What Does Background Have To Do With It?
My wife comes from a small country town on a major provincial road. Her father was a barber, her mother, a housewife. The house is a fairly large wooden structure on stilts and sits on a one-rai property adjoining the road, just out of town. To park the car, I have to navigate backwards down a steep slope at the risk of ripping out the exhaust pipe, so I can park under the house. That gate is a little distance from the house, and does get overgrown along the sides, as they prefer to get around on the motorcycle or the three-wheeler. Chickens run around freely, and I’ve probably just run over some of the rice her mother has thrown on the ground for them. Around the property there are little plots in differing stages of cultivation. A long bamboo trellis has angled loofah beans on it, and there are lady’s fingers in the plot just behind. A large, broken enamel basin now sits just behind the back door, overflowing with mint. There are some plants, I must admit, I have never seen before.
They built a small provision shop on the roadfront of the property when they gave up the one in town due to her father’s ill health, more so for something to do than anything else.
Her father passed away a few years ago, so the mother runs the shop with the help of one of the other sisters. She’s just cooked up a whole table full of khanom jeen and fried dried plaa chon when she heard we were coming, and waited till we got there to cook the fresh fish. ‘Only the flesh, I removed the bones’, she says, still chewing her betel nut.
My wife is the middle of eight children. The parents sent all of them through school by buying and selling property and running a provision shop. They did have a small restaurant once, but eventually closed it down as more of the family moved to Bangkok. The parents believed strongly in the importance of a good education, and sacrificed quite a bit to make sure their children got one. All the girls have at least one degree; my wife has her master’s. They all have good jobs, some in senior positions. Two of the boys became policemen, one a trainer in the local academy. The other has since passed away due to cancer. He smoked two packs a day.
Life seems laid-back here, but don’t be fooled. My wife’s mother is in her early seventies, and she’s normally up just after four in the morning. You start to hear sounds of activity around five-ish, with the e-taans (‘iron buffalo’) clattering up the road. They open the shop fairly early, and people slowly drift by, sometimes stopping to chat with her mother. The sister does part-time work for the provincial office, taking data from them and making up spreadsheets on the computer she’s set up in the provision shop. She also uses an accounting program to run the provision shop. The elder sister is a teacher in the nearby school, and will drop by twice or three times a day in her pickup truck, sometimes accompanied by one of her daughters. She stays in a small place in town during the week, but spends weekends tending to the twenty-rai mango orchard some ways out of town. You could just about get a signal for your mobile phone here, though it’s improved somewhat these days. Nice place, but a little too isolated for me.
When the family get back for the New Year or Songkran, you tend to see where the family values have been instilled. One sister is cutting the veggies, another doing the meat, another is cooking, and somehow managing to keep the kids in sight and not too noisy. In this instance, computer games can be a blessing, as it tends to keep the kids in one place. The younger sister’s husband (who’s a bank manager) is trying to fix up an additional flourescent light; we’ve already strung out the coloured lights. We end up later discussing the improvements he’s done with his car over a beer. He’s done a part-time course on car repair and knows what he’s talking about. I prefer not to have a beer till evening, but do make exceptions for holidays. It was a bit of a laugh once, when he brought some bottles of wine, and we didn’t have a corkscrew around. Try opening a bottle of good red with a penknife…
Leaving is the most difficult. Not because we don’t want to, but because of what has to fit in the back of the car. Her mother has cut half a sack of cha-om vegetables and another sack of tamleung fresh from the garden. She has also boiled a full basin of tender bamboo shoots (also from the garden), and they smell really good, not like the stuff they sell in the markets in Bangkok. Another FIVE! Khanoon (jackfruits), they tend to stink up the car for days, but I’m glad she does not have any durian trees on the property.
And when we finally are going, the mother asks her children, ‘Do you need money?’…..
When I was a kid my family stayed in a large colonial style house, in many ways similar to the one my wife stayed in. The house was a wooden structure set on short stone pillars. There was this large veranda around half the house that was nice to sit around during the evenings. Inside was a sitting area where we had the piano and the radio with it’s ‘magic eye’ tuning; eventually the television arrived to take the place of honour. This led to the other rooms and the formal dining area, but no-one really ate there, meals were taken in the ground-floor dining room connected to the main building behind the house. The lower dining room also housed the kitchen and the servants’ quarters.
It was a large property set on three levels; the house was on the middle level. The driveway was a large oval, it split just before the house, so you could go straight past the house and to the garage, which was next to the dining room, or you could turn and park in front under the car porch. The upper level was where most of the fruit trees were; it extended round the back and sloped down to the lower level. There was a grass type tennis court on the lower level. We had a full-time gardener, a cook and a maid, and with the exception of the gardener, they stayed in the servants’ quarters next to the kitchen. They were family to us.
I come from a large family, too, and learned of the pains and blessings of growing up in one. My parents never let us take advantage of the situation and made us do our own washing up after meals. Enough pocket money to make sure you wouldn’t go hungry in school, but never enough to be extravagant. Special treats were always shared out equally. My father was good with his hands, something I’ve inherited. He’d make a special kite that you couldn’t buy anywhere, then he’d go out with you and your brothers to fly it in the garden. Sometimes we’d go shooting (he had an air rifle) and the servants got to cook the squirrels etc. Or I got to bury the rat…Ah, well.
We were all educated in the mission schools, my sisters in the convent. Mum was a qualified piano teacher, but I never quite got the hang of it. And so we got on with our lives.
When I met my wife, it was through the course of work. It was almost as though you could sense that she had a similar background, the kind of sense that only those who are brought up in large, close families can sense. It was almost five years after we first met that I proposed; she accepted. At the Thai engagement ceremony that is held before the wedding in the evening, my mother (who had met my mother-in-law for the first time the previous evening) said to me: ‘You know, son, isn’t it amazing? We’ve only met just last night but I feel we’ve known each other for years. And we can’t even speak in the same language!’ You could see the same feeling reflected in my mother-in-law’s eyes.
We’ve been together for sixteen years now, my eldest is in his early teens. Both families are close, and at my parents wedding anniversary, two of her sisters who came over with us helped out with the preparations at the church and the reception later, even though they are Buddhist.
My conclusion is this; the cultures we were brought up in were (and still are) different. There are still many things I have yet to come to grips with, as has my wife. That’s the culture gap. But we were brought up in a similar environment, which I believe has made the difference, and the strength to be tolerant.