In A Place Called Thailand

Packing my bags yet again, this time for my “final” destination, Bangkok.  I arrived into a land so different from anything I had ever known, dazed and confused.  I was dizzy from the Swadeeka’s, the currency difference, and the rocket ship taxi to my temporary host’s home.  Lena, who I met via Air BnB, had agreed to host me for the first 3 months of my stay in BKK.  When I arrived, exhausted sweaty and coming down with Strep, I could see the trepidation in her eyes.  Who was this black haired, tattooed Farang showing up on her doorstep?  She showed me to my small, yet efficient room and walked me through the house.  She was gracious and helpful, right from the start.  She told me it was her birthday, and she and the whole family were gathering for dinner.  She said I should join them.  I showered and laid down for a moment before we headed out to meet everyone.  My first meal in Thailand, we ate Vietnamese!  HA!!  They worked to explain how to eat the food and I smiled and laughed and assured them I may be Farang, but I’m no stranger to Asian cuisine.  I dug into the fresh herbs and chili fish sauce with such gusto they were shocked!  But I think I also won them over in that moment.  Eager to try everything and asking lots of questions, I rode out the night as the jet lag came down on me like the hammer of Thor.

I awoke the next morning with fever and chills, I couldn’t move or speak, and I laid there in helpless agony for 3 days.  Lena came in to refresh my water and bring me juice.  On the third day she pumped me full of Thai home remedies and within  a few hours I was on the mend.  I hadn’t eaten in days so I set out on my first moto taxi ride, shaky and scared with my eyes bugging out of my sockets.  I went to the mall, ’cause in big cities in Asia you always go to the mall.  I immediately bought myself a bubble milk tea and wandered lost through the maze that qualifies as a mall.  I found a place to sit to eat a hearty bowl of Tom Yum and heal my broken body.
Over the next few weeks I laid low.  Taking in my surroundings and trying to understand the local language, which I quickly learned was impossible.  I would have to rely on the kindness of strangers.  I was eager to look for work but my boyfriend, “E”, at the time, was coming to visit me and I wanted to spend the whole visit free with him to explore and eat and discuss what was going on in this crazy long distance relationship.  When I had left the state we were still a very new couple, and very hot and heavy.  The “L” word was dropped, and in my final weeks we were inseparable.  He was 9 years my junior, but I thought I had found someone who understood me and that some how we could make it work.  He nursed me through the initial stages of my divorce, and was my rock through the packing and moving and the blah, blah, blah.  Leaving him was a kick in the chest and we talked nearly everyday.  It was clear this was more than just a fling for either of us.  I had purchased a ticket for him as my, “I’m sorry I’m leaving you” consolation prize.  It was just something I had to do.  I had spent my whole life in the USA and I needed to see the world.  I also wanted to put as much distance between me and the life I had built with my ex-husband as possible.  I needed to be free, to fly or fall, it had to be done alone.
By the time he arrived I had figured out fairly easily how to get around and the currency no longer boggled my mind.  I was getting better at body language and had been eating as much as possible to learn the different flavors.  I had booked us a trip to Chiang Mai to soak in the beautiful northern landscape, people and food. The minute we saw each other in the airport I thought my heart would burst.  To see a familiar face and this man that I had been yearning so deeply for was like a million fireworks in my heart.  He had been going through his own trials of being a sous chef at a new restaurant and losing one of his closest friends to heart attack. He needed this time as much as I did and we tucked ourselves into a gorgeous boutique resort in the hills of Chiang Mai and spent the first few days, eating and sleeping and listening to the waterfall.  We drank whiskeys in the pool and did stupid tourist things that made us feel guilty and sad.  We had a traditional northern Thai dinner by the waterfall, where we both fell in love with Chiang Mai sausage, all the while surrounded by a young Middle Eastern girl’s birthday party, where were asked to pose with her and sing happy birthday.  All of this was hilarious and extremely awkward.  We went to the night market in Chiang Mai and stuffed ourselves on quail eggs and more and more sausage.  I held back from going head first into the bowl of Black Jelly, which I had developed an addiction too.  I learned the horrors of fermented anchovies and that it takes days to get the taste out or your mouth. We bonded and discussed the future and how we would make our relationship work.  It was magic.
The day he left for home I was heartbroken.  I knew I couldn’t go long without seeing him again soon.  He flew out on the same day I was to start my job at a restaurant.  I kissed my man goodbye and packed my knives to embark into kitchen work at a restaurant called Quince.  I had eaten at a few of the local western restaurants in Bangkok and had settled on Quince because I felt I could help with elevating the food a bit.  I met the new Chef Blair Mathieson, we seemed to connect.  Western food in Bangkok, for me was not great, but had a lot of potential.  Quince was ranked in the top ten at the time.  The first few days were a dizzy headache.  I was relegated to the pink ghetto to learn the pastry of the kitchen.  I was trained by a young Thai boy named Alex and over the first few weeks we developed our own language. We laughed at each other’s follies and did the best we could.  Eventually, he had taken another position at a new restaurant, and I was to move into being the lead pastry chef.
