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It's sometimes funny how things work out in life. Daeng and I have had many a laugh at some of the stories posted here and many have left us totally incredulous. She wanted me to tell our story many times and I always resisted. Now, more for me than
you, I have decided to show you a glimpse of the Thailand that captivated me. Why now, you may wonder. An unforeseen event has convinced me that it is a story that should be told. For this, it is necessary to go back to the beginning.
I first came to Thailand in January 1997. At the time, I resented the fact that I had been forced to go there. I was basically given two choices: go to Thailand or go on unemployment. Seeing as how those were the only two options I was presented with, I naturally chose Thailand. Being only 25 and loose in Bangkok with an expat package you would think life would be a bed of roses. It wasn't. All I did was work. The one day I had off each week was used for recuperating. We were working 18 hour days in order to facilitate the sale of a no longer wanted business unit. Things didn't proceed as quickly as anyone would have liked and what was supposed to be a 6 month assignment ended up lasting two years.
It was during the long nights at the office that I first noticed an unobtrusive flower. Never had I seen anything plainer and so desperately trying to avoid the light. After a while, I started paying closer attention. Night after night it was there but I didn't know why. It was so obviously out of place but where had it come from.
By this point, it was evident that the business unit was not going to be sold. Fortunately, it was not losing money. Had it been, I probably would have been sent home and I would have missed out on an incredible experience. The plan shifted from selling the unit to making it more profitable. The upside of this was that our working hours were drastically reduced.
My thoughts drifted back to the flower. As I thought back, I could not recall ever having seen it during the day. I started looking for it. Sure enough, it was never visible during the day. Yet, night after night, it was always there. There was a story here and it was really starting to pique my curiosity. Even on days when I didn't have to work late, I would wait around to see where the flower came from. Finally, one night, I had just gotten off of a call with my bosses back in the US and, when I looked out across the office, the flower was once again there. How had I managed to miss it again?
I now decided to have a closer look. Picking up this flower, it was now obvious that it was silk and not a real flower at all. This intrigued me. Why would this silk flower mean so much to someone that they would carry it back and forth every day? It was then that I saw Daeng. She had been quietly observing me and, now, she quickly gathered up some books that were beside her and ran from the office. Then the night cleaning lady ran out of the office after her. I could hear their voices outside but couldn't make out much of what was being said. What little Thai I understood was limited to basic survival.
As I was soon to learn, the cleaning lady was Daeng's mother. They came back in to the office and approached me. Curiously, none of the Thai management came out of their offices but I could feel all eyes on me. It seemed as if everyone was waiting to see what I was going to do. Was it a test of some kind? When she started to speak, my first thought was that her English was quite good but a little coarse. My second thought was that she resembled her little silk flower. She tried so hard to be invisible but there was something extraordinary about her. I soon realized that everyone was waiting for me to say something. Lost in my own thoughts, as I had been, I hadn't heard anything that she said. Her mother started speaking again. As I looked at her, I realized I had no idea who she was. She had been cleaning the offices the entire time that I had been there and she was completely unrecognizable to me. This, I would later determine, was a shameful oversight on my part.
Finally paying attention again, Daeng was translating her mother's words for me. She was apologizing for bringing Daeng with her every night but explained that it was not safe to leave her alone at home all night because they lived in an unsafe area. She asked that I please let her keep her job as it was very important to them and she promised to find a more suitable place for Daeng to stay each night. This whole conversation made me very uncomfortable. I have to admit, though, that I was very curious as to what Daeng did to occupy her time. I asked about the books that I had seen and she explained that she was attending university and she used the time here to study. She was dressed so plainly, and I had seen university uniforms, so I inquired as to why she was not in uniform. Apparently they had decided that it would be best that she look no different from someone who might be cleaning the offices, so as to blend in to the background. I have to admit, she had done a good job of it. I could not recall having ever noticed her before that night but maybe that was again just a case of me looking right past her as I had obviously done with her mother. Needless to say, I assured her that she was more than welcome to come with her mother and that there was no need for her to hide in a corner. There were a few vacant offices and a couple of conference rooms and I told her that she would probably be more comfortable using one of them. When she told her mother that everything was ok, I thought she was going to cry. When the mother wai'd me, that made me feel even more uncomfortable. I still wanted to learn the story behind the flower but, with all that had just transpired, felt it was not the right time to ask.
