16 February, 2016

From Birthplace to Home

Ia Vang is from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She graduated from Carleton College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies and a concentration in Educational Studies. Ia is a 2015-2016 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant in Thakhonyang Pittayakom School in Mahasarakham, Thailand. When Ia is not teaching, she enjoys watching movies, going to cultural events, and capturing photos of food. After Fulbright, she plans to gain further work experiences in the education field before attending graduate school.

Before arriving here, my parents praised enthusiastically about Thailand. Both of my parents were born in Laos but grew up in Thailand. They both can speak Thai and love Thai food. My mother would sometimes say that when she gets old, she would like to return to Thailand to live there.

I never really understood my parents’ love and admiration for Thailand because, even though I was born in Thailand, I was raised as a Hmong-American in Minnesota. I grew up with stories about my parents’ experiences in Thailand. Whenever they spoke of their experiences, Thailand was a place where they sounded very happy and free. Thailand was home for them at a time of war and it had occupied a space in their heart.

It’s been a little bit over than four months that I’ve been here and I have slowly come to realize why my parents admired and respect Thailand deeply. There are three things that I have come to admire about Thailand thus far, and maybe these aspects of the Thai culture are some of the reasons why my parents love Thailand so much.

1. Thai language. As difficult as it is, I have continuously written down new Thai vocabulary here and there. On my birthday, one of the student teachers in the school I’m teaching, Thakhonyang Pittayakom, gave me an alphabet workbook to practice writing the Thai alphabet. The reason why I practice and learn Thai is because there are words that the Hmong language has adopted from the Thai language. Here are some examples:

- Candy = kanom

- Lime = ma-naow

- Red curry noodle dish = kao poon

- Bathroom = hong nam

- Pair = kuu

- Family = krop kruo

- Minute = nah- tee

- Coconut = ma -prow

- Mango = ma -moung

- Socks = toong-tahw

Every time I hear familiar words like these, I am always in awe. It makes me interested in what other aspects the Hmong have learned and adopted from the Thais.

The Hmong language doesn’t have its own written alphabet. It has adopted the English alphabet and that is what people used to read and write in Hmong.

My father in particularly admires the Thai language. The Thai language was his second language, whereas for my siblings and I, English was our second language. Although they are different languages, I believe we shared similar struggles in learning them. For my father acquiring the skills to speak, read, and write in Thai was something he was very proud of. I witness this moment when we came to visit Thailand for the first time in 2007 and he would speak with locals in Thai. For my parents, the ability to speak Thai gave them opportunities to communicate with different kind of people. I think they really cherished those connections they have made with others by learning how to communicate in Thai.

2. Thai Food. I grew up eating white and purple sticky rice, papaya salad, curry noodles, and laarb. When I arrived in Thailand, these dishes weren’t strange to me. I was very excited to try these authentic Thai dishes and learn their Thai names. Thai food is also eaten in family-style. Therefore, there’s a lot of sharing when it comes to food. I’ve learned during my time here that Thai food is amazing, but it’s even more amazing if you shared it with others.

This is a small list of observations I have made on family-style meals in Thailand thus far:

1. There are various dishes in the middle of the table for everyone to share.

2. Rice is the main dish. This includes sticky rice and/or white rice. However, I did have a meal where it is all papaya salad (som tum) and fried chicken, so we had rice noodles (kanom gin) as the main dish.

3. Sometimes the dishes come with a serving spoon.

4. Everyone eats with a fork and a spoon. Sometimes the fork is to scoop the portion of food onto the spoon.

Thai family-style eating is very similar to what I grew up with. Growing up, my father had always emphasized how dinner is family time. It’s a time to have conversations and relax with one another. I see this a lot when I am with the student teachers at my school. We would eat lunch together all the time and even though sometimes I don’t understand what they are talking about, is great to share a meal together.

Food is also used as gifts. I remember asking one of the student teachers at my school what kind of gifts I should give to my students who performed with me on Christmas day. She said, “Buy them kanom (candy) or any type of food. They would appreciate it more than something material like a toy.” I bought them candy canes, and they were super happy because they never seen them before.

I also received an abundance of food gifts since I’ve been living in Mahasarakham province. The owner of the apartment building I live in, who I call uncle, has given me fruits as gifts a couple of times. In return, I always buy kanom or some fruits on my way back home from school to give to him.

Bananas that uncle, the owner of the apartment building I lived in, gave to me.

Every morning when I go to school, I always get asked the question, “Ajahn Ia, kin khao reu yang? (Teacher Ia, did you eat breakfast yet?)” Even though I said I already ate (kin laew), a few of the teachers in Thakhonyang Pittayakom School would give me something to eat. For instance, I received a kao jee (sticky rice covered with egg) and grilled pork on a stick from a teacher.

Breakfast gift (kao jee and grilled pork on a stick) from a teacher

On Christmas, the director from my school gave me a basket full of goodies. Because of these experiences, I also have acquired this custom by giving food as gifts back to teachers, my p’s (a polite prefix used to address someone older), students and anyone who I want to show appreciation and respect to.

Christmas gift from the director of Thakhonyang School

Sharing food with others reminded me of an old saying my mother used to tell my siblings and I when we were going through poverty the first few years in America. She said, “This (She was referring to the food we are eating) may not be the most delicious but if you eat it with others, it becomes delicious.” She is right. I am not saying that Thai food isn’t delicious and that you need people to make it delicious. What I’m saying is that there is something unique about sharing food with others. For me, I interpret the act of sharing food as sharing a moment of joy with one another. Food helps people to connect and learned from one another. Sharing food not only creates connections but also creates opportunities for cultural exchange and appreciation.

3. Care and Kindness
. I cannot generalize that all people in Thailand are kind, but I can tell you that the people I am surrounded with every day in Mahasarakham are kind. The people I have met here and spend the most time with are some of the most generous people I have ever met. For example, it was getting late during a dance rehearsal I had with some of my students and they told me to go home. I asked them why. They said I should go home before dark because I bike to school, and they wanted me to be safe. It’s little moments like this that makes me wonder about my parents’ stories of Thailand. Did they feel this similar emotion? Do they share similar experiences with the acts of kindness and generosity that I am experiencing?

These three things are what I have come to love about Thailand. Although I am not sure if it is the same for my parents, I can tell you that it is possible. These aspects of Thai culture are what I grew up with. Papaya salad (som tum), laarb, and sticky rice are dishes my mother has cooked for my siblings and I since we were kids. My father uses Thai phrases to speak with us sometimes. For instance, my father would say kin khao (literal transition: Eat rice, but it means eating in general).

Sharing papaya salad with toppings with the student teachers

Living in Thailand has made me realized the “Thainess” I have grown up with. My parents acquired these aspects for reasons. Even after years of not having anyone to really speak Thai with, my parents can still speak it quite fluently. Even after the 21 years we have lived in America, my mother still cook us some Thai dishes.

Thailand used to just be my birthplace. A country I didn’t really know about. I used to not understand why my parents admire Thailand so much. I may never really know until I go back home and have a long conversation with them about it, but I do know one thing. Now Thailand is slowly becoming a third home to me.

I’m starting to see how beautifully the Thai culture is woven into the Hmong culture. Because of this, I have become more appreciative of the different cultures in my life, as I continue to learn more about the Thai culture each day. By learning about the Thai culture, I learn a bit more about the Hmong and America culture, and together, I come to slowly realize who I am as a person. 

No comments:

Post a Comment