their beloved sister whom they had scarcely seen in 30 years. I had to shift affection gears from my huggy self and only did a “wai” when I saw the aunties. One auntie, in particular, who is the youngest of my mother’s sisters looked especially like my mother. I just couldn’t refrain myself and I had to hug her and she hugged me back. Growing up as an American girl had molded me into a huggy person (when I first meet them after a long conversation or if I hadn’t seen them in a few weeks, months or years). I missed my aunties (even though they spoke very little English and I speak minimal Thai: we communicated by “Thaienglish” – a combo of Thai and English) and I “wai’d” them out of respect. One even drove several hours just to visit with me and I knew I only could “wai” her. Perhaps one of these days, the Thais can also join the westernized form of affection and give a half-“wai” and half-hug: like a “wug” or something. Perhaps bowing with one hand and using the other arm to hug the beloved family or friend. Maybe I should start a “wug” trend for the younger Thai generation?
A purse for under $20! Incredible…or is it? Various factories are strewn throughout Asia and other continents that copy (based on available materials and accurate “blue-prints” of the design) brand-name purses, clothes, jewelry, movies, accessories, etc. One of the things that tans my cousin’s hide (off her purses) – who is a manager for Coach purses in China (legitimately!) are knock-offs. Knock-offs, while illegal manufacturers and their workers try to legitimize their copying – put companies and employees out of work eventually. Also, there is an uncertain amount of knock-offs that are unfortunately forged in the heat of sweat-shops and labor human trafficking. How on earth do they have DVD movies for sale in SE Asia that are still available in the theater? Reason #1: There are some movies that are available in Asia first and the rest of the world second. Reason #2: More than likely somebody had snuck in a video-cam into the movie theater and recorded it and burned it onto a DVD, even with the understood threat of financial penalty and/or imprisonment. Even though copyright laws are universal, the laws are difficult to enforce when the people behind the illegal DVD-recording and burning are obscure, sparse and hard to track down. I recall a friend who was recanting a story of her friend who used to buy knock-off purses from a Chinese woman (in the U.S.). The Chinese woman was about to strike another deal selling her knock-off purses to my friend’s friend when she said, “Oh no! I got to go! Police here and they raiding us!” followed by the woman slamming down the phone. I recall a movie called “Knock-Off” with Jean Claude Van Damme about – you guessed it – knock-offs. I recall that the shoes he was running in, although they looked appealing because he thought they were brand-name, the sole of the shoe started to peel off from the rest of the shoe. I admit that I did buy a purse (not brand-name) that looked like it was classy for about $18 in Laos only to have it fall apart in a few days. You definitely get what you pay for. I guess that’s how most things in life are. If you invest a little, don’t expect to get a lot in return.
If only I had done my research on electrical outlets (plugs) around the world before I burned out my hair-dryer and other appliances. I plugged in my hair-dryer and it did work; however, after a few days in Thailand, I started noticing a burnt carbon smell emanating from the hair-dryer. Concerned that my hair-dryer might spark into my hair (and heaven forbid, it would be a worse scene than Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire in the Pepsi commercial), I quickly unplugged it and allowed my hair to go wet. When I complained to my dad about the electrical outlet issue, he notified me that Thailand emits 220 volts of power and most U.S. appliances only can take about 110 volts, thus the burnt smell of the fuse in the hair-dryer caused my short fuse. When I used my dad’s adapter/transformer in which I plugged in my U.S. hairdryer on one end of it for 110 volts and plugged it into the outlet in Thailand, it worked! When we were in a Finland hotel, we thought mistakenly since we were in Europe, they would also share the same type of outlet (3-prong). Ted couldn’t charge his electrical razor or tooth-brush, so he went fuzzy today. Knowing that we had about 6 hours due to the delay in flight in the Helsinki airport, I knew I had to distract myself so the hours would glide by while surfing the Internet. We tried to plug it into the outlet at the airport to no avail, unfortunately. We went to the electronics store in the airport and I asked if they had an adapter to adapt a 3-prong plug into a 2-round prong outlet (I am sure there are more technical names for these plugs). I bought the adapter for 13.95 Euros (around $16 USD) and went back to sit down at the terminal to plug the adapter in and lo and behold, that adapter didn’t even work. So, we went back to the store to get a refund or exchange and I told them it didn’t work and then they directed me to a 3-prong adapter for U.S. appliances (apparently not all 3-prong plugs are equal). Alas, that finally worked. Apparently, there are several types of outlets in the world and so far we have experience with 4 types of them: the Asia outlet that is 2-prong and round, the European 2-prong that is round (maybe they are one and the same?), the European 3-prong that is also round, and of course, the North American and Canadian plug that is 2 or 3 prong and flat. So many plugs and so little time!
