As my second and final year in Thailand comes to an end I have been thinking a lot about how much has changed. I remember coming to Thailand eager and excited for the experience, but feeling entirely alone. I remember thinking that I would never be able to develop true friendships in a country and culture so vastly different from my own, especially considering the language barrier. Now, two years later, I am leaving Thailand as a sister, friend, and daughter.
One of the relationships that has changed the most, and that has had the biggest impact on me and my time here has been my relationship with Meh Lek.
When I first arrived in my village I arranged to rent a house Meh Lek owned next to the house she lived in with her two daughters, Al and Ear. Our houses are located in a family compound, along with her older sister, her niece, and a few other extended family members. Before I moved in Meh Lek fixed up the house by putting a new roof on, installing running water and a bathroom, and arranging for dishes, a hot plate, and a bed. I was incredibly grateful for everything she did, but I could tell I made her nervous and she didn't know what to think about me, while at the same time she felt responsible for me. The first night in my house she sent her oldest daughter over to cook dinner and eat with me. This dinner time arrangement continued for weeks, and made me uncomfortable because I knew Meh Lek and her younger daughter were eating right next door. Meh Lek was always very polite and friendly to me, but we were still strangers.
One year later I would often come home from work and find Meh Lek sleeping in my hammock or chatting on the phone on my porch. For dinner I would often make something at my house and bring it over to her house to eat with her and her daughters. Most of the time no one actually liked the food I brought, but they would pretend just to be polite. After dinner I would wash the dishes with my host sisters. When I broke a dish, which was a common occurrence (my excuse is that the soap is super slippery here), Meh Lek would wave her hand in the air and with a smile on her face say mai bpen rai. If Al and Eah weren't home I would usually eat alone at home and Meh Lek would do the same. During cold season she would offer me her bathroom to take showers in since the water at my house is freezing, but I always declined, not wanting to impose and instead chose to boil water at my house and take a bucket bath.
Two years later I am nearly always found at Meh Lek's house. Often I'm there before she or her daughters get home from work and am chopping up chilies in the kitchen and starting to cook dinner. We cook together nearly every night, whether or not her daughters are home. When I cook something that isn't exactly delicious, no one pretends to like it. Instead they laugh, making faces and telling me how terrible it is. Sometimes we argue about nothing. She gets annoyed when I forget to water the garden. She nearly always laughs at me when I do something stupid, but calls me daily when I am away from home. She has a running tally of how many dishes I have broken, and holds this over my head on a regular basis. I shower at her house after dinner, and have my own spot on the towel rack and an area to hang my clothes. Every evening we sit down together and she watches TV while I read. We have evenings of companionable, comfortable silence and evenings when we talk non-stop in a mix of Northern Thai, Central Thai, and hand gestures. Lately, when I go home at night she asks why I am leaving so early and invites me to sleep over. On a nearly daily basis she mentions how soon I am leaving and asks me if I will miss her. On weekends she forces me to pluck gray hairs from her head. She asks me what time I wake up and calls me lazy if it was past 7am, even though she already knows what time I woke up because she checks to see what time I turn the light off outside my house. After work I sometimes find her napping in my house on the cool tile floor with her phone charging next to her. We go for runs a few evenings a week and I drag her along when she gets tired, telling her to su su. I take her blood pressure once a week and get angry at her for the amount of salt and oil she eats. She has hosted my friends and family, comforted me when I'm sick, and made my favorite foods when I'm feeling down. When people ask her who I am, she calls me her daughter.
Her daughters are my sisters, and it definitely shows when we are alone together. We get into arguments about whose turn it is to do the dishes and who gets to shower first during cold season. I call them lazy for never helping Meh Lek cook. We joke with each other about boyfriends, and pick on Ear for her love of Korean popstars. They laugh at my clumsiness. Al stayed in the hospital with me for three days when I was sick. On March 16th, the day before I leave my village, Al is getting married and she has asked me to be her puan-jao-sao, or maid of honor. They moved the date of the wedding up just so I could be there.
Without this family my time here would have been an entirely different experience. We went from acquaintances, to good friends, to family.
The only picture I have of all of us together. Meh Lek, Meh Oui-Lum, Ear, me, Al.
Meh Lek and I at the Chiang Rai Flower Festival in December, 2012.
Ear and Meh, December 2012.
Al and I on one of our many weekend trips.
Meh Lek tying string on my wrist during a blessing ceremony at my house, January, 2013.
Dinner time. Pretty sure she is yelling at me for taking this picture.
One of the many afternoons I came home and found her asleep in my hammock.
A typical evening.
Meh Lek making dinner and laughing at me.