Pa squeezes the boiled taro between his hands to push the black peel off. He rolls the peeled piece back and forth in a bowl of sugar with one finger and pops it into his mouth. I mimic and he nods. Pa is the first I met of the haltingly warm and relaxed family that’s taken me in here in rural central Thailand.
Tonight I’m watching Pa’s hands, sitting back around taro after dinner; last night it was Miang – a snack adopted from the Chinese that embodies the Thai phrase “gin len” – eating for fun. Last night Pa was folding Betel or wild pepper leaves into little boats. He moves his fingers slow and precise, in distinct separate motions, the same way he breaks down a Thai word. We build most of our interactions around these exchanges – names of plants, his crop of flowers that we’ll plant soon, rituals or routine tasks. He’s reasonably sure I get the message and he usually only takes the time if the message is important to him.
He holds the spade-shaped dark green folded leaf together in its cup shape with his thumb and pointer. I play catch up and we each drop in roasted coconut shavings, peanuts, tiny bits of ginger, lemon and red onion. Just a piece or two of each in our leaf boats. A little honey goes in as well and we pop it down the hatch. A sour-sweet crunch. Satisfaction. And I can only aspire to flip the ends of my mouth up into as wide a smile as Pa. Chip-dipping is comparatively primitive.
Maa is steady – she’s in her late sixties and moves slow with intention. With me, she’s quiet out of kindness but willing to shout jokingly at her family while resting on the cool tile floor as the day’s heat settles back. Dark hair, chestnut-shaped face like her daughter.
I live in Pa and Maa’s house, along with their son Ahm, his spouse Koiy and their 18-month old son Ong (I’ve changed names). Three sheet metal garage doors fill the front of the first floor. A balcony on the second floor spreads across the whole width of the house. The whole first floor is baby blue floral tile: a polished wood table that the family pulls up to for some dinners; Ong’s hanging crib with a string attached for easy swinging; two bedrooms and a kitchen with bars for windows looking out at lime trees and chickens pecking through scrap bowls.
The house watches a dusty two-lane country highway that splits expanses of rice and sugar which slide between tones of green with the days. Passing trucks look more like a house-sized bail of sugar cane absorbed a toy car. Engulfed in sticks like the truck had no say in the matter. I imagine riding around Thailand perched on this giant’s bushel, a great vantage point for writing. Make your own jokes about sugar high.
Next door are Pa and Maa’s daughter Wow, her husband Kan and their six-year old son Neung. They’re over most times I’m home.
All evidence suggests that hosting a foreigner was Wow and Ahm’s idea. They’re both in their early thirties and raising kids side-by-side. Neung is happy-go-lucky and six. He’s giddy to have an older brother and doesn’t mind that I have no experience in the role.
Pa walks off to bed and I notice that I never hear his footsteps though I’ve recognized my own dad’s footfalls as far back as my memories go. I fold another leaf cup for the Miang and pinch it. Ahm beams and raises his eyebrows in a laughing-both-with-and-at-me kind of way and I got it right. Thanks for the tutelage, Pa. I sprinkle in the Miang accoutrements. After I walk upstairs, the two siblings relax and laugh at their project, shaking their heads and grinning.
I’ll write more with time, but feel I should say that everyone in the family, whether or not I get a chance to talk about it, is a hoot and a half and great.