Movies and Books based in Thailand
There have been various movies that have been filmed in Thailand, mainly in Bangkok, which is like the Los Angeles of SE Asia. Both Los Angeles and Bangkok, respectively, are called (in English) the “City of Angels ” (in Spanish and Thai). Ironically, my parents went from one “City of Angels” (Bangkok) to another (L.A.) when they immigrated to the U.S. Usually, there are action films and a few that are comedy. Apparently, to amplify the exotic”ness” of the film, Bangkok is the place to hold martial art and kick-boxing (Muay Thai) fights; have assassins change their mind about their dangerous activities; have car, motorcycle and foot chases from bad guys; and of course, the new Bourne Identity was filmed there (the last segment). There is a new movie called “The Encounter 2: Paradise Lost” that is also filmed in Thailand (written by my friend, Sean Paul Murphy, and starring David AR White who used to star in “Saved By The Bell”). I am slightly flattered and fascinated that movie producers and screenwriters want to work with the accommodating people of Thailand to create a movie there that eventually is worth millions of dollars. Also, there have been several books based in Thailand (although I can’t think of any of over them right now). Want to create a movie on the land I now own in Bangkok due to my grandmother giving it to me as an inheritance? All I ask is for 10% of the movie proceeds. Ha ha. ;)
I noticed immediately that all of the facial creams and lotions that purport to make one’s skin soft and supple all have one thing in common: they are designed to whiten one’s skin. In stark contrast to the U.S. in which fair-skinned ladies go to tanning booths by the droves (or at least desire to look “healthy” by “getting some sun”). Some even are “tan-a-holics” that get a euphoric “high” when they are exposed to the UV lights of the tanning bed to the point of looking charred to a crisp (like the “tanorexic” mom) with an unnatural leather brown shade to their skin. I always wondered in the U.S. why fair-skinned ladies desire to look tan/brown when they have naturally beautiful ivory skin. All things westernized (including beauty) have become the standard of beauty in Asia, including lighter skin. My late mother was from Southern Thailand (Ayuthaya/Bangkok area) and she was beautiful and darker than me and my father is from Northern Thailand (Chiangmai) and is lighter than me so I came out with a skin shade of olive in between. Every model that I see adorning the commercials, billboards, magazines, television, etc. is fair-skinned. When I was getting my hair done I noticed that there was a beauty service for lightening/tattooing the lips (and breast) skin pink! I never thought pink skin was an upper echelon standard of beauty in Asia until I saw these particular services and products. I can understand why women would want to tattoo their lips mauve (so they don’t have to wear lipstick), but they desire to have their lips look pink naturally (as if they were fair-skinned) as opposed to brown/olive lips. Anyhow, I tried to not become offended by the Asian desire to look fair-skinned at all costs (to the point of wearing face visors to shield their faces from the tanning effects of the sun). Changing one’s skin from light to dark or dark to light in excess (while considered the beauty flavor of the era), needless to say, can be quite detrimental. The Asian desire to have lighter skin reminds me of the Victorian beauty standard of light/pale skin. It almost sounds unbelievable that ladies, at one point in American history, desired to showcase a waxen pallor on their epidermis. One of the detrimental practices of the Victorian ladies was to actually swallow arsenic pills to reduce the oxygen in the blood to create the pallor. In fact, to have darker skin (something coveted by many U.S. women) was considered characteristic of the lower class (spending too much time in the sun performing manual labor). I am reminded of the Song of Solomon in which Solomon’s wife had said she was “dark and lovely”. I wish that others would also see that if they have darker skin they also are considered lovely as well. Also, I am reminded that we all are “wonderfully…made” in the eyes of God, no matter what skin color: light, medium, or dark.
Shower to Shower
One of the things (among many) we had to get used to were that the shower was part of the toilet and sink. What I mean is that the shower didn’t have a separate enclosure (closed off by a curtain, tub, or glass) so that everything gets wet (in most bathrooms) so it’s impossible to have a change of clothing or a towel hanging up because, more than likely, it is going to become damp with shower water. There is one central drain in the middle of the (usually small to medium) bathroom that drains into a pipe or directly underneath the house onto the ground. Thais (and foreigners, too) usually prefer to wear shower shoes to protect one’s feet (and also to shield one’s feet from getting wet again should you need to re-enter the bathroom). We quickly understood the need for “shower shoes”.
This Land is Your Land
One of the main reasons why we visited (besides seeing my family) is so that I could inherit the land that my grandmother on my mother’s side has bestowed to me in her will (among the other cousins). To do so, I needed to jump through the legal hoops of renewing my Thai passport (even though my Thai birth certificate was destroyed in an earthquake in LA in 1994) in Miami as well as getting my Thai I.D. (there were other complexities involved with this undertaking both for my dad and for me). The long-awaited day for the property to be transferred in my name arrived and we went to the city clerk office in Ayuthaya (by Bangkok). When my father drove us to the land, it was in a rural/country area where my mother grew up. It was an unpaved dirt/stone road with miles of rice fields and paddies. The people knew of my mother in the village and they kept saying that I looked like my mother, which was a compliment. There was a banana tree growing nearby. I did have an opportunity to have my uncle sell the land and give me about $3,000 USD for it, but then the money (even if we save it) will one day be spent as opposed to owning a portion of land that my grandmother bequeathed to me in the area that my precious late mother grew up in. My fraction of the property was indeed quite interesting as I didn’t know what purpose I’d use it for (except to build a retirement house for Ted and me). Perhaps God will reveal the purpose of this land shortly. I have never owned property/land (other than jointly with Ted in a house) in my life until today. This land is finally my land that my father desired me to have. If there is a worldwide food shortage of rice, perhaps people will turn to my rice fields!
I have been custom imprinting shirts and mouse-pads since 2006 (and other imprintable items) and, while my parents visited us in 2010, someone took a picture of the four of us on a Duck Tour ride in Miami. My father requested that I emblazon two red shirts (one for my dad and another for my stepmom) with this particular photo. I was shocked to learn that after I mailed these shirts that someone (either in the U.S. or Thailand or en route between) had confiscated, stolen, or destroyed my shirts that I sent him in 2011 for his birthday. Why would anyone want to wear a customized shirt with a strange family on the front, smiling? I wonder (if they were stolen) if the thieves ever wore the shirts and had people question who the family was on the front? Would you want to wear a shirt with an unknown family on the front, let alone want to keep the model family photo in a new photo frame? Thankfully, while we were here, we had a nice photo taken of the my dad, stepmom, Ted and me that I will newly create when I return home….and will send it via Fed-Ex or UPS in which the courier must guard and deliver it with my dad’s signature (or else that company pays me for the customized shirts).
