Homestay number one of six is complete. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to stay in a slum here in Khon Kaen for three nights. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience.
We rode song taows to the communities that we were staying in. As I prepared to go I tried not to think too hard about the fact that I was about to live in a slum with a family that I had never met that spoke a language that I hardly speak. If I did, and I’m honest, my stomach would drop a little bit. When I arrived, my nong sow (younger sister) named Som (which means orange in Thai), picked me up from the community center and used the few English phrases she knew to engage me in conversation, asking my name and age. She led me across a busy downtown Thai street to my home for the next three nights, right next to the train tracks. My Meh (which means mom in Thai) waited for me towards the front of the house which doubled as a store front, selling small snacks and drinks to the community. When I walked in, Meh immediately asked if I was hungry, practically before I set my bag down. She was making Som Tham, or green papaya salad. I sat on a mat on the floor with Som and was introduced to the many people coming in and out of the house to meet the farrang (me, the westerner). I started to get the impression that everyone was related, because each person who walked in was introduced to me with familial pronouns. ‘This is Yaye’ (grandmother) my Meh said about an older wrinkled woman who walked into the living space. She actually was related to the family next door, but would walk me around holding my hand all the same. Dinner was served to me on the floor, and we ate family style. My younger brother (nong chai) named Captain (a nickname), Som, Meh, and I ate, while Pa looked on. It seemed to be tradition that we would always eat before Pa. After dinner I watched a few minutes of Thai soap opera, and didn’t understand a second of it, while also making friendship bracelets with Som.
In Thai culture it is customary to shower often, however, our home didn’t really have a bathroom. We had a spigot in a very wet area of the house where dishes and laundry were done, and showers were had. I termed it the wet room, or the wet hallway because that is effectively what it was. There were no doors, so when my family asked me if I wanted to ‘ab nam’ (take a shower) before bed, I didn’t know what to do. I ended up wrapping myself in a sarong and splashing cold water on my feet. They gave me weird looks when I came out of the wet room with dry hair. Sheepishly I went to bed underneath my pink, quite hole-y mosquito net.
I woke up the next morning with four bug bites on my forehead, one on my cheek, and one on my right eyelid- which resulted in an eye that was swollen shut for the whole day. My Meh turned on the light in the room that I shared with my siblings, and pushed her face up against my mosquito net asking ‘Mah-gieeeee! You eat Breakfast?!’ I did, and she made these marvelous home made Thai doughnuts. Paw crouched in front of me with curiosity on his face as I read and journaled in the family’s living space.
After classes that day, I returned for the second night with much less anxiety. I knew what to expect as I returned that evening to the community. My sisters both worked until late at night, and Paw was feeling sick, so he was asleep in the back room. It ended up being just meh, Captain, and I the whole evening. Because conversation was not an option, I resorted to pulling out my Thai textbook and asking my Meh ‘Pud yang nye’ which means ‘how do you say…?’ We spent about an hour like that, with her half watching the Thai soap opera and half responding to my question of ‘pud yang nye.’
The final night was full of tender moments. Though I had stayed with this family for only three nights, they had shared everything they had with me. It was really sweet to see how relationships were built around generosity, community and sincere thankfulness rather than language and other commonalities.
In the morning before I said goodbye for the final time, Meh chirped “Maggieee, forget me not?” and I certainly won’t. Both the family and the place will be remembered long after I leave Thailand because of their big, big hearts.