Farang is the word used for Thais to refer to Westerners. Farang is a fruit, it is guava. In case you do not know what guava is, I took a picture of one right here.
It is a gift from Tia. Tia works in the kitchen and still remembers I adore guava. In Brazil guava is “goiaba”, and at least in the state I was born in (Sao Paulo) when we say someone is a “goiaba” it means the person is silly, dumb 🙂 Here I was told they call Westerners Farang because they are white like a white unripe Guava. I take my guava in the kitchen and smile. They still know I love it, they knew since I broke my foot here almost two years ago.
That day I had been working at Mut Mee for 3 months. I knew the ladies of the kitchen because I spent lots of time with them, not fully understanding them, owing to the fact that their English is 100 times better than my barely inexistent Thai. We sat together, we had meals, we laughed. Tia was always very reserved. And it was only when I broke my foot that I found out how much she cared for me.
You must know that today, the 16th of August is Tia’s birthday. She is 43 today, she has been working here since she was 24. Almost 2 decades. It takes a while at Mut Mee to understand why Tia is reserved, because, like everything that is in a border, things here are transient. So Tia has seen probably dozens of managers who work and go, and thousands of travellers. Like a person from the landlocked State of Minas Gerais in Brazil, she is always reserved and wary but once she opens up to you, you know it is so profound. As I told before, it took me ages to understand the ladies of the kitchen. And by that I mean it took me ages to understand I did not need to fully understand what they say and do to understand something more profound.
It took me months to understand that when they laughed at me it was an invitation to their life. And I took the invitation, and when I broke my foot, Tia came to me and told me she would take care of me, bathe me, make food, anything I needed I should call them. And I cried for the following week the end of a journey that still had valid tickets, unused, to Burma and India. I cried and mourned that I was not going to see Vietnam and not return to India. And that I was being kicked out from Thailand by my broken foot.
I was taken care here like a real child in total need. My friend Michal took a 18-hour-long bus drive to see me; Joana, whom I recently visited in her home in Portugal, offered to return to Thailand from Laos to take me to the airport. How could I do that whole journey alone with a bag and broken foot? And at the time, all these pleas to help arrived when Nick from England had already offered to fly with me to Bkk.
So, on the final day, a week later, when my passport was returned to me, I left this place crying, sobbing, and they brought me guavas to eat in the journey. Pook brought me her handmade bag, which was worth her monthly salary. She had made it for me. When I went out and even Sam, the village homeless, came to bid farewell, I looked at all these people walking me to my car, and the Mekong, the sun was beautiful there, and I remember that as I looked, I thought that I cared less for the Mekong, and more for the people. Tia was there, she had tears in her eyes when she hugged me. I remember Tia there in the pavillion saying goodbye forever.
Today then it is Tia’s birthday, something she told me yesterday when I sat with them to show the beautiful pictures I had taken of us. I had taken pictures with Tia, Joy, Yong, Noy, Mun, Pook, Gaew… always laughing. I sat and showed them where I come from. And then Tia asked me why I had not been back sooner.
I tell them I tried so many times. And then I try in broken Thai and English to tell how sick I was. And as I actually work hard to explain, I cry… again.. remembering how close I felt to being dead, and how much I wanted it. Pook and Tia sit next to me, translating it to each other. I don’t know how much they understood but somehow I know they did understand it all. So as I speak, Pook has tears in her eyes. She sits next to me and tells me she loves me. “We missed you.” Then they ask me whether I am happy here at Mut Mee.
I tell her that I am. I am finally happy. I am finally in place. I have been so for a while now. And sitting on the floor with Tia, Joy and Pook I realise how happy I am. I feel so much love and gratitude to these ladies.
Tia suddenly asks me what is my favorite food.
I tell her it is broccoli, which I have not had in months. And so she tells me
“tomorrow, It is my birthday and I will make broccoli for you.“
I am surprised.
“I will make food to the ladies in the kitchen, I will make for you, too.”
Though I know nothing of this custom I feel it is a huge honor to be asked what is my favourite food.
And so we sit there. Me, trying to explain how moved I had been to be given a handmade bag almost 2 years ago. I tried to explain how much I felt something handmade carried the whole story of someone. As my friend Adriana had once said, she felt every handmade thing had a story. In every knot of a carpet she could see in its unevenness that the person who made it one day was happy, the other sad, the other angry. In their imperfection, handmade things will always trump factory-made things. Remember we can’t actually speak… but Pook, who has made a bag out of mut mee (“mee” means thread, and “mut” means a dye pattern) understands. She has tears in her eyes again.
This morning I walk to the kitchen to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Tia!
Tia opens a bag and gives me farangs.
She remembers I love farang! Though I have not eaten them at all any of these days because I did not see them around, she still remembers. I take it to eat, to have breakfast before I go searching for my gift for her birthday.
I wish I could do something handmade, too. But I can’t. I can’t give my book… So I walk the whole market! And found nothing really that special and personal. But then it dawned on me. There was one thing I could give Tia, that would be for Tia, and that would make her happy. A real gift to her.
So I walked to my second favorite place in Nong Khai, Kasorn Massage Parlour, and I ask in my broken English-Thai whether Pi Ian ( the masseuse) could write a paper saying that Tia had right to a massage.
And I walk home relieved, yes… that is not handmade by me, but something that was really thought through especially for Tia.
And then I come back and work really hard to understand Thai birthdays. But now I do.
Tia woke up very early and cooked for the monks, gave them food, then she came here, and showed me she had brought me broccoli. Broccoli which is not from here, probably from China. Just as I am telling her about my gift, she shows me the food she has for me. My favorite broccoli, tofu and guava! And then, I am told by a Thai girl who speaks English that in Thailand, in her birthdays she cooks for those she loves and you get very happy when they are happy. Simeon says that it is like in the Hobbit, who gives gifts away. Tia grabs my hand and shows me the gift she got!
It is a beautiful pair of shoes which is a gift of Joy, Pook and Noy. A shirt from a Thai lady who started recently to work here, and my massage. A wonderful plate of broccoli is made for me. And I realise suddenly that Tia is not turning 43, but 42, for she was born in ‘71. Then I eventually get it, people are born with 1 year-old in Thailand, never 0. The first celebration after the first turn the sun celebrates the second birthday. So, put simply, if you come from the West, just add one year to your age, and you have your Thai age.
Yes, suddenly I just understand it… I do not know how to speak Thai but i get it. Tia and Thais celebrate by giving… on her birthday she gives, but she also accepts and is happy to have gifts back and very happy to make me broccoli.
A Thai ritual of birthdays is a celebration of connection. Yes, definitely I am happy here. Very happy.
Happy birthday, Tia:)
Love from the Mekong