The King and I
I found it quite interesting that after the movie previews but before a showing of one of the latest American movies in the Bangkok IMAX movie theater, a musical montage of photos of the King of Thailand was displayed (along with Thai people praising the virtues of the King). Immediately, all the people in the movie stood up (like Americans do at the singing of the national anthem at a sporting event) to pay honor and homage to the king. There were various photos of the king providing advancements to various Thailand communities that showed his benevolence. Albeit, the photos were about 20 or so years old when he was a younger man (he has become ill, unfortunately). Ted asked me what everyone was doing and I said, “They are standing up to honor the king.” Neither of us were briefed about the nationalistic requirement to stand up during this video montage. We just went with the Thai flow. Actually, while I don’t remember standing up in a movie theater for the king when I was a child watching a movie in the theater in the early 80’s, I do, however, remember that, to conserve energy, the television channels (there were only a few) would show the Thai flag waving in the air with a Thai national anthem before they shut off around 9pm to open up again around 6pm. Now, of course, the Thai airwaves have operational channels 24/7 and don’t necessarily display this nationalistic montage. The king and royalty is adored and honored by the Thais. In fact, if he is seen in his royal carriage (car) in the city or country, the Thais bow down and perform a “wai” (hands placed together in an upward direction) and, in the Thai language, state something to the effect of asking the king to rule and reign over their very life in a worshipful manner. This concept is really foreign to us Americans as we have a democratic (and not monarchistic) society in which the presidents are elected and the presidency, obviously, doesn’t go to the next male heir. In fact, if anyone is seen dishonoring the king in any way, shape, or form, they could be imprisoned for up to a life-time. In contrast, in American politics, people are free to elect whomever candidate floats their political boat and speak publicly against the candidate that was elected whom they don’t agree with (political cartoons, jokes, radio and television talk shows, campaigns, newspaper/magazine articles, etc.). Even though the concept of standing up in a movie theater to honor the king is foreign to us, it still is preferable over the North Korea communistic dictatorship any day of the week in which people can be imprisoned or killed for not looking mournful enough at the passing of Kim Jong Il. What a contrast! “My country tis of thee! Sweet land of liberty!”
Love Is In the Air(waves)
Even though I couldn’t understand about 70 to 80% of Thai, Ted and I watched Thai music videos or TV shows (most centered around a love theme). It’s interesting that from culture to culture, there seems to be songs centered around love, heartbreak, relationships, falling in it and out of love, etc. Love is the universal language. For the Thai music video countdown, I observed one music video and the story line was fairly easy to decipher because of the people’s gestures, character interaction and dramatization. I remember when I was a child, I was within frequent earshot of my parent’s favorite love songs. I even mentioned, when I was a kid, to my parents that I hear the same words over and over again such as “shewit” (meaning “soul” in Thai), “hooah jai” (meaning “heart”) and “seah jai” (“sadness”). People are relatively similar around the globe, just with a different appearance. I heard Thai alternative rock, rap, contemporary music, and (eek!) “country” music (which my dad loves. It’s not what you think). U.S. country music is very dissimilar to Thai country music. Check this out on You Tube for music my dad likes. He even criticized the Thai modern music (that was quasi-listenable to us) and said that the lyrics were too superficial/shallow. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s funny that we as North Americans parody the accents of people who are ESL (English as a Second Language) because they may not be able to pronounce the “r” like in river or “g” as in “go” or say words or phrases in an awkward, humorous, or humorously awkward way. I remember, as a child, my parents kept having to apologize for my lack of fluency in Thai and I don’t think I will ever sound like a native Thai speaker and no matter what CD or class I take in Thai, I will always speak Thai with a North American/Californian accent. It is interesting that we as Americans (who have a “midland” accent which is another way of saying those from the west coast don’t really have an accent, so to speak. Au contraire! We have an accent to those who are from the Midwest, South, Northeast, etc. in the U.S.) I read that the linguistic center of one’s brain becomes more solidified equivalent to the amount of time that a person spends in a country for the first 12 years of life. Imagine if someone was born in Asia and spent the first five years there, then moved to the Middle East for 3 years, then Africa for the next 3 years, then South America for the next few years, and then the U.S. (Texas, Boston, Oklahoma, and California). What an eclectic mix of accents that acculturated person would have! This would certainly be the cure for xenophobia for sure.
My relatives can create Thai culinary dishes from their own cranium without having to read instructions or to follow directions on a packet of Thai food mixture (like I do). My auntie made the highly coveted (by us, at least) Thai appetizer when she visited (my stepmom’s sister, Auntie Chaunpit, who is a Thai cook/chef) which is the chicken satay with peanut sauce (she soaked the pieces of chicken – to be grilled on skewers – in a tasty marinade all night). Usually these are about 5 skewers for about $8 to $10 in the U.S. at a restaurant. Not so with Auntie Chaunpit! My stepmom is equally as talented as she also made Pad Thai (like a Thai pasta dish), Yum Nua (Thai Beef Salad), and other assorted dishes. People tend to ask me if I make Thai food for Ted and my reply, to their disappointment, is that I only make it on special occasions or only once or twice a year (if he’s lucky). The last time I made it was in Christmas 2011 for my sister-in-law, Lana, and her husband and three of our nephews. They didn’t know what to compare it to, so they ate it with glee (even though I made it accidentally super-spicy). To the untrained Thai food connoisseur, I am a chef….which is why I usually make Thai food just for non-Thai family and friends (so they don’t complain that I follow a recipe on the back of the powder mix).