Each night, when I would leave for the evening, it would bring a smile to my face to look over and see that flower on the desk where she was studying. Some days all was well at work and some days were total disasters. Each night as I left, though, I felt that there was something good in the world. One night as I was leaving, Daeng approached me and extended an invitation to have lunch with her family the next day. By now, I had become infatuated with the thought of her and I readily accepted. She wrote her address down and told me to give it to any taxi driver and they should be able to find the place. She also gave me a cell phone number and told me to call when I arrived and she would come out to meet me. Looking a little uncomfortable, she started to explain to me that they didn't have much and, consequently, they lived in a very poor area. After assuring her that it was of no concern, I left for the evening feeling that I was walking on air.
Not really knowing what they would like, I decided to take imported chocolates and fresh fruits as a gift. If they really had nothing, I figured this would at least be something they could enjoy. That meal spent with the family was probably one of the best experiences I had that year. I can no longer tell you what we ate but the story that I uncovered was priceless. Daeng's parents had once owned a farm in Isaan. Practically everyone in both families were farmers. They, however, decided that they wanted a better life for their daughter and they sold everything and moved her to Bangkok. With the proceeds of the sale of the farm, they managed to get her into a very prestigious school. They each worked two and three jobs. Their only thought was that she get a first rate education and not have to live the life that had certainly awaited her had they not left Isaan. She rarely ever saw her father. If not for the job at my company, the same would have been true of her mother. It was obvious that the years of endless days were taking a toll on them. Now, in her last year of university, she was looking forward to graduation and the day when they could stop working. As fascinating as the story was, I still had to know about the flower. Why was it so important to her? What did it represent? I will be forever grateful that I asked her.
Even with their focus on producing a crop which would feed and sustain the family, they always wanted something more for their daughter. One small plot had been set aside for the cultivation of flowers. If nothing else, they were adamant that she find some beauty in her life. They were determined that she aspire to have something more than their parents had ever been able to provide for them. This flower was, she said, a reminder of the sacrifices that her parents made for her. It reminded her of the farm that had been sold to start her on her road to education. It helped her to appreciate beauty wherever she could find it. Every day it caused her to reflect on the simple things that so many take for granted yet so many cannot afford. She chose a bud, rather than a flower in bloom, lest she ever forget that her parents had placed their lives on hold so that she might blossom. Seeing that flower, standing so straight and tall, reinforced the values that her parents had taught her. No matter the hardship they faced, no matter the struggle at hand, her parents taught her that honor and integrity were the only things in this life that truly defined a person. That flower reminded her that, after all her parents had given up for her, to sacrifice either of those two things would be the ultimate betrayal of all that they had stood for. It caused her to constantly consider the debt that she owed and it pushed her to strive to be worthy of the gift they had given her. When things seemed hard for her, she thought of the hardships of her parents. The last thing she ever wanted to do, she said, was to be a disappointment to her parents and have them think that their sacrifices had been wasted on her. I'm not too big a man to admit that I cried throughout her story. When she finally finished her father asked her what was wrong. I suppose that she related her feelings to them as everyone was crying before it was over. Her parents had obviously sacrificed much for her future but I never got the sense that they felt they had sacrificed anything.
I was there when she graduated and the pride that showed on their faces was a joy to behold. Knowing that her parents had no money saved, as every cent had gone toward Daeng's education, I offered to buy them new outfits for her graduation ceremony. Many times I had offered them assistance and they had always politely declined. This time, they also declined but I can never forget the conversation that ensued. Her father asked her what she thought of my offer. She said that it was a generous offer, and much appreciated, but that new clothes would not make the day any sweeter. Her love for her parents was unconditional and she would not feel any less love, nor be embarrassed, even if they showed up in rags. Her father again thanked me and said that it would not be necessary to purchase anything. He said he was but a simple man who would probably feel uncomfortable in a suit anyway. They had clothes that, to them, were suitable and any man who would think less of them because of what they wore was not a man he would wish to know. The only eyes they needed to look good in that day were their daughters. I asked him if he thought all their sacrifices had been worth it. He laughed. I think it was the first time I had ever seen him laugh. He said 'sacrifices' was too strong a word. Actions borne of love, while they may appear to be sacrifices to someone on the outside looking in, are really not sacrifices at all. Individually, you have your honor and integrity. After that, you have only your family. To know what is truly important in life would allow you to endure anything for the sake of a loved one, a truly deserving loved one, without feeling put upon at all. As for whether it was worth it, one only need look at his daughter to know the answer to that. On that last point, I know exactly what he meant. Daeng and I were married on Christmas Day 1998.
