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Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

#18 of Blogging with Friends

“What is the scariest thing you’ve ever eaten?” one of my blogging friends challenged us to answer last week. I assumed she didn’t mean the overcooked schnitzel my husband made once, and so my mind immediately went to Asia. I specifically didn’t eat a bowl of huge (it seemed to me at least), grey, rubbery-looking octopus tentacles in Taiwan, breaking all diplomatic rules by refusing this offering, but delighting the Taiwanese men around me by sharing my uneaten tentacles with them. I also specifically didn’t eat from the buffet of bugs in a Filipino restaurant, when I was taken there by some of my local staff members on a project. The most unordinary thing in the buffet were brains or offal. The bowls of bugs  – big ones, and small ones – were not sufficiently appetising to either me, or Phil, yet we had both spent years living in Asia, and were not usually too squeamish (despite this post) about foreign foods.

As a student in Thailand, I went out with my host family to restaurants quite a lot. (I should note that before I went to Thailand I was not a particularly adventurous eater – mainly perhaps because I simply never got the opportunity to eat a variety of food. And I was quite picky too. I lost that almost as soon as I joined my host family and fell in love with Thai food.) My Thai father, in particular, liked Chinese food, Bangkok was renowned for having great Chinese food, and I suspect there was an elevated status in being able to eat at and host meals at these restaurants. Even when we coincidentally were in London at the same time about 30 years later, we met at a Chinese restaurant. So we had either bird’s (or is it birds’?) nest or shark’s (sharks’?) fin soup, and always Peking duck (my favourite, and that of my Thai host siblings), and other stuff. I discovered then that if you don’t know what you’re eating, it is always best not to ask. The black slimy stuff on your plate? Just eat it! At a different seafood restaurant once, instead of the copious numbers of prawns the siblings and I always devoured, I was given sample after sample of food I couldn’t identify, and didn’t want to. One of the dishes was sea urchin. The others shall remain unknown. And that’s fine by me.

But probably the most adventurous and scariest thing I ever ate was at a party in Thailand with a big bunch of other AFS exchange students. Nicki, a fellow kiwi AFS friend, and her school, hosted an AFS Weekend. A large group of us converged on her remote town in north-eastern Thailand for several days of fun, and after a long bus trip to get there, we were billeted out with different families. It was a poor town – few cars, or telephones amongst the 3000 inhabitants. Nicki’s host family was a single mother who survived by making kanom (sweets) to sell at the markets, and her older sister. So the arrival of a group of conspicuously foreign teenagers was a big event for them.

On our last evening, the local Police Chief – who had, I think, been hosting one of the students – put on a farewell party for us. The highlight of the meal was the wok filled with stir-fried grasshoppers (or were they crickets? I’m not sure). It was compulsory, our host declared, to eat at least one. They had a large wok heated over hot coals, and it was full of these large insects (about 5-6 cms long) which they stir-friend quickly. I don’t remember who ate the first one. I know for certain it wasn’t me! But my friends tried them and declared they were okay, and I knew there was no backing out. I didn’t want to be the last to eat either, so I took one. The key was to pull off the scratchy back legs, which would rip up the inside of our mouths, before eating. I dreaded the squish of the body between my teeth; it’s one of the things I don’t like about sultanas, the way their little bodies (well, that’s what they feel like) burst in my mouth! But there was no “squish”. They were crunchy, and tasted of oil, and were not at all offensive, if you forgot what you were eating. I don’t really recall any other flavour. In the end, the reality of eating the grasshopper/cricket was a lot less scary than the idea of it.

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Forty years ago today, I spent my first full day in Bangkok, Thailand. I was with 46 other AFS exchange students for an orientation programme at a hostel in Bangkok, having arrived in the dark the night before with the ANZAC contingent. I remember being hit by the heat and humidity as we left the airport, and later, my diary recorded my disgust that I could feel so hot and sticky immediately after a shower.

As it was a Sunday, there were no classes organised. Instead, we were all sent out to discover Bangkok. The newly-arrived Australians and New Zealanders were escorted by the one New Zealander who was finishing her AFS year. We were amazed at her confidence, her language, her level of comfort in this foreign environment. Would we ever be that relaxed here?

The bus into the city was crowded, and I remember being amazed at the sheer numbers of the road, and the variety of buildings. We arrived at the Sunday Market – which in those days was a collection of stalls under canvas across a large field (Sanam Luang) near the Grand Palace. I’ve written about that day before, here and here.

My diary doesn’t say much, but I remember some things very clearly. I don’t remember having lunch at the Sunday Market, which I duly recorded as consisting of “rice and stuff on top!” I don’t actually remember going on the boat ride, shocked at the poverty side by side with the glorious golden temples. But I do remember going to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, amazed at the beauty and exotic architecture. It was the first place I went to in Bangkok, and was the last place I visited when I left Bangkok 13 years later after my diplomatic posting there. It has etched itself into my heart, or perhaps I left part of my heart there, even on that first visit.

