Archives for posts with tag: Thailand

I have been teaching my 16-year-old son how to drive. He is a confident young man and his driving reflects that. One hand on the steering wheel, the other relaxed and gesturing as he speaks, I am somehow pulled into his easy conversation. He is a good driver. My body, which has had to learn how to breathe while he is driving, releases into the ride. I trust him. I trust my friend who drives a sports car a little too fast, but with a love for the curves of the road, the trees flashing by, the bumps that send us up for a moment, and our movement through the world. I am learning how to lean into this life.


I had already let go of the tightly woven safety

found in car seats and seat belts. So used

to relying on the security of metal locking

to metal, unbreakable fabric, foam cushioning,

that to trust the blood and muscle human

being driving the car felt daring. But

trusting all the other drivers on the road,

speeding and weaving, was surely foolish.

The rules of this world, half a world from home,

were different, and the children loved the

comfort of sitting on our laps while riding

through the busy streets. They trusted us

to hold tight to them. Should we not do the same?

We drove past entire families holding on

to one central driving figure, all balanced

on a small motorbike. The two wheels,

the buzzing motor, were just a tool. The

family, arms linked around waists, toddlers

sandwiched between, was the movement,

the pulsing, the life.

I remembered the thrill of the ride:

visiting Thailand as a child and riding

on the front of Little Uncle’s Vespa. My

feet on the narrow platform in front of

Uncle, standing up while he reached

around to hold the handlebars. I learned

to sway with the motion of the bike, to

lean when it turned. We were connected

to the city, part of the dance, part of

the circulatory system, curving

through veins of traffic.

One night, after dinner, we took a

tuk-tuk back to the hotel. All four

of us squeezed into the bench seat,

sticky skin to skin. The driver was fast,

swerving past traffic, leaning, pulling

us through. Quickly we learned to

sway with the motion of the tuk-tuk,

to not resist the movement. Connected

to the driver powering us to our beds

after a long day, we moved with him,

doing as he told us to do with each

turn. We trusted him. We felt safe.

I saw the peaceful knowing on my boys’

faces, and I understood what they knew.


This fall I have taken several trips for work and for my film project. Although I like travel, it comes with other responsibilities, like making sure things are set at home, that my son is in good care, that I have managed my commitments at work. Even with all that to think about, once I am suspended above, leaving the ground behind, I have time to settle into another space. I find that I read a lot on planes, that I think in taxis, and that generally my life is a little suspended when I step into the anonymity of another place. Rather than travel as motion, going somewhere, it becomes for me a time of stillness and reflection. This crossing over a footbridge in Thailand was a similar moment of presence and attention to the time, place, circumstance, and even uncertainty I was experiencing.

To get there,

we crossed a footbridge, the swaying kind,

over a deep ravine. The laughter of

my uncles and aunts was nervous as we

made our way across, holding the ropes on

either side, the bridge swaying back and forth.


While we waited for the food to arrive, I piled

into a hammock with the children, and we

gazed up at the shiny palm leaves, listening

to strange bird and insect sounds and

the laughter of the others. My

father had stayed behind at the hotel,

not well enough to come along. How

would he have managed the stone path,

the swaying bridge anyway? He had made the

journey across the world, but so

often he was not with us. He was leaving

us a little already. Or was it us leaving

him, hurrying on, moving forward?


After lunch, I watched as my family –

the aunties, the uncles, the cousins, my mother –

all walked unsteadily across the bridge,

their heads spinning with spicy food and cold beer.

They were laughing at themselves

swaying back and forth. For just a

short time they were suspended there,

in the uncertainty.

My grandfather, crossed mountains

and oceans to arrive in Thailand, and

my parents came to a new country,

suspended in the air before landing in America.

And my father, was he crossing over

into something else now?


As they hung there for that

brief time, I imagined that

if the bridge gave way, they would all

come to a dramatic, laughter-filled end.

Instead, they stepped off the bridge

on the other side and continued on,

still full of the light that carried

them across. Then I took a turn

crossing over – into

life on the other side.

My first language was Thai, simply the result of absorbing what I heard at home as the first child of Thai immigrants in Omaha, Nebraska. The world I lived in then as a toddler was small and safe and full of language. But then school became necessary and the teacher let my parents know that I really did not speak English. So the world grew larger, but a little less secure. Although I have lost my first language, I have not forgotten it. Still, listening to my family talk, I understand. I have held on and kept at least an ear and maybe more of myself in both worlds.

We squeezed around the table –

aunties, uncles, cousins, all –

perched on edges of chairs,

stools, some sharing, together

in the dining room above Aunty’s

shop and the busy market.

Food purchased from the market –

sticky rice, grilled pork, steamed

greens, sweet mangoes –

filled our plates. The talk blurred

by, Thai and English and laughter.

Words ran through my fingers

as I ate, but then, all at once,

something caught. Meaning

clung on, a word, and then another,

and whole phrases, and even

the back and forth. Language

washed over me and I remembered.

I remembered that I knew this

world, that I knew both. One

held me so firmly that I

thought and dreamt its

language. But the other

refused to let go, pulling

me under the currents of

language and smell and tastes –

salty sweet salty sweet –

so that I could not easily come

out. I was amphibious, able to

live in both air and water,

and needing both.

