This week is mid terms week, when all the normal classes are cancelled and students work on the assorted papers and tests assigned by their professors. My classes aren’t too terribly challenging over in the Thai studies department, so in lieu of some of the studying I ought to be doing I thought I would recount some of my experiences.
Last weekend I was shown yet another extraordinary act of kindness and generosity by one my Thai friends (her name is Aum, pronounced “oom”) when they invited me to stay at their parents house overnight. It was an opportunity I was excited to have. As with many things over here I learned a whole lot, but not exactly the things that I expected to learn.
Her and her father picked my friend Tyler (another American student) and I up around 4:00 p.m. Friday evening just a short walk away from our apartment. We drove out of town right in the midst of rush hour to their home, which was in what was kind of a suburb of the city. During rush hour it took approximately an hour and twenty minutes to get there, but we were told that otherwise it can take as little as thirty minutes. Neither Tyler nor I knew what to expect, other than that we would likely be shown just as much kindness as this family always does (this are the same people that picked me up from the airport, showed me around, helped me track down my lost luggage, find the post office, and loaned me a cell phone and a hot water maker).
The girls father was a government official who works fairly high up in the import/export of animals division, and her mother is a professor of chemistry at another University in Bangkok. We arrived at their house to be greeted by a huge brown dog that looked something like an Australian Shepard. They lived on a long residential street that had much more greenery than most of Bangkok does, and it was a beautiful change. They had two houses side-by-side, one where our friend lived with her father, mother, and brother and her grandmother and housekeeper lived in the other one.
This was my first time inside a Thai household, and I found myself thrust back to the interest of my first few weeks here, when I had no idea what lied around every turn. The houses were close together – separated by a driveway – and of standard size in America, a bit smaller than my house in Montana but bigger than the small one that I grew up in. They had two floors, and were overall rather similar in layout to what you would see back home. The exceptions were few, and included the doorframes, which were just short enough to knock my head a good four or five times over the 24 hours we spent there, the small room off the upstairs study (our bedroom for the night) that was dedicated to a Buddhist shrine, and the fact that they did all their cooking in an outdoors kitchen. We were told it was to avoid making the house smell like food, and given the extraordinary heat that is here all the time, it made sense in that respect as well.
They took us out to dinner that night at MK, a chain restaurant in a nearby shopping mall where everyone at the table shares a common hot pot and you order small dishes that are brought and you cook them in the hot pot. Maybe I wasn’t doing it right(I probably wasn’t doing it right), but I wasn’t the biggest fan of the whole hot pot thing. They do a lot of boiling things when they cook here, even meet and vegetables. It always seems to make everything bland and soggy, and the processes meat they oftentimes use doesn’t have a ton of taste to begin with. My favorite part were these mushrooms with small caps and very long stalks that tasted dark and almost meaty. They have them in a lot of things around here, and they are delicious. They also got duck meat, pre cooked and seasoned, and insisted that Tyler and I enjoy it. It was delicious, and though they said that it was one of their favorites they insisted that we eat it all between the two of us. It was just another example of the Thai hospitality that I am finally beginning to become accustomed to.
After dinner we went back to their house, and enjoyed a quiet night reading alongside the father, who was watching TV. It rang with familiarity, and despite my high expectations I realized that people everywhere need to relax sometimes, and they aren’t always in such different ways.
We went to bed early because we had to be up early the next morning at 6:00 a.m. to drive five minutes into town and offer food for the monks on their daily morning journeys through the streets. They leave the temple each morning and walk through the streets to give the people in the town the opportunity to offer them food. I confess to not knowing as much about it as I could, but I have read that the act of offering monks food is a positive thing for a Buddhist to be able to do, something that gives them a sort of good credit. Many wealthy people will build pagodas in various places for the same sort of reason. I was told that monks are only allowed to eat the food that they gather from the townspeople on their morning walks, so the act of communal generosity is a foundational pillar of supporting Buddhism within any community. Isn’t that a beautiful thing? The joint effort of everyone in the community supporting the religious tradition in that primal way was real nice, and I was sure happy to be a part of it. It was a sort of way of keeping people actively involved, of the religious body marshaling community support with their own hunger on the line. Comparing Buddhism and the more common Christian religions in the West may be a futile effort, but this was a refreshing experience after weeks in the modern globalized city of Bangkok.
It was two Thai girls and Tyler and I at 6:30 that morning, and we each offered the monk some instant noodles, iced tea, and small cakes that Aum’s mother had bought at 7/11 the night before on the way home from dinner. The monk was holding a basket in one arm and an orange canvas bag in the other. I watched several ladies who were giving food him front of us first, and followed suit after they had finished. I put the food in his basket, then he motioned for me to move it from the basket to the bag. After me Tyler went, and then Aum and her friend. I thought perhaps I had messed up by putting the food in the basket first, but when Aum and her friend did the same thing I realized that perhaps there was a religious importance to putting the food there first, and the bag was then simply to handle the overflow. The monk had gotten more food than he could hold, so after we filled his bag he asked us to put it on the steps on the side of the street so that he could pick it up on his way back through town. We kneeled and he blessed us, saying words in Thai and moving his hands in deliberate orientations back and forth and looking very serious. We stood up, and I couldn’t help but smile. He smiled right back, even bigger. This was one of those cool occasions where there weren’t a plethora of white people around, and I actually felt like an uncommon occurrence in this untouched suburb. The people treated me like they would any other, and I appreciated the smile that transcended linguistic borders so well.
After giving the monk food we walked through a local morning market, one of the ones where the people who cook at food carts all day get there food. I have reached the point where markets, which were so fascinating at first, all sort of begin to look the same and aren’t quite as exciting if you don’t have anything to buy. This one was interesting because it was cheaper, and as before it was full of Thai people, with no foreigners in this area of town. The services were more genuine, and the cooking was fresher so early in the morning. We didn’t buy anything, but it was a pleasant excursion to say the least. I also have gotten into the habit of eating things even if I don’t know what they are in an attempt to be adventurous, but I am beginning to realize that that loses some value when you can’t tell people what adventurous things you ate because you what it is called or how to describe it. At any rate, walking through a market with a Thai person to ID these things for me is a valuable experience.
After that we went back to Aum’s house. Despite the fact that it was a Saturday her mother had classes to teach at the university, so Aum, Tyler, and I spent the day working on homework. Around noon we met up with her neighbor and got a cooking lesson, which was really awesome. I learned how to make khao moo sam, which is the pork and basil stir-fry that I get for breakfast almost every morning. We also made vegetable stir-fry, dim sum, Thai omelets, and these delicious (and incredibly rich) caramelized bananas for dessert. I feel pretty confident I could make these again back home, which is exciting. Here is a picture of all the delicious food we made:
An hour or so after we finished lunch Tyler and I packed up and they drove us back into town. Outside of rush hour it did indeed take closer to thirty minutes, and we were back home. The trip had been a meaningful, if in ways far more subtle than I had anticipated. In Thailand dad still watches TV during the day, they still have dreadful game shows on, houses are still cluttered and comfortable and homey, relationships aren’t perfect but people love each other anyways, and they make it work. Quiet Saturdays to that Thai family don’t look that much different from my own back home, just with a shrine upstairs.
Also, they didn’t use any air conditioning so I spent the whole time sweating profusely. But they put up with my bad smell and were kind throughout. I only hope I get to return the favor someday.