My arms had just begun to sweat, ever so slightly, from the direct sunlight as we walked around the outside of the 20 chedi in the yard of Wat Phra Chedi Sao Lang in Lampang. It’s December and my brother and mother are visiting for Christmas, so we’re up in Chiang Mai to have a more relaxed environment than Pattaya and I can have some fights at the same time. I haven’t seen my brother Shane in 6 years, not sharing the same physical space, that is. I kind of drift toward him all the time, not even thinking about it – a habit I developed when we were still toddlers, I imagine, and never really outgrew. It’s been cold in Thailand for the past week and I’m struggling. I don’t even own clothing that accommodates this kind of weather. It’s only maybe 50-60 degrees (F) but I’m used to 80-100 now, so being in the shade makes me shiver and I’ve worn every piece of clothing I can to try to stay warm on this excursion. The two long sleeved shirts I’m wearing are kind of gripping my forearms as I reach my arm out to point at something to my family, explaining that the animals we’re seeing are part of the Chinese Zodiac, or directing them over to a long table that is full of amulets for sale.
You don’t actually “buy” amulets, technically. It’s indistinguishable from purchase, in terms of exchanging money for an object, but often times you don’t hand money directly to anybody and instead drop it into a closed donation box for the temple where you’re making your selections. I think, technically, you’re “renting” them from the temple. My hands are holding each other behind my back as I bend over slightly to get a closer look at some small amulets in little shadowboxes on the table. My mom was looking for tiny Phra Ganesha, and here were some of the smallest I’ve ever seen. A man in very fancy shoes and a suit slightly too large for his shoulders saunters over to my mom and says, “hello,” in a practiced voice for speaking English. I take my hands up from behind my back to wai to a monk who is seated behind the table – he smiles at me as I do this – and then carefully pick up a small wasp mold to inspect it. That’s when everyone sees the tattoos on my hands and the attempt at speaking English falls behind a curtain of Thai among the three men standing around the table (and the monk, who doesn’t speak but smiles as they all talk).
There’s always a delay for me in revealing that I understand Thai. Generally, I want to hear what is being said before knowing whether this reveal is going to be embarrassing to the folks thinking that they are speaking “behind my back”, yet right in front of my face, as it were; or if it’s going to be me jumping into the conversation. Occasionally it’s people being very rude, but most often they’re just discussing with each other what an odd sight I am. That’s what these guys were on about, so I smiled to myself for a bit while they chattered and then waited for a lull where I inserted a quiet, “bpen nakmuay ying,” (I’m a fighter) to explain the whole thing in one shot. There was this audible “ooohhhh,” and a stir of excitement. I pointed to my mom and said that was my mom, then pointed to my brother and said he was my big brother, which caused all the men (including the monk) to nod approvingly and the guy in the fancy shoes turned to my mom and said with a kind of bravado in his voice, “a handsome woman,” in English. I hate that compliment. I don’t hate it when it’s said about someone else, like someone who I can totally see is a handsome woman, like Robin Wright; but I hate it being said about me. And it’s said about me more frequently, now that I’m not a young woman anymore.
The conversation carries on kind of without me, I just offer pieces of information here and there about where I just fought, that I’m fighting again tomorrow, that they can watch me on TV next week, that I love Muay Thai. The man in the fancy shoes is talking about how small I am and the monk just only ever says, “dee dee, ” and “keng reng,” (good, and strong) as kind of punctuation to the string of Fancy Shoe’s excitement. My mom buys a few amulets and some blue beads that they tell her are good luck for the New Year, and the monk blesses them before dropping them into her cupped, open hands. I find an amulet with an abbot that is the same man my husband Kevin has an incredible round, clay piece from – this one has tigers leaping over the abbot’s head. It’s not like anything else I’ve seen. I also pick out two small photographic portrait pendants of the late Rama IX. When I ask Fancy Shoes about the abbot, he tells me that he’s actually from Nakhon Naiyok, down near Bangkok, although I’m 90% sure the other amulet my husband has is also from Lampang. So, there’s a connection up here that Fancy Shoes doesn’t explain. The monk blesses these for me as well and drops them gently into my open, cupped hands. I thank him and he tells Fancy Shoes to take me around the temple to various shrines, where I can light candles and incense for local abbots and heroes.