A Mouse By The House
My parents live in a beautiful house that’s on a quasi-farm in Chiangmai (Northern Thailand, about 4 hours away from Bangkok). There are hens, roosters, and baby chicks roaming around, crowing at all hours of the day (and night, to our surprise. Thankfully, we had ear-plugs). There are several koi in a pond by the entrance to the door in which there is a small wooden bridge that crosses over it. In the morning, before our trek to another city, I decided to explore their backyard. My stepmom had stated there was a “noo” (Thai word for mouse) in a cage outside. I have had mice, rats, and rabbits for pets and would love to have a ferret as a pet. Delighted to see their pet mouse, my pet-loving mental balloon burst as they promptly told me that the cage was a mouse trap. Inside, I saw what appeared to be a large field mouse with brown, black, and white markings. It looked rather content in the cage with the piece of food that was set inside to trap the poor little rodent. My dad said that he was going to just leave the mouse in the cage to let it die/starve to death during our 2-day trip to Chiangrai to see my uncles, aunts, and cousins and visit Burma and Laos. I intervened and said, “No! You can’t just leave him in the cage to die! He doesn’t even have any water!” Then he told me that my stepmom – seeing how distressed I was – said that they were going to take him with us to the foot-hills en route to our destination and set him free. Seeing this was a better alternative than starving and becoming dehydrated, I was relieved. My parents had cut open a large water bottle and placed the mouse inside it and taped it shut (and even poked a few holes for it to breathe). The “noo” (in the large water bottle) had the sentence of death and fear etched into its little face and I felt sympathy for it. I then placed it in a plastic bag and put it in the back of the truck. When we arrived in the foot-hills, my dad removed the tape from the water bottle and it jumped out and ran for its life into the bushes. It didn’t even turn back to have a bite of the banana that I placed in front of the bottle! Free at last! My dad did advise me that when they catch mice with the mouse trap (a metal cage about 10 inches in length, in which the opening shuts when it senses vibrations), they usually set it free like they just did, but sometimes if they get lazy they would leave it in the cage with its last supper until it dies. They don’t even ask the mouse what it wants for its final meal. ;) I hope that by my intervention that they will continue to drive the rascals to the hills so that they are no longer considered city vermin, but country mice in which they fend for themselves. J
This Is Your Brain on Opium
When Ted told me that my dad was going to drop us off at the Hall of Opium (an opium museum), I didn’t know what to think. It sounded as if the museum was praising the virtues of illegal opium usage and nothing could be further from the truth. The Hall of Opium (considered “edutainment”: educational and entertainment) was built about ten years ago and there’s a luxury hotel on the premises. I was stunned to observe, along the walls, various posters, documentaries, mannequins, artifacts, etc. to illustrate the detrimental (and some beneficial results from morphine usage in the medical field) effects of the psychotropic poppy flower, which blocks pain receptors and increases endorphin (pleasure hormones) uptake. How people get addicted is that the absence of the Opium (or any drug) causes such severe withdrawal symptoms that people will risk everything to get the next euphoric high from it. It was an anti-drug commercial on steroids at the impressive Hall of Opium. It was a cautionary warning museum mandated by the King of Thailand and the royal family themselves. The opening to the museum was a long, dimly-lit hall with wood carvings of grotesque, tortured faces and bodies, showing the torment of Opium addicts. Out of all the poppy species, only one poppy creates Opium. There were illustrations of Opium usage (medicinal and addictive) throughout history that stretched mainly in Southeast and Far East Asia (especially in Siam – the traditional name of Thailand – Burma/Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam, the border of China, etc.). There were wars and battles fought, commerce and merchants that had opium dens (in which customers would recline on an uncomfortable, angular, porcelain pillow and wood “bed” to make the Opium addict uncomfortable while they smoked in a reclining position to make room for the next customer), labor, farming, laws passed mandating its usage and criminalizing users and vendors (especially in Siam as early as the 15th century), etc…..all in the name of Opium. There was also an illustration of the penalties and criminalization that occurs in modern countries (the U.S. being the most lax concerning usage and dealing, including financial penalties and various lengths of prison time for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd offenses. The most serious penalty is life in prison) such as in Singapore and other Asian countries: possession and usage results in death or life in prison. No pass, go or collecting $200. Any possession and/or usage of the drug will cost that abuser or pusher dearly with their life. No wonder why Singaporeans have the least drug problems in the world. Another area showed modern-day illustrations and photos of some ways people who have smuggled Opium into and out of countries such as cutting open the torso of a Teddy Bear and filling it with bags of Opium, soaking peaches or clothing in it and then boiling them and taking it off the top of the water, filling condoms with it and then having the perpetrator swallow the condoms in hopes that they will pass through their gastrointestinal system out the other end (often times, the smuggler will die because the gastric juices will eat away at the condom lining, releasing the lethal dosage of Opium into their system), and other means. Close to the exit were photos and newspaper articles of famous people and celebrities infamous for their drug addictions which have died due to overdose (very politically incorrect according to the U.S.). At the exit, there were pillars that were etched with a spiritual proverb, including one from the Bible, interestingly enough, about self-control and restraint versus indulgence and moral laxity. Overall, it was an informative, yet unsettling visual of the history of Opium usage.
Cold Temperatures in Thailand?
Through connections, my parents were invited (for free!) for a stay at the Inthanon National Park. I was forewarned by my dad to bring cold weather clothing. Semi-balking at the idea that Thailand could be cold, I brought minimal clothing for frigid temperatures because I thought “cold Thailand” was an oxymoron. Situated at the highest peak of Thailand, the temperatures plummeted to the coldest I’ve ever felt (and have never felt) in Thailand. I thought it was curious that the country Thai folk were wearing cozy hats, scarves, gloves, clothing, etc. for cold temps. Realizing that I was in for a rude temperature awakening, I bought a pair of socks. Little did I know it was 0 degrees Celsius and when we sat outside our lodge, we could see our breath. The impossible was made possible as I have always thought that Thailand was almost unbearably and intolerably hot and humid in the summer (when I’ve always visited). To our dismay, the lodge we all were staying at did not contain any heater. Just a medium-thick blanket on the bed was all that shielded us from the cold. The bed was the hardest and firmest we’ve ever felt in our life. It was a little softer than a box-spring. In fact, I think it was just a box-spring. I had leggings and sweats on, socks, two pairs of sweaters, a jacket, and a fuzzy hat and I was still cold, as the cold reached its icy fingers to my body inside the bedroom of the lodge. Of course, I’ve felt 30 to 40 degree temperatures in the U.S. and Canada (and colder), but I was astonished by the plummeting temperatures in one of the hottest countries in the globe. We were surprised that we slept a wink while shivering. Thankfully, my parents had three extra sleeping bags and loaned us two on top of the blankets that we had. I couldn’t figure out if it was better to put a blanket on the bottom of the bed to make the stone-bed softer or put it on top of me. It was a beautiful, picturesque, scenic, mountainous area with a stunning view, but we were glad to thaw out in Chiangmai, a south-ward city.