With so many ways of acquiring luck — through charms, rituals, even cash — you would think all would be right with the world. But luck, as we truly know, has nothing to do with any of this. Some part living well, some part practicing integrity, a large part pure chance, good fortune has no formula. It comes down to how we measure it. I count it as luck that I had this lively, colorful moment with my family. And what good fortune to remember Setting Birds Free with my cousin years before, and to see that this is where it got me.


We must have looked like we needed it,

the way the hill tribe woman came

at us, determined, her fingers hooked

around small woven cages, each with

a desperately chattering bird inside.

She lifted her arm and waved the cages

in the air, jangling from the many

silver beads sewn onto her

colorfully embroidered clothes.

Aunty bought one – for fun, she said –

letting the birds go would bring us

good luck.


So that was it: a long ago

sun-filled room, burned into memory,

releasing bird after bird out the window.

Dust and sun and cheeping birds.

And luck, too, I learn now, so many years later.


One was fun, but we needed more,

and I knew the woman was telling us so.

Aunty bought another, and another.

Soon we had released every one

of the birds back into the world.

The old woman grinned a toothless smile:

so much luck now, how lucky you are.

In my everyday life, I am so used to not looking like most people, that it is startling at first when I am with people who do look like me. But arriving in Thailand is such a shock of welcome and familiarity, that it quickly becomes comfortable, easy. The faces greeting us at the airport really do look like mine. The words I hear rush to find me, name me, claim me as one of theirs. “Fon” is my Thai name, meaning rain — for my rainy birthday. It meets me when I return.

We walked off the plane

into a tangle of arms,

brown, stretched towards us,

a rush of sound, the

voices naming us,

again and again,

until I became the girl

I was 25 years before.

“Fon,” they said.

The name traveled through

body and memory,

waking long sleeping cells,

so that I knew it as mine.

When my parents invited me and my family to join them on what they claimed would be their last trip home to Thailand, I knew they were telling me more than they said. They were not so much old as sick — and feeling vulnerable to time. Despite the stress of uncertainty and the sadness of imminent loss, that awareness of time, place, and all experiences was a gift. My senses were on high alert, paying attention to taste, sound, smell, and the many voices that I knew not to take for granted. 

The last trip home

would travel along

the edge of change.

The change comes,

as it always does:

a slow folding in,

then increasing urgency

as the end draws near.

But before that,

would be the last trip home:

the chance to touch gold,

taste salty water,

feel warm breath

on tea-colored skin,

sing the song of language,

touch the ground

of home again.

So much of what I know of my family in Thailand has been told to me in stories. Every so often, a story is more alive with sounds and smells that I can imagine. In this story of my grandfather heading home at the end of his workday, it is the smell of jasmine rice (a scent I know well) and the plunk of a watermelon (imagine a heavy stone landing in water). And we all know the sight and taste of a perfectly sweet watermelon. These small sensory windows into a long ago time and a home I hardly know, connect me in the best possible way to my grandfather. Even now, 35 years after his death, we can share an experience across generations and place.


It was the end of an ordinary day,

the close announced with metal clacking

of the gate along its tracks, the click

of a key, pedaling away from the dark

shop.  First, a stop at the market to pick

up a watermelon for his family at home.

It was easy for him.  Long ago, he had

worked at a watermelon farm and

knew the color and heft of one that

was just right.  He pedaled home,

the melon in the basket in front,

moving through the traffic and

crowds of people also going home.

He spun into the next part

of the day, maybe thinking about

the work day behind, the home

life in front, or the places off to

the side that pulled at him, too –

his temple, the hill tribe people

he had come to know, the poor

to whom he offered food on

Tuesdays.  On those days, he

was sure to offer sweets, which

gave such pleasure, and he knew

fed the place in our spirits

that needed beauty.  He was

close to home now.  First, the dogs

knew, waking from naps, stretching,

ready to play.  The noises the

children made grew louder,

some laughter, and some arguing,

too.  Even the jasmine rice on

the stove knew it was time to be

ready, releasing its fragrance

into the air.  And how do I

know, so many years later,

imagining this ordinary day?

I hear the plunk of the

watermelon he dropped into

the cool depth of the well in

back.  His youngest boy would

fish it out with a bucket after dinner.

It would be cut wide open on the table.

It would not be disappointing.

It would be red, glowing,

its juices spilling out, its

black seeds punctuating the

flesh in a steady line.

“Plunk!” went the melon.

The noise from the house

stopped for a moment.  His

family knew, with that familiar

sound, that their father was home.

On this coldest of winter days, I am remembering a phone call that interrupted our summer. I was nine years old and my grandfather had died. It was hard to know how to feel. He was so far away and we hardly knew him. My brother, sister, and I thought we should feel sad. But mostly we acted sad because we did not know what else to do. We had not lost anyone before. Now, in losing someone, we were learning what it was like to have him.

The phone call landed on a summer day,

our summer day of bragging about camp,

of dares and exaggerations.

It came from Thailand and

our grandfather had died.

The news fell on the adults heavily,

but for us it sat uneasily,

not knowing how to feel,

and spoiling our day.

We had not known this grandfather.

Now we did.

Before, Thailand was faraway

and fleeting:  ice cream and

cousins I would soon forget.

But, hidden on the steps,

listening to the adults whisper,

I felt the presence of others

of my tribe whispering, too,

beyond the walls of

our Midwestern house.

Loss and gain, both at once.

Who was this grandfather,

whose permanence

in my life had come at death?