I was crap at waiting tables. I was even crap at bussing them. I spilled water on cell phones and purses. I stumbled into my coworkers. Eddie, one of Top’s cousins, shouted at me regularly. Look where you’re going, girl. I could not, for the life of me, memorize the menu, even though I ate fluffy Thai omelettes and gai pad krapow every night. After they locked the doors, the chefs prepared dishes that were not on the menu, slicing up so many chilies that even my in-laws’ faces streamed with sweat and tears that they wiped away between bites. I took a cautious spoonful of this, a spoonful of that, and spread it over a mountain of rice to avoid embarrassing myself in front of them.
During the lull before the dinner rush, I sat with the waitresses at a table beside the kitchen. We folded napkins of crimson linen, reshaping them into pyramids or petaled flowers. We collected our finished products on a side table, and mine were easy to pick out. The petals stumpy. The pyramids crooked.
When I joined the staff at the Thai restaurant, most of my coworkers believed white Americans were incompetent.
Regrettably, I was unable to dispel this stereotype.
* * *
Top’s uncle had given him a large corner room with bay windows overlooking the street below. Another uncle had given him a silver convertible. On the wall in his room, he had pinned a calendar where he recorded how much he made each day in tips and wages. He had wanted to leave Thailand, to prove that he could make it in a foreign country, and to return home triumphant one day like his uncles who now owned beautiful homes in different regions of Thailand. So he had given up a job in Bangkok at his family’s travel agency and instead had come to America to prove himself—by working in another family business. The irony never struck him.
Top shared the second floor with five other rooms and half a dozen closets, which his uncles had packed to the ceiling with everything from chafing dishes to a Bowflex machine. He also shared the honeycomb of rooms with myself and three other women. Each of us lived in rooms of a similar size, repurposed storage rooms with a mattress, a television or computer, and windows looking out over alleys or straight into the windows of neighboring buildings.
All three of the women were Thai: PiNoi, PiBun, and PiDtui. PiBun and PiDtui were both in their late-twenties. They worked with me downstairs at the restaurant, and they both had boyfriends. These boyfriends were white, middle-aged Americans whom, they hoped, would one day do what I had done for Top: grant them green cards.
PiDtui was petite and dark-skinned with a broad face and an even broader smile. She was the only one of my neighbors who cracked jokes and made small talk. Her face was pitted with acne scars. She was vivacious, with a sultry smoker’s voice and a ready laugh. “PiDtui,” she liked to joke in English. “It sounds like everyone spits at me. PiDtui. PiDtui.”
PiBun was demure and tall, with long hair past her waist and a closet full of pastel greens and pinks. She avoided interacting much with any of us, in part because she had a violent temper. It flared without warning, and sometimes I glimpsed her rushing barefoot and towel-wrapped from the bathroom to her room, eyes lowered and long wet hair streaming behind her as if she were racing through an obstacle course. Sometimes she did not succeed and bumped into PiNoi or PiDtui anyway, and then voices collided, mounting to a crescendo of screams and slammed doors. I was exempt only because my Thai was too awful to support an argument.
PiNoi was in her early fifties and did not give a damn if her temper flared. She didn’t avoid people so much as they avoided her. She had lived in the United States for over twenty years but, as an act of political protest, had never learned English. Thailand had never been colonized by a Western power, and PiNoi wasn’t going to be, either. Her black hair was cropped short, her skin pale, but her age had started to show in a few wrinkles around the eyes. She had no children and had never married.
Decades earlier, she had followed Top’s oldest uncle to the States and helped him launch his restaurant. She had never left, yet she often glared out from the kitchen as if she were surveying enemy territory. At first, I was so frustrated that I fumed at Top. Why does she stay if she hates it so much here? But as I’ve grown older, I’ve met many people like PiNoi. People who will never be happy anywhere and who, eventually, settle in and stay. It doesn’t matter where. She went around with a perpetual scowl, took no days off, cooked spectacular food, and spent her nights watching Thai soaps with the volume turned high.