The first time I saw fish therapy was in the movie “Mirror, Mirror” with Julia Roberts (in which she plays the nefarious stepmother of Snow White who seeks to woo a prince with bizarre beauty treatments, including a bee-sting on the lips and scorpion stings on the skin for collagen increase, and being slathered with bird manure to soften and detoxify the skin which, I found out, is also a modern-day treatment for the wealthy) and one of the pampering treatments she gives herself is a fish-nibbling manicure. We were all amused at the night bazaar (it should be called night “bizarre”, which is a fancy way of saying Thai “flea market” with the various vendors selling food, clothing, etc.) when we spotted two large aquariums (probably 100 gallons at least) full of tiny fish and a Caucasian young male tourist with his legs/feet reclining in the tank with the little fish nipping at the dead skin on his feet and legs. Apparently, there are certain fish that only find dead skin and callouses a delicacy. The Thai vendor of this curious “fish therapy” charged around 300 bahts or so (around $10 USD, but I honestly don’t remember accurately) for a dip in this aquatic pedicure environment. I said the word for “dirty” in Thai (which is “soak-a-poke”, humorously enough) to my parents and my stepmom agreed. Basically, if you paid for this curious therapy, you would be soaking your feet in an aquarium that probably doesn’t get cleaned out often in which dozens of other tourists have also soaked their legs and feet. Again, the USFDA would be fit to be tied (or should it be “fish to be tied”?) because the fish could spread harmful microorganisms from one customer to the next. Eeeeewwww! It does sound a bit relaxing and I was tempted, but after I concluded that the hygiene of this therapy was fishy, I quickly stopped fishing for my bahts to waste.
Bargaining in Bangkok and Floating Foreigners
We went to the world famous “Floating Market” (in Thai it is called “Dallat Nam” which translated literally is “Market of Water” in which people pay a water boat “chauffer” to use a motor-operated boat or paddle through the rivers teeming with wide-eyed foreigners and their Thai hosts looking for a deal). Stores are built on stilts in which vendors sit from 8am to 12pm selling their (usually) hand-made products. You can purchase souvenirs such as Thai novelty dolls, jewelry, clothes, purses, bags, fruits, food, etc. for a third or fourth the cost of what you’d pay at an indoor mall. Most of the items don’t have a label with a price listed on them because everything at this curious floating flea market is up for bargaining. My stepmother (“Lek”) drives a hard-bargain. She’ll usually cut them down to 25% to 50% of their cost and – as opposed to me who gives in too easily – will walk away if she doesn’t get her way. She will ask “Tumaye pang?” which means “Why so expensive?” She usually will bend if they charge her about 10 bahts (and no more) above her asking price. She could teach a class called “Bargaining in Bangkok”! Kudos to my stepmom. J For a little lady, she can pack a discounting punch! Almost everything is up for bargaining (even hotel rates) unless the person you’re bargaining with doesn’t have any clout and is an employee with no leverage power.
Along Came A Spider
Many people have folklore about the size and ferocity of Southeast Asian insects such as the large flying red and black ants, moths, etc. Ted, however, was a bit suspicious of the rumors of large insects until this morning. We stayed at a cottage lodge in Chang Saen (sp?) and Ted was about to take a shower when he nonchalantly walked out of the restroom and told me to call my father on his cell phone to ask him if we could use his shower. Puzzled, I asked him why? He responded that he is glad that he is a calm person and that he will notify me after I call my father. Apparently, while he was shaving, he saw a huge, black spot out of the corner of his eye – thinking that it was a trail of ants on the bathroom wall (as is their usual behavior). Unfortunately, it turned out to be a gargantuan spider the size of the length of my hand (about eight inches in diameter). I ran outside to tell my father because he wasn’t answering his cell phone and my dad beckoned a hotel employee to get rid of it. I saw a Thai employee with a broom approach our room and Ted balked at the idea that a broom could rid us of the unwanted bathroom guest. I decided to wait outside when the young woman came out with the remains of the Godzilla spider scrunched up in a napkin. It takes a lot for Ted to become choked up and usually has no problem squashing a bug inside our house (regular North American size pest) so I realize that this spider (although I didn’t see it with my own eyes) must have been rather imposing if he wanted to switch restrooms with my parents to shower.
