Top had booked his first visit home in three years, and I went with him. I had learned so much living above the Thai restaurant. And yet I had learned nothing at all.
Thailand, I thought.
More than 9,000 miles away.
I expected freedom. I expected healing. For my relationship with Top. For myself.
One week after I moved out of my parents’ house, I was on a flight to Bangkok. Looking for redemption.
* * *
But, of course, that is not what Thailand is for. Thailand exists for itself, as itself. It always has. Placed squarely on trade routes, Thailand adopted curry and Buddhism from India, tofu and soy sauce from China, and Mexican chilies (but not Christianity) from Portuguese sailors. The culture assimilated each of these, recasting them in ways that are uniquely Thai. Never colonized by Western powers, Thailand has long been a cultural, political, and economic force in Southeast Asia. In Thai, the nation is called prathet thai, which literally translates as “Land of the Free.”
* * *
I was 23-years-old, a newly minted college graduate who would draw parallels between ancient Greek hero worship and the eight immortals of Chinese mythology during a visit to Viharnra Sien. On a ferry ride across the Chao Phraya River, I would look at the Buddhist monks seated across from me and think of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the Buddhist teachings of detachment from desire sharing his premise that the human goal “to become happy and remain so” is sheer idiocy because “there is no possibility at all of its being carried through; all the regulations of the universe run counter to it.” Just months earlier, I had sold my finally-published chapbook and placed copies in bookstores.
Yet when I stepped off the plane and onto the hot tarmac, inhaling the smoky, fruit-rotten air of Bangkok, I stepped into a country where none of that mattered.
I knew nothing. Not even how to properly use a toilet.
* * *
I spent my first week in bed with the curtains closed and the lights off. My skin was clammy. I felt faint. I vomited on the hour, almost every hour. Heat exhaustion, migraines, and menstrual cramps had finished me off before I even got started.
The family maeban took care of me at home. Maeban literally means “house mother” and is a servant who cleans, cooks, and runs errands. The position is invariably held by a woman. Top’s family maeban was PiSee, and neither of us had the slightest idea what to do with the other.
PiSee was short and middle-aged. Her hair and clothes were always askew, as if she felt there wasn’t time for such things. Industrious and impatient, she freely dispensed advice and opinions, and if someone asked her for an ironed shirt or a plate of fried rice, she sighed at their foolishness, then did whatever she thought best. She had a particular attachment to my brother-in-law Bop, a stylish man-about-town who was considered a hunk in Thailand with his narrow feminine jaw, high cheekbones, and fine nose. PiSee followed him around the house, and if he paid too much attention to anyone else, she shouted his name, the house reverberating with Bop, Bop, Bop! until he came to her with a wry grin. What, PiSee?
PiSee exercised her role with uncomfortable intensity. She could veer into aggression without warning. One day, Bop and I were talking, and she tried to slam a door in my face. She wandered in and out of bedrooms without warning. One morning I woke to find her standing at the foot of my bed, the lights still off. She watched me for a moment until I sat up and asked if anything was wrong. “No,” she said in Thai and shrugged, frowning, as if she were bored and this was my fault. “Nothing.” I worried she might suffer from untreated mental illness. I asked the family if they felt safe. They laughed. She’s harmless. But two years after my visit, she pulled a knife on Bop and was promptly fired.
My first day, she came into the room without knocking and went about dusting the dresser and sorting through the closet while I lay sweating in bed. In Thai, I asked her to please let me sleep. By the second day, my father-in-law had explained to her that I was ill and needed to rest.
Her answer to this was bowl upon bowl of steaming congee, a boiled rice soup, brought directly to my room.
“Would you like some more congee at four?” She asked at my door.
“No, thank you,” I said in Thai. “I’m not at all hungry.”
So a bowl of congee arrived at two.
The stream of congee was so unremitting that I resorted to dumping it down the toilet. I stared at the lump of boiled rice in the toilet bowl and felt such shame. On the drive to the townhouse, I had seen wild, mangy dogs roaming the streets with their ribs showing. Families camped under bridges, washing their laundry in a muddy klong floating with garbage. A street child rushed my in-laws’ BMW and knocked at my window, hawking carnations and orchids. Our brown eyes locked as my sister-in-law’s fiancé said, “Ignore her. It’s not as bad as it looks.”