None of us talked about why we were there. I knew about the poverty in Thailand, of course. In two more years, I would see it for myself. I knew that King Rama V had formally ended slavery only in 1905, and the subsequent failures to integrate freed slaves into the economy—much as in the United States—resulted in a large underclass, many of whom are servants and laborers. Many of the working poor are dark-skinned in comparison to milky-skinned Chinese-Thais. On a car ride through tulip fields once, my oldest sister-in-law said, “Here,” and rolled up her sleeve to hold her forearm next to mine. She laughed with delight when she saw she was as pale as I am. Light skin, in Thailand, is considered necessary for beauty. The models on Bangkok billboards all luk-kreung. Half-blood: half-Thai, half-Western.
I knew, too, about the rural-urban divide in Thailand. The Muslim-Buddhist conflicts. The modern-day slavery in the fishing fleets, and the human trafficking in the sex industry. And then, for decades, there have been the waves of refugees from the violence across Southeast Asia. There were too many things these women could have fled from.
Some of the women, I learned much later, had simply left because they were tired of being told what to do. “I know women here have trouble, too,” my friend Mimi, a grad school student who worked at the restaurant years later, told me once. “But in Thailand, it’s so much harder if you want to just do what you want to do. Dress how you want to dress. Get the job you want. Go to school when you want. Cut your hair how you want. Date who you want.”
I would never learn their stories, just as they would never know mine. Each of us knew enough to know you didn’t ask about these things. A courteous neighbor doesn’t force people to show their scars.
* * *
On nights when the restaurant staff didn’t eat together, the five of us ate dinner in a common room upstairs, an odd sort of family, our conversations mostly dependent on PiDtui’s generosity. We had cobbled together a dining table from two old restaurant tables that were warped with water damage. I learned to call all the women “Pi” because they were older than I was. I learned to eat my dinner with a spoon in my right hand and a fork in my left, pushing the rice and chicken and curry into the spoon. I learned that when I dished up, I must leave the serving spoon with its handle pointing in the direction of the next person whose turn it was to eat.
One day, PiDtui knocked at my door. She held up a persimmon she had brought me and smiled. I thanked her in Thai, careful to use the polite particle “ka,” and invited her inside. When she saw the Mikasa candle holders my mother had given me over the years and my books on Chinese brush painting, she gasped. “I think,” she said in English, “in a previous life you were Asian.”
I laughed. “They’re just candles,” I said. “Who doesn’t like candles?”
* * *
I don’t know the ends of their stories. I only know how they left their second-floor rooms.
PiBun and PiDtui both got their wish. Their American boyfriends married them. They got their green cards, and they moved out of the restaurant, quitting their jobs. Even PiNoi eventually found a one-bedroom and moved out, grumbling about the constant noise and interruptions upstairs, staff forever opening the closets outside her door with a crash of chafing dishes, Eddie hosting late-night karaoke parties after closing.
I felt an unaccountable sadness each time I passed their empty rooms. They had left their doors flung wide, the mattresses stripped, the lights off. Surely, something was wrong with me. These women had faced xenophobia, racism, and poverty. And each one of them had moved on. Each of their lives had a momentum that I could only wonder at.
When I wasn’t sloshing water over cell phones and apologizing for dropping silverware, I was alone upstairs in the dusty silences. I tried to keep up my writing. I half-heartedly continued my job search. But mostly, I sketched. I sketched the empty hallways with their crown molding and their charcoal shadows and the immutable sense of sadness they seemed to hold.
My Chinese-Thai neighbors and in-laws had grown up hearing stories about hungry ghosts. These spirits have insatiable appetites. Stomachs that can never be filled. Throats too small to swallow food. Mouths where sustenance turns to flame and sears them. Their hunger can never be satisfied, and so they wander, unseen and lonesome in the night.
No one suspected that they were housing one on the second floor. Each night, they lit incense and made offerings of water and satsumas, bowing to the Buddha and their ancestors. But none of it kept me at bay.
I was lost, but I didn’t know where else to go. I didn’t yet know that time does not heal all wounds. Time, in and of itself, doesn’t do a damn thing except pass. And I didn’t yet know that I was searching for a safety I would never find, and that my task would be to live with that. I should have known better by now. But for everything I had learned, I was still the same traumatized white girl, waiting for the world to conform to my own ideas. To do what I wanted it to do, before I attempted anything at all.