Friday, September 24, 2010
“Get up, we plan to be gone by six. You need to be ready when everyone gets here.”
It is five a.m. in Thailand and I wake to my little Thai grandmother pestering me to be productive and start moving. Thankfully this is accompanied by the sweet smell of coffee. Dragging my feet, I gradually pull my covers to the right of my “zombielike” body and take a moment to catch up with everything happening.
A cousin of mine passed away from AIDS and we are venturing as a family to the funeral. (Fifteen of us crammed like sardines in two medium-sized trucks.)
My grandmother received the news the night before. So everything seems to be rushed and not too thought-out. I am not a morning person here, normally I have no problem in America getting up, but I am inwardly irritable as I peacefully refuse to speak. I leisurely sip on my warm coffee, allowing the warmth to run through my hands. I was enjoying every second of its blissful taste. All I could think about was not looking forward to a three-hour drive in the confinement of a truck.
“Thai time” have you ever heard of it? I always thought my dad was joking when he would go over a minute during our cardio because of “Thai time.” Thai people are never on time for anything.
Heading out an hour late made my grandmother very anxious. She seems to be absent-minded (not the grandmother I was familiar with), but circumstances allowed this to go over my head.
In Thailand, they pile the cars to the max and you might be able to move an inch if you are lucky. I was thinking I could sit less restricted in the bed of the truck and soundly sleep the whole way, but the forecast called for rain and I don’t like the idea of soaking.
Being in a car full of Thai people, it’s never a quiet moment… and never a moment where I understand what they are saying. I grab for my iPod and untangle my headphones to drown out the noise – allowing my mind to escape the chaos.
When we arrive to the funeral we park our vehicles on a dirt road that was leading up to the house. Blocking one side of the road, I can see a tent but I cannot see what it is for. There’s a crowd of Thai people just laughing and carrying on around that small black tent. Despite the circumstances that brought us together, everyone seems to be happy.
We all begin to walk down the road and are greeted by family. They are eager to see us and are so welcoming. I have never seen these faces before. When we made it to the tent everyone had their eyes on the “falang” (the foreigner). Everywhere I step, their glaring eyes are not shy to follow.
We take a left to my cousin’s house. (When someone passes away, they have their “viewing” at their home.)
Walking up to the house there are about – give or take – thirty people scattered around the residence. Some are cooking, meticulously preparing food on the ground, socializing, stumbling around drunk, chewing homemade tobacco that turned their whole mouth red, snacking on leaves, and walking in and out of the house. Awkwardly, I approach the crowd with my grandma as they flood her with questions. They want to know who I am and what I am doing in Thailand.
(Let me pause for a second to explain how I’m treated, so that I won’t have to go into detail each time this happened to me. I am obviously different from the Thai people. I stand about eight to ten inches above everyone. So, if you saw a giant, you would stare as well. Not only am I a giant, but I am also considered “white” to them– everyone is about three plus shades darker due to them bleaching their skin. My hair is light brown, I don’t speak Thai, and did I mention… I’m many inches taller than them. I am a mystery to people, they can’t figure me out unless I open my mouth and butcher their language with my failed attempts to converse. Being “different” means getting more attention than anyone deserves or that I can properly and respectfully handle. They treat me like a new species, which to most people here, I am. People go out of their way to acknowledge me; they stare constantly, talk about me as I walk past them and make sure to pull my grandma to the side in attempts to get the scoop. Women are really big on coming up to me and touching on me, they grab my hands (some ask, some just go for it), touch my cheeks, look at how long my fingers are, grab my sides, some even go as far as touching my butt and they are big on feeling my small arms. I feel like an animal in a petting zoo.)
My grandma’s sister walks up to me and says my name to thank and acknowledge me for being here. When we make eye contact for the first time… my heart breaks. I don’t know what to do except have a little “you’re welcome, and I’m sorry” nod/grin on my face. She is the cutest older lady that you will see here. To see her defeated and in tears just knocks you short a happy feeling… or ten.
I walk a little further to let my grandma console her. Before I can look back, all I hear are gasps for air and loud sobs as my grandma’s arms embrace her. They had both now lost a son and that was now an uncontrolled bond they were forced to have.
I’m not good with funerals. I never know what to say, I never know what to do. I was barely put-together at my own father’s funeral and I was at a loss of words there as well. I have an understanding- from the experience of my loss – that I do not need to say anything, but the gentle heart in me always feels like I should. I am not accustomed to the way they do things. I don’t know anyone and I can’t even express my sympathies–I am literally at a loss for words.
Making it past the curious and the greetings, we walk into the house to “pay our respects.” I have no idea of what to expect when I walk in. I’m actively trying to get out of it to be honest. Upon entering, I am gently directed to the wall on the side with my grandpa. We are not really expected to perform as everyone else does, thankfully. Everyone who walks in routinely takes their shoes off at the door and kneels in-front of this “casket.”