Although this kind of poverty now exists even in wealthy American cities like Seattle and San Francisco, it didn’t in 2004. I was shocked. I felt guilty. Someone else could have used this food.
I pressed the lever and watched the congee swirl. I worried that I had flushed it into the klong or through pipes that might churn sewage and wasted food into the brown sea.
And then I gripped the toilet and vomited.
* * *
The Bangkok hospital to which Top drove me was a model of efficiency. Without an appointment, I was seen by a doctor in under 15 minutes. All the patients were. The doctor listened to my symptoms with a kind and knowing smile, then pushed hydration tablets and a prescription sheet across his desk. “Take these three times a day as well as these antibiotics,” he said in English. “You have nothing to worry about. This is quite typical. You just need more electrolytes in your system, and you’ll be just fine in a day or two.” On the way out, I handed over a few baht for the appointment and the medications, and that was it. No further bills. No insurance hassle.
I had lived without insurance for my entire adulthood. In the United States, I had resorted to emergency room care because I didn’t know what else to do, and I ended up with a bill I couldn’t pay and that finally fell to a charity program. It had been draining and defeating, so after that, I simply stayed away from doctors.
I could hardly reconcile this Thailand with the swampy, starving Thailand of the slums we had sped through. This was a country that managed certain public services far better than America. Its bowling alleys flashed with laser shows. Buddhist and Muslim families strolled through air-conditioned malls, buying Legos and DVDs before spending an afternoon at the cinema. At café tables outside bakeries run by Parisian pastry chefs, Thai women sunned themselves in elegant halter dresses and sunglasses à la Audrey Hepburn while savoring gelato. In restaurants overlooking the Chao Phraya River, heavyset middle-aged men in tailored suits filled silk-upholstered dining chairs and debated bills coming up for votes in the National Assembly (my sister-in-law’s fiancé took us to just such a restaurant and pointed out the politicians, summarizing their platforms). Thailand is not a developing country. It is a developed country for the wealthy, and an undeveloped country for the poor. As Bop explained to me, “There is no middle class here. You are rich, or you are poor.”
* * *
As soon as I was well enough, my father-in-law flew Top and me to Sukhothai. He wished to thank the temple to which he had prayed for his son’s safe return. He brought offerings, walked three times around the bustling temple to honor the three treasures of Buddha, dharma, and sangha, then hired a dance troupe to perform in honor of the Buddha. “So old-fashioned,” Top complained under his breath. Afterwards, we visited the ruins several miles outside the city.
The ancient city of Sukhothai was the capital of Siam 800 years ago. The ruins have since been restored and are now a vast park with manicured shrubs and entrance fees. Top’s father hired a local guide who gave us a Thai-English tour of the entire UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Anyone who has visited Sukhothai remembers Wat Si Chum. The city is filled with temples and Buddha figures, but this temple holds one of the largest. As the tour guide led us down winding alleys and paths, I caught glimpses of the serene stone face overlooking the ruins.
When finally we entered Wat Si Chum, I gazed up at the Buddha. In a mudra, a symbolic placement of the hands, that calls the earth to witness, the Buddha sits in meditation and towers over all who enter. The devout have attached delicate squares of gold leaf to his fingers. His eyes are lowered in quiet contemplation, his face beneficent. He sits with perfect stillness, perfect patience across the rise and fall of kingdoms and the unfolding centuries of Thailand.
My father-in-law purchased joss sticks, then lit them. We pressed the unlit ends between our palms, while embers smoldered just past our fingertips. We raised our wai to our foreheads and bowed deeply. Then we sat in the lowered gaze of the Buddha, this Buddha whose name is Phra Achana, the Buddha who is not afraid.
Since I had left dance, I had not felt the presence of the sacred. The holy.
Yet here it was.
Sitting at the feet of the Buddha, I felt such peace. A safety I had never before known. A safety that was neither escape nor refuge but existence itself. Moment by moment. The breath. The warm stone beneath me. The other lives around me.
For the first time in my entire life, I rested.
My breath caught with the relief of it.
It was a feeling that, in a most un-Buddhist way and without much success, I would chase for the next twelve years. Taking such a long time to learn what I had already discovered in that museum room housing myriad Buddhas.
Nirvana is already here.
What I could have heard that day, if I had been ready to listen to Phra Achana.