The week before I started, another female had started in the kitchen.  She was the first girl to work the hot line at Quince.  A tiny Thai girl with the most amazing smile, Waewrawee Pantumachinda soon became a close personal friend to me.  We shared the same interest in music and art and talked about food as the focus of all things in our life, how it made us feel and how we wanted to only produce the best that we could all the time.  I loved watching her tiny self bob around during the rush of service and the little hop she would do when she was in her groove.  Always eager to help everyone and push harder and faster, she won me over in big ways. While I didn’t learn much about actual cooking at Quince, I did learn what it meant to communicate and work with people so vastly different from you and be accepted. It changed me.  I lost the fear of the unknown and just went with the flow.
I was living alone for the first time in as many years as I can remember, and that to was a seemingly new experience for me.  Faced with silence in my apartment night after night, loneliness closed itself around me like an iron fist. I started talking to myself, since I had no one to really speak to outside of work. The Farangs I met were disappointing in their arrogance and lack of understanding of the Thai ways. The Thais I met outside the kitchen just wanted to be westerners and took all the shit that was dished out to them.  No one understood my sense of humor and more than anything I just wanted to be hugged.  While Waew and I were close, she had her own life and I mostly just shuffled around feeling lost.  I went to the movies and cried in the dark surrounded by people.  I talked to E incessantly and listened to his own downward projection trying to be a loving and supporting partner 12k miles away.
Part of me working in Bangkok meant I had to leave the country every 30 days to renew my visa status.  I decided I needed to go back to San Francisco for Thanksgiving and see where things were at in my relationship and if maybe I should move back home.  Once again seeing him as I stepped off the plane was perfection and like no time had passed.  We would just hold hands and smile at each other and repeatedly say, “yes, I am/you are real”.   Every moment we could be together was wonderful and we slipped into what we dubbed “our time warp”. We talked more and more about a future together.  I decided I would return to BKK and within 6 months we would figure out our next step, together.  I drove around visiting old friends and eating at my favorite places and realizing my time in SF was truly done.  I had moved past this place but it would always hold a very special place in my heart.
On Thanksgiving I woke early to make the stuffing and roast the Turkey.  We packed up his car and headed to my friends Kaitlin and Eric’s house to share in the only good part of this holiday, being together with friends and eating till you can’t move.  We spent the day in the kitchen all together working to make a beautiful meal, staying warm and keeping each other laughing.  We trash-talked and cracked jokes. E and I ribbing each other about not chopping onions fast enough and I let him carve my turkey, a first for me.  It was a beautiful day, spent with beautiful people. But, it was time for me to return to Bangkok and resume living my life there.  I had just signed a 6 month lease on an apartment.
Upon my return to Bangkok I realized I was stronger than I was when I left.  I came back full from the love of my people and reminded why I set out to do this.  I dug my heels in and put everything I had into my work and working out.  I attempted to make friends with people but found it exhausting and that I couldn’t connect with anyone.  E and I were missing each other more with every passing day and my work at Quince was unfulfilling.  I was bored with the food and wasn’t teaching me anything new.  I loved my coworkers and seeing them was the highlight of my day. The inside jokes in our broken languages, flush from a busy service, despair from a night gone horribly wrong. But, it wasn’t enough.  E was struggling with his work and wanted to leave.  I decided I wanted to be with him and would return in February and we would try to figure out where to live from there.  Chicago and NYC were the options.  We had a plan, of sorts. I had to leave Bangkok for my visa and before I did I told Chef Blair on New Year’s that I was done and would leave at the end of January.  My time in Thailand had an end date.  I worked my best to wrap my brain around this idea, and tell myself it wash’t a failure to head home after 6 months.
I learned so much from those months, being white in a yellow world.  My brashness had subsided a bit and I was dealing with things in a calmer, gentler way.  I was learning to sit alone in silence and absorb the world around me.  In these ways Thailand wasn’t a failure for me.  It taught me the importance of understanding yourself and broke the rigidity that has always existed inside me to just be free and go with the flow.  Around every corner is a new adventure, if you want it.  And yes, indeed, I do want it.  More than anything I want to fill my life with an overflowing amount of experience.  Be it heart ache or the rush of success. No matter what, I can always find a kitchen to call home and a way to communicate with people even if we don’t speak the same language.
my beloved Tom Yum!

my beloved Tom Yum!

Pa naeng

Pa naeng

Spring rolls done right

Spring rolls done right

Som Tum, you know it, you love it. topped with a giant river prawn.

Som Tum, you know it, you love it. topped with a giant river prawn.

Room with a view in Change Rai

Room with a view in Change Rai

Our breakfast companions

Our breakfast companions

Traditional Chiang Mai feast

Traditional Chiang Mai feast

Chiang Mai night market

Chiang Mai night market

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