The complete display of the casket is about five feet tall. The casket has a slight shimmer to it as to imitate gold. It is in the shape of a rectangular box and is broken into three sections: the base, the casket, and the lid that formed like a step pyramid. Everything is flashy and they even have lights (colored Christmas lights) hanging around it. Placed in the front is a picture of him: an abundance of incense actively burning in a pot of sand from visitors, yellow candles, a plate where you can leave money, and a package of unused incense. After kneeling, they put their hands in a “wai” position, grab an incense and light it with a burning candle. They hold the incense as their hands go back into position and then begin to say a couple of things. When they are done, they stick the incense in the bowl full of sand and other burning incense. They then get up and make their way back outside to socializing with family/friends.
After intently watching my grandma pay her respects, we leave and go to sit outside. I immediately sit on the ground, as everyone else was, and get in “trouble” because they expect me to sit in a chair. I don’t get in trouble because I am doing something wrong, I get in trouble because they want me to be comfortable. Here I don’t do a thing. They cater to “white people” and treat them with so much respect. They constantly worry if you are hungry, if you are comfortable and if they can get you anything. I refuse to sit in a chair because I want to be level with everyone else. I’ve become accustomed to sitting on the ground and actually prefer it. I am no better than any other soul.
While sitting, we start wrapping coins in this gold foil. Over a hundred coins are given for us to wrap and toss into this bowl full of candy. I am only doing as I am told, even though I don’t understand what it is for. This continues for about an hour until we eat food brought into our area. Food that I know was probably going to make me sick later, but it tastes so good that I can never resist.
After eating I see my cousin Tha (she’s in her late thirties and never leaves me out of her site, she’s my mom here) and three others get up and start walking towards the black tent we viewed when we first arrived. She looks at me and waves for me to follow her. I get up and walk with them. The tent in the front is evidently full of people gambling– my cousin is big on playing some cards. We look over, but keep walking, going back to the truck. While making our way there, a drunken dirty Thai man follows us. My cousin takes a step back and looks away. I have no idea what he wants, but my family seems aggravated that he will not find himself proceeding onto another path.
He looks at me and says some things in Thai, and then my cousin laughs and tells me “he think you sexy.” Embarrassed, I look around and direct him towards another cousin who is not shy about telling him “bye.” Tha made it a point to ask me, “You have in America?” I laugh and respond, “Yes, we have them everywhere.”
While waiting for the “ceremony” Tha decides to show off my lack of Thai speaking skills. She likes to spend time teaching me words or making fun of my Thai boyfriend and me. It’s awesome here because they are so encouraging and patient with you. They praise you for even getting a small word down and using it. She starts saying some words in English and I repeat them in Thai in front of everyone, showing of her little project. I am smiling the entire time because she was so proud, but deep down I feel like a little kid learning “mom” and “dad” for the first time. My family seems to be impressed because the ones who don’t spend as much time with me think I just know “geen cow” (eat rice), “bah” (no), “sa wat dee ka” (hello) and “sep sep” (good, tasty). My Thai is not amazing because my grandma fails to be patient (she stayed in America too long), but it’s decent for small talk. Thank goodness for Tha.
After about an hour of waiting by the truck, we go back to the house because the monks look to have arrived to do their normal “service.” When they are done I see them starting to walk towards the temple, and all the sudden I hear these loud pops and I nearly jump out of my skin; I was not expecting that. I look at my grandma with a confused expression and ask what that noise was. She tells me they set off fireworks to let everyone know, it’s a celebration of his life. As fireworks continue to pop loudly and randomly, men start carrying the casket outside and load it on the back of a truck. They also take a bag of his clothes, his pillow, bedding and his mats along with them.
We all head out and piled on the bed of the trucks to follow. I sit on the end with my feet hanging off the edge, which touch the ground when we hit bumps. I am surrounded by Thai people that I don’t know and I know they were talking about me. I hear them say “falang,” so I look at everyone behind me, only to see them staring and smiling at me. I surface with a chuckle and a big smile. I look back again slowly and I smile even bigger as they continue to whisper and gaze, then all the sudden this women starts speaking English to me.
“Yeah, we all talk about you, you must know. They don’t know. They can’t figure out if you Thai or falang. You pretty like Thai though.”
Again, I start laughing and take a breath so that I could bring their curiosity to an end.
“I’m half,” I say.
Right as I fed their curiosity, I get a phone call and it gets quiet. They all listen to me speak. I talk with an awkward tone because I know they can’t understand me, but it was still a conversation I would prefer to be private.
