The six-year old with whom I now get to share life is contagiously giddy in the heat. The jubilation powers Neung up the gray stone temple’s tippy-steep stairs. He climbs with hands and feet, making sure not to look down. He laughs through his terror and then doubles over to get his breath back at the top. Along with all of us, his hairline drips sweat and he fumbles to keep his Ben-10 flip flops on. It was probably twice as many paces for him.
We look out over Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand. We’re on Wat Phu Khao Thong, the top of which leans over to cock its ancient head at all the modern highways and new construction. And at the downtrodden elephants parading tourists around the town in heavy old thrones.
Neung’s face isn’t big enough for his smile, which flares his nose just a little when he’s particularly content. It’s really all in the gimmicks. I lean over to Stephen, saying, “If my host family buys my one of those hats…” and of course they do and of course I wear it. Neung is delighted with our matching basic white panama hats. They say “Thailañd” on the little band around the front.
The palaces of Ayutthaya are bowed red brick floors and fractions of walls and weathered Buddha statues. Stone cones with round ripples of rings and stairs and landings set into the side are burial sites of old kings, stories tall. There’s a chaos in which statues or buildings stand or were destroyed by the Burmese in 1700s.
Ayutthaya was among the world’s largest cities at one point. I spend some thought on living in one of the most densely populated areas of the world – SE Asia – and on how people live this differently. Am I here because someone asked us to share how we do it back where we have less people? But any observation reeks of matter-of-factuality rather than bolts of insight. People work, have families and get life all the same. We treat one another terribly and help each other lurch along. Being an older brother to Neung spits far more novelty into the day. And, helping out with the 18-month-old in the house, Neung has 18 times more experience.
He’s furrowing his brow, shrinking back. And maybe second-hand embarrassed. At Ayuthaya’s floating market, I walk up to a row of plain fish tanks on the ground in front of some benches. Tiny little dull-gray sucker fish swarm around in the tanks’ water and Neung looks on in horrified confusion and fascination. Two friends and I pay our 99 baht, we sit on the benches and a woman rinses our feet quick enough that we barely exchange resigned glances about the physically manifested power dynamic. I lift my feet and my eyebrows, swivel back around to face Neung and plunge my legs and feet into the fish tank.
They latch on quick, munching my dead skin. The fish are excited about all three-hundred and sixty degrees of foot which I otherwise neglect. The tiny little pecks add up to a whole sensation and it’s alarmingly ticklish, immediately. I’m more bubbly than I’ve probably ever seen Neung. He gives in and is laughing whole stomach and full snort laughs at me, rather than the reverse. Another gimmick.
I’m tickled back to an inkling of what being six might have been, though I have no clear memories attached to the age. In a similar way to most things I look at in Thailand, being six here is matter-of-fact parallel to being six in Seattle.
I lose all ability to speak Thai but do pick up Thai for “tickle” – jakka-tii – and it fits. My feet are regal when we leave the market, Neung sipping our limeade and deciding how ridiculous his temporary older brother is.
I learned last night that Neung is debatably less shy while asleep. Awake, he’s into the one-word answers and stock refusals to read or speak any English though he’s the only one in the family who can. He scarfs up his rice quick every night, usually with extra pepper and fish sauce. He slides and plays around in his chair or on the floor. Gets scolded constantly, asking for a milky-sweet jelly treat or a mandarin, slurping water from the communal silver bowl.
Last night, he’s up and horsing around with the little toddler and I’m focused on the family, still eating. It’s a surprisingly successful night of lobbing questions at the language barrier and seeing if they stick, for both the family and for me.
By 8:30, Neung’s gone silent, head lolling and socked back in a comfy chair nearby. He is profoundly asleep. I whisper but Neung’s dad, Kan, holds up a hand of dismissal. He answers my visible perplexity by getting up, bending down next to Neung and tapping him on the shoulder – “Sleeping?”
Kan smiles, looks at his son and, in his son’s ear, spouts a whole lot of Thai a whole lot quicker. Neung rolls his head, eyes clamped shut, and starts talking back. The conversation swoops up in volume and pace, Neung’s brain clearly still putting out nice steady sleepy brain waves. The whole family gets into it, telling him to go to bed, making fun of him for being too heavy to carry. We soon mount a campaign of attempts, none of which are gentle, to lift the kid into his dad’s arms. Neung remains staunchly unaware, still out. Kan eventually takes the final yardage and makes the carry to bed.