As the river of nostalgia returns, my somatic memory of last year’s trip to Thailand spills into every cell in my body, filling them with exhilarating vibrations of freestyle dance. Last Christmas, I sat in lotus position on a bamboo mat, in a circle with my family. A charcoal stove, our center-piece. Our Thai barbecue consisted of fresh-cut meat and hand-picked veggies over rice noodles. I was the only one of my sisters brave enough to get up, and dance and sing with my Thai relatives. Buddhists don’t celebrate Christmas, but family celebrates being together, no matter what the occasion is. My great aunt, Na Puang— her laughter echoed in my heart that night, imprinting inside the most genuine joy I’ve heard in my life.
The weeks I spent in my mother’s village were not glamorous. My sisters and I slept in a queen sized bed where bugs would fall from the ceiling while we slept. We bathed in a room with a tile floor using a green bucket that we would fill with tepid water from a spigot in the wall. There were no dishwashers, laundry machines, or hot water, so my mom filled more buckets with water to wash whatever was needed by hand. We did have a sink but the water flow was weak and the drain was slow, which made simple daily tasks like brushing our teeth more frustrating. My sisters and I were accustomed to the conveniences of the western world. But we learned to adapt. We were lucky enough to have air conditioning, which we didn’t have the first time we visited, only about four years prior.
Each morning, the roosters crow at 4am. Then the stray dogs’ howls follow. Soon, the smell of burning wood fills the air. The monks make their way through the village before sunrise, stopping at each home to give blessings after receiving their alms. After they place the items in the bowl, the Thais squat down, bow their heads, and fold their hands to show respect and thanks, now that their family has been blessed. The kids get ready for school. The adults head to the farm. The last to leave are the cow and buffalo herders. They work all day, foraging for food to cook when they get home, just enough to feed their families before they go out again the next day.
Everyone in the village knows everyone in the village. So when my mother, sisters, and I arrived, we were greeted by tearful faces and warm hugs. Curious onlookers would stare in wonder. Back home, if people stare at us, we tend to perceive it as judgement or suspicion. Thai people look simply because they want to see. They have a child-like, inquisitive nature. And they may not have much, but the little they do have, they give freely.
People who were somehow related to me (or were friends of those who were related to me) showed up on our doorstep with food. Ba Mem, especially. Some days, we would eat dinner at Na Puang’s house and come home to a table full of food that Ba Mem cooked for us. Because she wanted to be the one to feed us. She also drank a lot, as many people in the village do, so she cried and kissed our cheeks, speaking words we couldn’t comprehend the meaning of, but when tuned in, could feel every bit of emotion they contained. Ba Mem made the best Thai breakfast: scrambled eggs, a basket of sticky rice, and basil-fried chicken wings. A plate of papaya salad accompanied every meal and always tasted a little different, depending on who made it. Being the American princesses we are, my sisters and I examined every grain of rice to ensure the little dark grey dots were just rocks, not bugs. Everything was fresh. Everything tasted amazing. We were welcomed, wanted, accepted, and loved.
In the village, the roads are narrow and there are few cars. People travel mostly on mopeds. Sometimes even families of four. And I was the only one of my sisters who jumped at the opportunity to ride on the back of one. Tuk Tik had a pickup truck and when she planned a trip to take her kids to Buyai, (a nearby town with a “mini-mall”) as many people that could fit in the back of the pickup truck came along for the ride. One time, there were close to a dozen of us. My sisters preferred to sit inside with my mom and Tuk Tik. I, however, wanted to have the best view, so I rode in the back with everyone else. The wind kept whipping my hair into my eyes so I would close them. And eventually I could tell where we were by the smell and feel of the air alone. Chiayaphum smelled like raisins and sour wood, Buyai had more U-turns, and I knew we were close to our village again in Nakhorn Ratchasima once we passed the stinky pig farm.
After some time, the days blended into one another. That’s when I whipped out my journal and wrote about the little boy who peed on our doorstep in the morning and licked the screen door at night. I wrote about the time Supit picked and hid his mother’s papayas, before telling her they had been stolen. I wrote about the fights my sisters and I would get into, and eventually make our way out of. I wrote the select words I learned from listening and would practice: Coy means “I” when said with one intonation, but it also means “penis” when said with another. I was the only one of my sisters who wanted to learn. Perhaps, I was more interested in understanding our roots because though all of my siblings are mixed, I am the one who looks just like my mom. I look Thai. I feel Thai. And I wasn’t always proud to be Thai, until I visited Thailand.
My sisters played games on their phones while I sat outside with my art supplies. One night, Bundit and Pi dropped by to say hi. I handed them each a piece of paper and shared my water color paints, brushes, and markers— whatever they liked. Bundit drew a fish, Pi drew a palm tree, and I drew them. We laughed together, even though we couldn’t speak to one another. Instead of getting drunk and playing cards, they drank water and painted with me. I was honored to witness their inner child surface and roam free.
It’s not uncommon for women in the village to have kids young or raise them without a father around. I met a girl who was my age and had two kids already, a baby and a toddler. The thought of having a kid at 20 or younger, the same as my mother and grandmother, frightened me. And suddenly, I was grateful to have grown up in the United States. Here, you had kids and worked on the farm your whole life, unless you married a foreigner or worked in the city. I wondered what that girl’s dreams were, if she had any. I wondered if I were in her circumstances, would I have any either? I wondered if she was happy. I wondered if she even felt like something was missing. She looked happy with her kids. But in the land of smiles, not all of them are real. They don’t always show how they feel. But the betel nut juice smiles might be the most genuine of the bunch, especially Na Puang and Ba Guang’s.
The Thais are not concerned with their appearances the way we are in the West. They are not preoccupied with the materialistic things that typically mark one’s success. Though, thanks to globalism and the spread of modern technology, the younger generations are catching on. My mom said she can see it and it makes her sad. These older generations of women, these matriarchs in our family line, are the last of their kind. These women have strong hands and strong minds.
Saying goodbye was harder than I ever would have imagined. Somehow, I grew close enough to people I couldn’t even speak to, that I wanted to cry. My heart was so full seeing the rows of deep brown eyes and those Thai hands that look like mine waving goodbye. I thought about the memories I made and wrote as many down as I could save, because I knew if I didn’t, I would forget. And I did forget. Until now. Until this season. When my body remembered. The body has incredible memory. While I may have grown up in a household in suburban New Jersey, I didn’t feel a sense of belonging until I tended to my roots. Until I let my soul run loose in the land where I finally reconnected with my muse.
My name is Kaileia (KyKye) Kostroun. I am a 3rd year Creative Writing major at Ringling College of Art + Design. I write travel articles, creative nonfiction, literary fiction short stories, memoir and poetry. I am of mixed heritage. My mom is from Thailand and my dad is Irish/German.