We arrive at the area where they will burn the body. We all gather with the monks under this pavilion made of decaying wood and roaming insects on a mission. Women sit on the left, men on the right. The ritual begins and the monks start chanting, then the people follow their lead. I can’t tell you what they are saying or what was taking place, but I just followed along in respect. The chanting lasted about fifteen or so minutes and then the immediate family (which was us) got up and took a quick picture before the process began.
The casket is now open so the body is revealed. At quick glance, I see him lifeless, but peaceful. They put the body in ice until they burn it. They open the casket and whoever wants, approaches and pours water on the body from head to toe- I go ahead and do it because my family hands me a cup. When everyone is done, they move the body to where it was being burned and then drain the water. The father pours gasoline on the body and they light the fire. We all grab sticks that had paper with Thai writing on them and toss it into the fire one-by-one. Again, fireworks! And then, the bowl of candy and wrapped coins we worked on early, are thrown in the air and scattered like a broken piñata. Everyone is laughing, running around and some are still grieving of course. It was a celebration. I actually enjoy seeing how things are done. I like that family and friends spend all day together, not just a quick hour.
After a couple of more hours of visiting and eating, my grandma asks me if I want to see my dad’s oldest brother, my uncle. There is little – if no – enthusiasm attached to her words, so I ask her if she wants to.
She replies with, “No, not really.”
In my head I question why she wouldn’t want to see her son. Why wouldn’t she want to see him when it has possibly been years since she saw him last? Was he a bad man? Was he rude or mean? I ponder scenarios and tried to remember if I had heard anything about this man.
”Do you want to go see him, Kayla?” she yells at me.
I sit for another moment, I don’t want to make her uncomfortable, but I don’t want to miss out on a chance of meeting the only person in the family I have not met. After all, this whole trip was about exploring my heritage and trying to feel connected to my father after his passing.
“Uh..yeah…sure,” was my response.
Disrupting the silence, my cousin tells me that my uncle looks just like my dad, that they shared every feature. I give her a little subtle smirk back because I want to see for myself before believing anyone. I don’t want to think it just because they put it in my head. They have never met my dad, so their opinion wasn’t really strong to me. (Even though my grandma assures me they looked alike.)
We end up on another dirt road lined with your Thailand’s vibrant tropical plants and trees, just like all the other random dirt roads that never seem to have an ending point. I finally feel the truck slowly start to slow down to a stop. As we pile out of the truck, my family points to this shack (in my eyes, that is what I would call it) and tells me it is where my uncle lives. I’m not sure what I expected, but for some reason I am slightly shocked. He lives in this house that could be a tool shed for the people in America. It is built from the typical grey cinder blocks and the roof is finished with wood. From my view, there appears to be no windows, which always reminds me of a prison. It looks empty and as if no one even lives there. I try to imagine surviving the treacherous heat and humidity in his living space, I begin feel sympathetic for a family member I have yet to meet. The family I was with seems to have left him without support.
A couple of my cousin’s walk up to the house and call my uncles name, but there was no response. They walk up to the door and two boys, his sons, walk out with confused looks on their faces. I am thinking we just missed out on the chance to see him.
The kids get on their bikes and leave, but no one else moves, so I ask what is going on. From what I could put together, my uncle is at work down the street so they are heading to go retrieve him.
As we patiently wait, grandma receives a phone call and I wander off towards these cute Thai kids that are playing on a bike.
“Mun knee, mun knee,” (come here) I whisper. They just stare at me with a blank look on their face. All the sudden I hear my family laughing — I’m always trying to kidnap a Thai baby to take home with me. As I am still failing to persuade these adorable kids to come play with me, Tha points towards a guy on a motorcycle coming my way. It is my uncle.
He arrives, but he is too far away for me see him with great detail. He gets off his bike and his head turns towards my grandma. Eagerly, he heads straight to her. Knees fall straight on the dirt path, bows to her (as a sign of respect), and as he comes to his feet, all you could see was a smile on his face.
As I am watching this, I am confused. Not because of what he does, but because of how she was acting. She is still on the phone, but as soon as he walks up she turns away from him, as if she cares not to acknowledge his presence. At that moment, Tha turns towards me and says that grandma is crying. I am too far to even see that much, but it all hits me. He is not a bad guy at all, that’s not why she doesn’t care to see him or look him in the eyes. She doesn’t want to see him because he looked so much like dad to her. It hurts her to her core to see a ghost of him.
My emotions are stirred for the both of them; for her because she is crying and in tears, for him because his own mother cannot look at him because he favors his brother– he can’t help that.
I feel like the meet-and-greet was over before it began. They introduce us, we take a picture and it seems to be it. I don’t even get a fair chance to see him or judge this “likeness” for myself that everyone sees.
