09 February, 2018

Love of Somtam and Happy Tears


Maya Berrol-Young is a 2017-2018 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Ban Kumuang School in the Ubon Ratchathani Province. She is from Dobbs Ferry, New York. Last May, she graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a B.A. in Art and Politics and a minor in Museum Studies. In her free time, Maya enjoys traveling around Thailand to meet up with fellow ETA’s, sampling various Thai vegetarian dishes, and reading. After the completion of her Fulbright grant, she plans to continue to travel and learn about other cultures before returning home to work in museum education.

I love somtam. I love the fresh taste of green papaya with jolts of spice from the lip tingling bird’s eye chilies cut by the sweetness of the palm sugar and tomatoes. In the U.S. I would insist on ordering it at every Thai restaurant. When the waiter would come to the table, they would ask me “is spicy okay?” and I would proudly and firmly respond “Yes, I can eat spicy.” My love for somtam was by no means the sole reason I wanted to come to Thailand to teach for a year, but I can’t deny it was a factor. 

Somtam and sticky rice at a local restaurant in Ubon Ratchathani.

When I received the news that I would be teaching in Ubon Ratchathani in the Isan region, I was a bit nervous. I looked at the map of Thailand, my finger tracing the distance between the dots representing my placement and that of the other ETAs. This was a small city far away from Bangkok or Chiang Mai and my school was in a rural area of the province. I am from a suburb of New York City and the idea of being in a place without a 24 hour transit system makes me uneasy in the States, but the idea of this in Thailand was another level of apprehension. My thoughts swimming, I set out to learn as much as I could about Isaan and Ubon-- its history, culture, and most importantly, its food. 

Helping to shread papaya for the somtam for all of the prathom (primary school) teachers on Scout Day.

I sat with my parents in our living room, each person on a computer or phone or thumbing through an old guidebook of Thailand searching for what we could find about Isan. “Maya!” my dad exclaimed, “Isan is known for somtam!” I released a great sigh of relief. Maybe I was moving halfway around the world, with a twelve hour time difference from most of my friends and family, unable to speak more than “sawadee ka” and “khob khun ka,” but I would have somtam and by the looks of our research a lot of it. Something familiar that I knew and knew I liked. “But Isan’s also supposed to have the spiciest food in Thailand,” my dad added. “That’s okay,” I replied, “I can eat spicy.” 

A few months later, all 22 ETAs finished orientation in Bangkok, moved to our respective provinces throughout Thailand, and started school. It was the first week of school and I was still getting adjusted to my schedule. As my predecessor had informed me, after I finished teaching third period I was responsible for preparing the fruit and setting the table for our lunch group of teachers from different departments and the school director. 

While I was putting out the forks and spoons for each member of our lunch group, I heard the tom tom tom of the mortar and pestle. I turned to see my host teacher grabbing handfuls of shredded green papaya and putting them into the mortar. She emptied the contents into a bowl and handing it to me said gleefully, “somtam for Maya!” I took the bowl from her with the widest smile and responded, khob khun ka and placed it on the table. No other teachers had arrived yet. Not wanting to seem rude, I stood awkwardly by the table while my host teacher continued to prepare food for lunch. The woman in the office next to ours came through the door, “Maya! Sit down! Eat eat eat!” Hurriedly, I took what I hoped was an acceptable chair and reached into the bowl and placed a heaping spoonful of somtam on my plate. 

My host teacher preparing somtam for our lunch

As soon as the somtam reached my lips I was clear that this was not the level of spice experienced at home in New York. Nor was it the level of spice I experienced in Bangkok during orientation. This was Isan spicy and it was no joke. My eyes started to water and my lips began to burn. My nose running and my face flushed, I tried to slyly remove myself to get a tissue. Thinking I had successfully not looked like a silly farang who couldn’t handle her somtam, I walked back into the room after throwing my tissues away. As I sat down my host teacher asked “spicy mai?” The table burst out laughing. “Yes, but it’s very good.” And that was the truth. Despite my face transforming into a bright red leaking mess, it was one of the most delicious things I had ever had. “Every ETA loves somtam,” my host teacher informed me. Though I had to excuse myself a few more times throughout the meal to dry my eyes, blow my nose, and drink water, I finished my bowl of somtam that day. 

My attempt at somtam (with a lot of help from my host teacher).

My daily somtam, though sometimes challenging to eat, is amazing. It is worth the embarrassment from my facial transformation and friendly chuckles from my fellow teachers. I feel similarly about many of my experiences since being in Thailand. I have challenging days when a really thought-out lesson isn’t working the way I want it to or when I am told that the bus I thought I should take isn’t running or when I receive last minute notice that my classes have been canceled. But those moments are also so wonderful because I will recalibrate mid-class and switch up my lesson plan or I will figure out another way to get to my destination or find something different to do that day to still engage with my students. There is real joy and success in persevering through challenging moments. Some of my fondest memories from this year have been when things have not gone as planned. Not one to enjoy the unplanned before arriving to Thailand, I’ve learned to love the rewards that come from unexpected challenges. 

View of our lunch table

But sometimes I need to metaphorically reach for the watermelon to soothe the spice. I’ve learned to reach out to friends when I feel homesick, to ask for help from my host teacher when my classes aren’t going well, and to go visit another ETA when I’m feeling lonely. I enjoy my challenges, but I also know when I need a break. 

Most days at lunch I eat somtam and I still cry every time (though I think I’ve gotten better and my host teacher is using more chilies). Sometimes I can eat the whole meal without reaching for water or fruit. Sometimes I need something cooling after every bite. The school director occasionally joins our lunch table and asks me the same question each time: “Are you happy?” Through the joyful, spice-induced tears, I take a deep inhale and with a sigh and a big smile respond, “Yes, I am very happy.”

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