After the grandeur of the Palace and Temple, we went back to the market to explore. It was, I noted, “very dirty and smelly!” I remember that the heavens opened for my first experience of a tropical downpour. I remember the muddy floors.

We were thrown into Bangkok in the deep end. And it set the scene for the coming year.

But how could I know that day that most of those students in the bus with me, or the ones I met at the hostel, would become dear friends? How could I know that Chai, the language teacher we met the next day, would become an important part of our year too, and would still be part of our lives? How could I predict that I would be back ten years almost to the day to live and work for another three years? That I’d get to visit Sharon and Chai in Delaware, and have dinner with Amy, or stay with Madeline in Dayton, when I made work trips to DC in the 90s? How could I imagine that my AFS friends would become part of my everyday life through social media? That Fe would make me a quilt?That I’d Skype with Cecilia on (her) Christmas Day 39 years later? That in February 2020, almost forty years later, I would be thrilled to have lunch by the beach on a sunny day in Wellington with Jane and Vicki (one Kiwi, one Californian), the first time we’d seen each other since 1981!

How could I even have imagined that we’d all have such a strong bond after that year? That love and laughter (sanuk) – with the help of technology – would keep us together, all these years later? I couldn’t imagine it. I’m not sure any of us could. But isn’t it a wonderful thing?

 

 

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A friend (Amy) is currently on holiday in Thailand. We were AFS students together when we were 17 or so, and she has returned this time with her husband and her parents for the first time. I have been loving seeing her photographs on social media, and I share in her joy in sharing this place that is so special with the people she loves.

It made me remember hosting my parents in Thailand just ten years after I was a student there. We were living there as diplomats, and it was the first time my parents left New Zealand. Thailand would not have been their first choice as an overseas destination, but we were living there, they were temporarily homeless (having retired from the farm, they were waiting for their little retirement house to be built), and they actually had a little cash in their pockets to make the trip. They travelled later – to Europe, and a couple of times to tour different parts of Australia (they saw more of it than I have, despite our numerous trips) – but regularly said that their trip to Thailand was the one that stood out. Frankly, it blew their minds. Europe, Australia and America all feel familiar – people look like us, the food isn’t that different, and we are accustomed to seeing these countries on our screens and in our books. But Thailand – its sights, sounds, food, temple, people, language, and size – has no reference point in rural New Zealand where they spent their lives.

They came because I had spent a year there instead of finishing my last year of secondary school. They came too because a few years later, they hosted a young Thai exchange student, their fourth “daughter.” (My friend Amy did this several years ago too.) I remember walking with them out of the airport in Bangkok. My mother sniffed the smoggy air, and looked at me in horror. “Do we have to breathe that?” she asked incredulously. My father looked around in fascination, and uttered a very 1960s comment. “The teeming millions of Asia,” he said, as he had probably never seen so many people in one place. These things are so familiar to me today, it’s good to remember their reactions.

They stayed for a month, and we took them around Bangkok (or rather my husband did, while I worked), and on excursions out of Bangkok, day-trips in our car, or a few weekends at the beach, and on a longer trip on a sleeper train, which they loved. (There’s a funny photo of them on the train here.) They were still young, newly retired, and adventurous. They explored the local streets and foods on the non-excursion days, got to know our maid, relaxed by and in the pool, met my Thai host family, went on adventures with their Thai AFS daughter, and did many things they never would have imagined. My father, who had always been very active (as a farmer he really had no choice), sat under a palm tree at the beach, feeling the soft, warm wind, and just relaxed. “This is just wonderful,” he said, looking around. It was certainly a far cry from the cold prevailing wind on the stony beach near the farm where he spent almost all of his life.

I remember coming home from work one day, and hearing of my mother’s trip to a market. She had visited it with my husband and father a few days earlier, but they had just walked through it, and didn’t give her time or space to explore, or shop. She was determined to go back, and insisted that day that she was going alone. My husband had nervously summoned a tuk-tuk, and gave the driver instructions of where to take her. Noisily it drove off, and he wondered if a) he’d ever see her again, and b) how he would explain that to me when I got home! There were no cellphones. She didn’t speak a word of Thai. She’d never taken a taxi in her life. But she had money, she had the address of our apartment with her, and she wasn’t scared. Of course, she made it home safely, much to the relief of my husband, who swears he lost a couple of months of his life from the stress.

I loved rediscovering Thailand through their eyes and ears and nose and tastebuds. I am equally sure Amy is enjoying doing this with her parents and her husband. And I know we both feel so lucky we’ve been able to do this with those we love.

 

 

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