We all get in the truck and head back down the road we started on. Our next stop is at his job; he works at this shop fixing motorized bikes. There are people sitting outside all covered in grease and sweat, they seem to be his co-workers. The shop has a couple of disassembled bikes they were working on in the garage of it. Nothing fancy or well equipped from my limited shop knowledge.
We spend a little more time here, but maybe five minutes more. Grandma has this uncomfortable body language radiating to the rest of us, she really does not want to be here– she looks trapped.
The family picks on him for being so dirty and we took more pictures. In my mind I feel sorry for him, everyone else is dressed well and seems to be succeeding in rank.
During all the laughter my world halted and my stomach twisted into a thousand knots. There it is.
(When my dad passed away, my life shifted and my unstable balanced caused me to crash to the ground. I searched for whatever connection to him that I could find. I became desperate. When my dad was alive, it was our dream to travel to Thailand together. We talked about it all the time but couldn’t go about financially supporting that dream. With my quick/sporadic and random choices, I moved out of apartment and in with my uncle so that I could save. I wanted to be able to go and see where he was born, see the people that took care of him when he was younger, hear stories that he didn’t even remember and meet a family that had never been real to me– maybe it would help with me grieving because I never got better. I wanted to run away. It was important to me, a dream that I wanted to make real for the both of us, in his name. For so long I’ve wanted a piece of him back, even for a second.)
There it is. The smile. Dads smile on this man. Everything about this smile, it was my fathers. The familiar grin that only highlighted his distinguished cheekbones and made his eyes slightly disappear. I am instantly taken back; it was like a wave had hit me washed me away with all its power while I gasp for air. I start fighting to hold back the tears. The last thing I want to do is cry in front of my family. I don’t want that kind of attention at the moment, so I struggle hard until we leave.
Shortly after taking pictures, grandma becomes noticeably impatient and cuts everyone’s laughter short. We get in the truck and I slowly dig deep into my pockets to grab in my headphones that were now my lifesaver. I turn my head towards the window – as if I am admiring the foreign land- and stop fighting the tears.
There was that second that I was desperately and hopelessly searching for, the second I want back. I want to scream, “Turn back!” and spend more time with this stranger, but that won’t help, I know that. I am damaged and my mind begins to flood with scattered thoughts of my dad. I just want to hold him, to have that daughter/father bond alive again. You get one second of something familiar, and when it’s stripped, like an addict, you just want more. When there is no way to attain what you seek at your shaking fingertips, when you know you will never have a moment with someone again, it strikes you on the deepest level of pain you’ve ever suffered through. My breathing becomes irregular and I have to catch myself because I don’t want to make a scene– I didn’t want to be noticed. Happy thoughts.
Breaking the silence, my grandma asks me what I thought and I reply with a short, “Yeah, they look alike.”
Two days prior, we arranged plans to attend a traditional Thai ceremony at the Thai Temple. In remembrance of my father, we were going to pay respects to those who have passed away. She would rise every morning before the sun could shine through my windows, but this particular morning she was outside peacefully picking food from her miniature garden to place with the Buddha statue. Out of nowhere, was overwhelmed with a sense of my dad standing next to her. She became weak, collapsed on the tilled soil and cried for anyone to pick her up.
I was sound asleep so I didn’t hear the fuss. I had a tough time making it to bed the previous night, so I found myself restlessly tossing throughout night. My usual sleep routine with my worn headphones did not weigh my eyes down. Truth is, I could not sleep because my dad was on my mind too strongly to allow it. I was getting anxious because I “felt” like he was there. I held my tongue on the subject as she tells her story– I am a skeptic of such happenings.
On the way home I am checked out of the conversations and the reality that I am gliding through.
We stop at a local flea market and I just wander around. Tha securely grabs my tiny arm, which I am taking it as her merely being affection, so I throw together a fake smile. I am walking around, but my mind is not processing what is in front of me. My eyes are directed towards what is in this tub. She strategically guided me to these slimy, tangled and aggressive snakes. I am now aware and present, present enough to immediately march my feet out of their sight.
My family loves poking at me for a reaction. Much like giving a kid a lemon just to see the face they make. (They chase me with crickets, fish, snakes and anything that will cause me to scream and squirm.) They saw the sadness in my body language. They didn’t have to speak the same words as me to know I was hurting, they just knew. They knew and wanted to give me a reason to smile.
Family is more than ink on paper or a shared last name, it is a bond you have with people that come into your life. It is that connection you will feel for the rest of your life, something you feel wither they are in your life or not—by choice or circumstance. They can read your energy and sculpt it to a new form. There is a comfort with them. These people I had not known my whole life were not my family by title, but because of what they added to my soul.
“The great gift of family life is to be intimately acquainted with people you might never even introduce yourself to, had life not done it for you.”