Borders, Burma, and Boat Rides
My stepmom decided to stay in the car because she was feeling sick and tired while my dad, Ted and I took a boat across the Mekong River that separates Laos and Thailand. A few things made us feel a bit nervous: the fact that Laos is a communist country, but does allow foreigners to visit for commerce at the flea market at the border and the boat that took us across the river was literally a small motor boat. When we got to the border of Laos and Thailand, we were given orange life-preserver vests and, to my surprise, it was not a water taxi (barge that can fit several dozen people), it was a canoe-looking motor/speed boat. I was unprepared for the rough ride as we were sprayed by river water (to my dismay since I dressed up in a dress, hose, and heels because I thought we were going to stay in the city and meet my cousins/uncles/aunts on my dad’s side at a Thai restaurant first). I was half-expecting to – by accident – tip over into the Mekong River so I was holding onto my purse (which contains my U.S. and Thai passports) and snuggly pressed my feet against the boat side so my shoes wouldn’t fly off into the water. Despite my concerns, we arrived safely at the other side to Laos. There was a man who helped dock the boat (by simply reaching out his hand and pulling the boat closer). My dad made the mistake of giving him $100 baht. Concerned, I asked my dad why he didn’t tip the “boat chauffer” and he said it “was the same company”. Looking closer at the man who pulled the boat closer, I saw that he was homeless with rotted teeth and tattered clothing. My dad just “tipped” a Laotian beggar instead of the boat chauffer! We laughed about this and then we were greeted by poor Laotian children who kept chanting “Hoy baht! Hoy baht!” as they were panhandling, looking for $100 baht (equivalent of about a day’s wages in Laos and $3.50 in USD). My dad also gave a few bahts to the children and then when we saw the Laos border office, a sign stated: “Do not give begging children money.” I can imagine why as, unfortunately, traffickers take advantage of children – knowing full-well that tourists feel sympathy for the children and take all the children’s money that they panhandled in exchange for agreeing not to physically abuse or kill them or their family members at worst. Ted and I were tense because – in addition to being eyed and stared at by SE Asians for looking/acting/talking differently – they seemed to be sizing us up (especially Ted) as a “rich” foreigner who is useful for spending cash on the wares that they were hocking at the border Laotian flea market or giving money to panhandlers. After I bought a purse/backpack for $570 bahts (equivalent of $18) and Ted bought a few souvenirs, we were eager for the boat ride back to Thailand.
When we went to Burma, there were numerous checkpoints in which we (my dad and I) had to show our temporary Thai border pass. We only had to pay $30 baht at the Thai border and $10 baht at Myanmar (the official SE Asian name for Burma) and Ted (feeling price-gouged due to his “fulung” status) had to pay $500 bahts. In contrast to our visit to Laos, they actually held Ted’s passport at the border patrol office until he left, which made him feel very nervous and insecure, considering that he wouldn’t be able to get help from a U.S. embassy if he needed it and wouldn’t be able to fly back home to Florida. In contrast to Laos, children weren’t panhandling us; however, we were greeted, this time, by many cigarette vendors (Burmese men – and few women – that carried a basket-full of cigars and cigarettes in front of them). One man actually became fairly aggressive to Ted and tried to persuade him (as he looks like a “rich” foreigner) to buy cigarettes. In irritation, as we were walking through the crowds and vendors, Ted retorted, “I DON’T SMOKE!” The man backed off and said, “Oh. No speak English?” then the vendor tried to persuade me by touching my arm and uttering something in Thai and I said, “My ow, ka” – meaning “I don’t want it, but thanks.” Ted (and not me as much) was tense and terse in Burma as my dad – in a relaxed state – bought Burmese movies (movies that are for the SE Asian DVD system but not for U.S. usage) at a cheap price. When we crossed over the border, the Burmese officials asked Ted what hotel he was staying at tonight and, since we were driving three hours to my parents’ house in Chiangmai, he beckoned me over (after my dad and I crossed) to tell the officials the address of where he was staying (thankfully, I was gazing at the scenario from a distance). Concerned, I ran over to my dad and told him to tell the Burmese officials his home address (or else they wouldn’t let Ted go!). We were very relieved to walk back to Thailand.
Unfortunately, since the 7th day of our visit, I’ve succumbed to the “deli belly” of Thailand. One morning a few days ago, I knew that the food of my culture (that is adored by the culinary world) had caused my stomach to turn upside down with gurgling, burbling, nausea, pains and alas, had given me “issues” so to speak. Tummy troubles in a foreign country (in which 90% of the toilets are squatty potties) is especially troublesome, let alone in your home country. I’ve been battling this digestive dragon with apple cider vinegar ever since the culprit has colonized my colon. Two steps forward and two steps back. If you’ve ever had apple cider vinegar, it is not for the faint of stomach because holding one’s nose can give you minimal relief from the acidic smell and the taste of it thereof. I’ve been drinking about ½ cup 3 times per day and I can feel the apple cider vinegar actually clean my stomach only to have my stomach retaliate with new food. I just have to remember that “this too shall pass” and I hope quite literally pass through my gastrointestinal system soon! Thankfully, my father was prescribed antibiotics by a doctor two years ago for such a time as food poisoning….and saved my stomach (along with Thai super yogurt, loaded with friendly stomach bacteria).
Superstitions and Sanitation
I was dining with my dad, stepmom and husband (Ted) at “The Floating Restaurant” near the Bridge at the River Kwai (the site where the Japanese forced WWII POW’s to build the bridge, resulting in multitudes of heroic soldiers’ deaths from the UK and the United States). As we were dining (for dinner) I had a crab salad and beef kabob. I then felt a splash on the left side of my wrist. To my utter disgust was a black liquid substance resembling bird manure on my wrist. I was hoping it was something other than bird manure. I was wrong. I looked up and, confirming my repulsion, were little birds perched on the rafters, jutting back and forth. I was taken aback at the thought that these little birds were allowed to perch (there wasn’t much that the Thai restaurant staff could do to prevent these little birds from doing their unwelcome business in and on the restaurant patrons and their food) there without some type of Thai FDA shut-down and red-tape. Alas, part of the ambiance is that it is an outdoor restaurant. My dad and stepmom – even though I was repulsed and shocked and squealed: “Eeeeeeewwww! A bird crapped on my wrist!” They were laughing with delight and said, “Chokedee!” (meaning that being crapped on by a bird or any other animal was a form of “good luck” and that the powers that be would bless me with a large sum of money) and encouraged me to play the lottery. Even in jest, they were serious. In Asian superstition, if someone has a dream (or in reality) that they are immersed in crap (whether the crapper is animal or human) then it foretells of an auspicious amount of money that is about to be bestowed upon the crappee. So, the next time someone says that they are “crapped on” by someone (as a figure of speech), the Asian notion is that they will be finally fortunate, indeed. My father also told me about the instance in the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” in which the main character falls into a puddle of human excrement and, hilariously enough, uses it to his advantage to repel the doting fans of his favorite action movie hero so he could obtain his autograph. Will I win a large sum of money? Only time will tell. If I do, I will also thank God for His blessings that the bird didn’t crap into the food that I was previously eating before I hastily shoved it away. If it did, as the adage goes: “more protein”!