The shrines are beautiful. Each one is separated by a hundred feet or so and each one has elaborate tile stairs, fresh flowers and colorful paint in the structure all around the statues. My mom struggles with her sandals at each staircase. Fancy Shoes practically walks out of his without breaking pace, something I’ve noted as a signature skill among all Thai people. In front of each statue is a large plaque with phonetic Thai for the appropriate chants. I can read it, but the sounds aren’t words, they are syllables that stand in for words. I think it’s actually Pali-Sanskrit and, as I said, phonetically the syllables are in Thai so they are readable, but even though I can read and pronounce it all, it’s very slow. So, while each one is meant to be recited 3x or more (it’s specified at the bottom of each plaque), I make my apologies in my head and only utter the syllables one time through. When we come down from each shrine I put my shoes on and then squat down to use my fingers to pull at the different straps of my mom’s sandals to help her get into them without having to bend down herself. She kind of verbally swats at me, telling me it’s okay as she kind of fumbles at them herself, but I stay where I am and keep trying to pull the leather straps behind her heel. It’s an interesting moment, one that is an immediate symbol of cultural difference between Thailand and America, and a difference that I now intersect. My mom’s response is one of not wanting to be a bother; as her daughter, I’m showing my respect and deference to her by going to her feet. She’s not old enough yet – or physically diminished – to actually need this assistance, which might be one reason she was quick to tell me not to bother. It’s especially interesting because she was raised Catholic, where images of washing feet maps beautifully onto what this gesture means in a Thai sense, to your elders and especially your parents. To Fancy Shoes and the monks who are now turning their heads from watching their roof being rebuilt to see the nakmuay (as I’m being introduced via shouting between different areas of the temple now), they’re seeing me be a good Thai daughter. I’m not doing it “to be Thai,” but it’s also curious that I’ve picked up this gesture of respect without actually having practiced it myself in any sense prior to this. To my mom, I’m being overly concerned – or something – and when she stops by the roots of a tree to take photos on her phone of a bunch of little chicks flitting around the beautiful, gnarled roots and into the bushes, Fancy Shoes watches her with non-recognition for a moment before asking me, “does your mom like chickens?” Very much, I say with a smile, as that’s a much easier explanation than that she finds their presence noteworthy at all. Again, me with a foot on each side of this cultural gap.
Fancy Shoes is preparing to bring us to a series of shrines beyond where I can see, so I quickly read that my mom and brother are confused and surely ready to move on and I excuse us from further exploration by explaining that we’re going to visit a friend. With that, Fancy Shoes walks us past the monks watching the roof work and over to the parking area to say goodbye. “Chok dee,” he says, as we weave past some sleeping dogs to reach our car. I smile to myself as I translate his farewell to my mom and brother, easily enough it’s a way of saying, “good luck,” but that phrase never translates cleanly across the lines. With our amulets in our little plastic bags and me finally feeling warm enough to take off my top layer shirt as I slide into the driver’s seat and feel the heat radiating through the windshield, I smile to myself. I occupy all those little cracks between worlds. These men see a small woman, a westerner, and the practiced English for helping foreigners navigate a Buddhist temple is assumed. When I speak Thai, that image blurs. When they see my tattoos, who knows, but when they hear I’m a fighter there’s a snap to recognition and explanation that always brings a kind of comfortable alignment between what they’re seeing and what they know. For my mom, it’s the opposite. She’s known me for my whole life, but every time I speak in Thai, exhibit a tattoo, or explain I’m a fighter (or fight), there’s this discord with what she knows. I go to her feet and I’m being unnecessarily helpful; I go to her feet and I’m exhibiting good manners. I go up the stairs to a shrine, put my head to the floor and light candles and incense and chant the words on the plaque and I’m being a practiced Buddhist; but for my mom she’s seeing me practiced in something she hasn’t seen me do before. For myself, I’m reading the sounds and saying them, but I’m still slow and don’t know what all the syllables indicate. But the actions are of respect, of honor and even lucky. And those cross language and culture, they’re who we are at any time, even if aspects of who we become are unrecognizable to those who have known us the longest.
When we were circling the chedi at the start of our visit to the temple, there were some figures where the animals weren’t immediately recognizable. A monkey was particularly odd, with a body that seemed too long and a face that was twisted into a kind of aggressive expression. It was hard to know if it was bad artistry or an intentional expression of a monkey’s animalistic otherness. For some, they look at the monkey and it’s very obviously a monkey. For me, it was definitely a monkey but maybe rendered by someone who hadn’t ever seen one before. And then, yet again, for someone who has not only seen, but also been around a monkey, the gnarled expression of it might have been an additional layer of recognition that I considered bad artistry. That’s me: this constantly evolving object of recognition and non-recognition, curiosity and explanation in motion. Even for myself.