When I was a child living in Thailand in the early 80’s, I took no thought of eating from street vendors in Thailand and I lived to tell about it. Just like in the U.S., they sell food on carts. The only huge difference is that the food vendors are not required to obtain a food or vendor license or FDA approval (to sell food or any other belongings on the street, for the most part). Considering that all a person needs is a cart, a way to store the unprepared food (usually the unprepared food is stored at outside temperatures, which is a breeding ground for bacteria and the like. Rarely do I see the beef, chicken, or fish on ice) and a way to cook it (with or without adequate sanitation) the prospect of eating from a vendor can be truly risky. Each time my family, husband and I walked the streets of Bangkok, I was so tempted to purchase fish ball skewers (pureed fish rolled up in a ball, a little larger than the size of a big gumball) I would mention, longingly, how I wanted to purchase them at a little less than 50 cents USD. Seeing that I was determined to live on the edge and buy a fish ball skewer anyway, as a cautionary warning, my father told me how most vendors leave their carts outside when they retire for the evening and then the scavenger rats come and lick the equipment and the food (of course, the vendors, unbeknownst to them of the previous night’s rodent feast, just continue vending in the morning). He performed an experiment in such that he left a soup ladle inside his own kitchen and a huge rat – the size of a New York sewer rat or a tiny dog, as he described – emerged from the crevices of the wall and then lapped up the remaining soup residue off the ladle.
In an unrelated event, we were at a New Year’s Eve party that one of my father’s friends held and the servers continued to bring out Chinese-inspired Thai dishes. My father, in particular, warned us to be careful because some “fulungs” (foreigners to Thailand of the Caucasian persuasion) have actually died because of food poisoning due to uncooked or undercooked meats. Ted, erring on the cautious side, decided to eschew the seafood-laden salad in spite of my pleadings that it was ok. My father also said that the safest bet – in terms of sanitary food – was to eat at a restaurant. Considering there isn’t any FDA intervention, is it a safer bet? I wonder what the USFDA would have to say about the little birds in the rafters and their protein-adding behavior at the outdoor restaurant? Needless to say, we ate our dinner gingerly, eyeing every meal with suspicion after that.
Driving us up the wall
New York….LA….Chicago….Miami…when drivers think of the “Carmageddon” that usually occurs in rush hour traffic, they shudder. Bangkok is 10 times worse. Not only do they drive on the left side of the street (like England), but they also drive on the right side of the car. Talk about becoming disoriented. When I got in the car with my father sitting on the right front seat and Ted sitting in the left front seat, I was shocked that Ted wanted to drive in the Bangkok bedlam, but then I realized that my dad was the driver because he was seated on the right. In a discombobulated mass of confusion and chaos, tuk-tuk drivers (the word “tuk tuk” means “suffer suffer” in Thai and I can see why. The guests sit in the back of what resembles a golf-cart with slight railings to keep the patrons inside and the driver who sits up front drives a motorcycle. It’s like “motorcycle-golf-cart of chaos with no seatbelts, taxis (non-seat-belted, of course), motorcycle taxis, bicyclists, and busses zipping and whipping back and forth. In spite of the hustle and bustle, drivers are relatively calm and even compassionate. Hardly anybody honks at another person (like in the U.S.A. in which people just honk if you look at them funny) unless the other driver does something egregious or to let the other driver know that you are next to them. They seem to accommodate one another and hardly ever cut each other off. As we hang on for life and limb in my dad’s car ride in Bangkok (that would rival a Universal Studios ride), we thank God for arriving safely to our destinations (with the help of “Nancy”, our GPS guide).
My Kup Runneth Over
Ted wondered why men say “kup” and the women say “ka” at the end of almost every sentence. In polite and courteous Thai conversation, one can hear “ka” or “kup” several times. For instance (like certain other languages) men and women start or end their sentences according to their gender: men say “Sawadee kup” and women say “Sawadee ka” for “hello”. Men say “Kup koon kup” and the women say “Kup koon ka” for “thank you”. My father would say “kup” several times while speaking on his cell phone to family and friends. Out of curiosity, Ted asked what this meant. I said, “It basically means a combination of how southerners in the U.S. say “Yes, sir”/”Yes, ma’am” and “If you please” at the end of their conversation or every few sentences. In fact, if they don’t say “kup” or “ka” at the end of every other sentence, it’s considered brash, bold and rude.
Even though I am 100% Thai, I still get curious looks (Ted and I both do) from Thai onlookers who can’t decide if I’m half-white and half-Thai or half-Thai and half-something-else. Perhaps it’s my height. Perhaps it’s my weight (I’m in the correct BMI at 145-148 pounds, but a little curvier than most Thai girls/women). Perhaps it’s both. Even when I speak Thai, the Thais switch their language to “Thaienglish” so I can understand. Maybe it’s my semi-puzzled or “deer-in-the-headlights” look when I try to decipher 50% of what they are saying. Ted naturally gets looks because blonde hair/blue eyes is not usual in a sea of black/brown hair and brown eyes. It’s interesting that Asians are still the minority in the U.S. and even more so in Florida (in which there are only .5% Thais and 2% Asians total) and people think I’m Latina usually so I don’t really garner curious looks. Here, we both do. It has made us wonder: “Do we look funny to them?” “Is something on our face?” “Are we not blending in enough?” The answer to why people are looking at us is simply that we look, behave, and speak differently from the Thais. It was humorous that at a New Year’s Eve party, a Burmese man walked up to Ted and shook his hand (in the evening) and said, “Good morning, sir!” He was honored to shake the hand of an American (whom he thought, naturally, was a missionary or a teacher (which is what the Thais presume most “fulungs” are in Thailand).
Confrontation and Courtesy
I notice that in the U.S., people are much more confrontational (they will confront you if you walk, drive, or speak too fast/too slow, do things differently than them, etc.). Here they basically just live and let live, which is not to say that people don’t get into arguments. People argue, but they don’t normally argue or yell out to strangers. In America, if a person cuts another person off while driving or cut in front of them while in line, someone will hear an ear-full. In Thailand, this is not the case. They just basically feel that if they are cut in front of while driving or walking, the other person must have a good reason. Amazing how different cultures are. In America, there’s more individualistic thinking and in Asia (and other countries) there’s more collectivistic thinking (doing things for the greater good of one’s culture or family).
One thing I found interesting is that each hotel or store that we went to, people were more than accommodating to my dad and stepmom and even took several minutes (or hours) to converse in a jovial manner. Whether we were in an upscale community or the slums, people treated us the same: with respect and courtesy and were more than willing to shoot the breeze with us.
It’s All Thai To Me
It’s interesting that there are several ways to say the same thing in English versus in Thai language (usually the phrasing/words are conceptual). For instance, if you wanted to ask how much the cost of an item is in English, you would typically ask, “How much is that?”, “What is the cost of that?” or “What is the price of that?”, “How much does that cost?” or something similar. In Thai, two words capture the thought, feeling or notion: “Talay, ka?” (or “kup” if you’re a man). Talay means “price”. I can understand why people, whose English is a second language, have a difficult time with grasping the English language because of all of our phraseology: adjectives, adverbs, verbs, nouns, pronouns, etc. Even after all these years, I have to keep apologizing to Thai people that even though I’m of Thai origin, I can barely speak it (and definitely can’t write it or read it). In the last several years, my dad has sent me 3 or 4 Thai language CD’s (wanting me to get in touch with my Thai roots so I can communicate effectively and so that family members can stop pestering him as to the reason why I can’t speak Thai fluently). Each time, I have had some reason why I couldn’t study the CD. I am going to make a concerted effort to learn Thai so people don’t have to switch to “Thaienglish” when they talk to me.
Paying for Squatty Potties and BYOTP
I never heard the term “squatty potty” until a few years ago. I wish I had known this phrase to describe squatting while performing one’s business in the restroom, bathroom, loo, or w.c. Raised in the U.S., I had taken the luxury of sitting down on the porcelain receptacle for granted. One can usually read the newspaper, read a chapter of a book, take a call on the cell phone, etc. all from the comfort of the porcelain throne. Not so in most restrooms that have squatty potties in Thailand. When Thailand became more westernized and modernized (usually upscale homes and establishments), they replaced the squatty potty with the toilet. I am truly relieved (in more ways than one) when I see a modern toilet in which I can rest on and become disconcerted when I see the dreaded squatty potty: both because it’s truly uncomfortable for me to balance and also because toilet paper usually is not within reach (or usually not available at all) which brings me to the second point. Most establishments (especially gas stations) that are older (built before the 2000’s) don’t offer toilet paper in the loo. In lieu of the toilet paper in the loo, they might (if you’re lucky) have a single roll of toilet paper on the outside of the entrance of the “rest”room (called “hong nam” which literally means “room of water”). So, you’re basically forced to prepare for your bathroom business by detaching from communal toilet paper and, heaven forbid, you should run out of the toilet paper after you perform your duty. Most people bring toilet paper with them in their purse or satchel wherever they go. Ted and I have joined the toilet-paper-toting Thai masses. Some places charge 5 or 10 bahts (30 bahts equal $1 USD) to use the toilet. Now, I can understand if they charge 5 or 10 bahts to use a sit-down toilet, but for a squatty potty (in which you have to flush the squatty potty manually with a bowl full of water floating in a nearby basin), the concept is pretty crappy, quite literally. Alas, it does cost money to operate the lights, water, etc. of a bathroom, so one has to pay the (bathroom) piper somehow. Ted and I actually considered nearby trees, bushes or fields considering the alternative to pay for usage of the toilet. Now, I realize that establishments – due to vagrants who would actually camp out in the bathroom just to drink the water from the faucet and have a roof over their heads – actually charge a nominal amount of money not only for operating costs, but to stave them off so that they do not scare away paying patrons.
I wish that my family lived close by (like down the road) so I don’t have to be separated from them for long periods of time due to economic, employment, business and logistical road-blocks. The pangs of longing when I hear other people getting together with their families often and especially around the holidays (like my in-law family) often intensifies my desire to family connection (even though my in-laws are also my family). It had been a little over a decade since I saw many of my cousins, uncles and aunts (and a few who haven’t seen me since I was an 8-year-old kid). Even though I speak a little Thai and they speak a little English, and all they expected and gave was a “wai” (slight nod with hands placed together upwardly) in terms of physical affection (when I really want to hug each of them), the family bond was strong and I could feel their love and vice versa. I do enjoy the people, the food, and the sight-seeing. We made our descent into New York for a connecting flight to Miami (not only worlds apart geographically, but culturally) and actually experienced reverse culture shock. I will have to explain myself a little more because people will be more outspoken, confrontational, demanding, and self-oriented of which I am not necessarily looking forward to, so I need to shift gears from the attitude of my polite Thai counterparts that I had become accustomed to for three weeks and switch gears to becoming more assertive once again. Each culture has its set of wonder as well as woe. As I wear both my American and Thai hats that have different textures, I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of both cultures.