Family was important to Daeng and she wanted to start her own. Our son was born in September 1999. Our daughter followed in June
2001. Life didn't seem like it could get any better. If you've never experienced it yourself, I'm not sure how to make you see how it feels to have another person who is like a part of your very soul, an extension of yourself. Before we married, she told me that she didn't know if she would ever be able to love me more than she loved her parents. That may have been enough to turn some people off from marrying her. For me, it didn't matter. I knew what her parents had done for her and I knew how much she loved them and, if she only loved me half as much, I would still know that I had been truly loved. Of course, I have no doubt that she came to love me at least as much as, if not more than, her parents by her actions. Every day was an experience to treasure. I had conflicting emotions about whether to go to bed at night or get up in the morning. I would look forward to going to bed just for some relaxing, quiet time to lie there, holding her and talking. I would also dread going to bed because I didn't want the day to end. The inverse was true of getting out of bed in the morning. On one hand, I didn't want to let go of her because it just felt so natural lying there together. On the other hand, I couldn't wait to find out what the new day had in store for us. Every day seemed to be better than the day before. I was blessed to have found her.
My beloved Daeng. I lost her on New Years Day 2007 when a drunk driver crossed a median and drove directly into the side of our car. Daeng died almost instantly and I was in the hospital for about a month. I know it's not my fault but not a day goes by that I don't feel guilty. I should have been driving the car that night but Daeng loved to drive. It gave her a sense of freedom that she had not known in Bangkok. Every day is still a struggle for me. The pain I feel each day is unbearable. Her absence has left a hole in my heart that I don't think can ever be filled. I know I was truly fortunate to have had what little time we did but now I feel as if I'm cursed to have to spend the rest of my life without her. I wonder every day if I wouldn't have been better off never having known her. Her and that damn silk flower of hers. I haven't quite figured out how to deal with the loss yet. Every day is a struggle to get out of bed but I do it for the children. Unfortunately for Chumpoo, she is the spitting image of her mother. It's sometimes all I can do just to look at her. It's totally shameful and I'm completely disgusted by my actions but, when I see her, it's an involuntary response and I don't know how to control it. I don't think she has yet detected the reluctance and hesitation on my part and I pray that I can get control of the situation before any further harm is done to her.
It's too soon to say if writing this has helped any. I just wish I had done it when she was still here, when she had wanted me to. Maybe she would have made a new friend.
One of the things that bothered Daeng was the way in which Isaan people were always being denigrated. She sometimes had trouble with American idioms and once asked me how someone could tar them all with the same feather. I told her that she shouldn't worry about it, that there was no use being bothered by the remarks of small-minded people. Still, she couldn't understand it. I guess that, more than anything, is why I chose to write this.
My life was inextricably changed by the course chosen by a simple farmer from Isaan. A simple farmer he may have been but I've never met any man that I admired more. If my children think me half the man that I know him to be, I'll be doing good. The next time you find yourself about to judge an entire class of people based on the actions of a few, remember Daeng and try not to tar them all with the same feather.
Baby, I've tried so hard to hang on to you but I have to let you go now. Your greatest fear in life was the thought that you might disappoint your parents. I want you to know that you can rest easy. You were always their pride and joy. How you could have ever thought that you would disappoint anyone is beyond me.
You were Thailand to me.
I miss you so much.
Good bye, baby.
I'll always love you.
This is truly heart-breaking.
I really do not know what to say, suffice that I cannot imagine such a loss and my deepest, heartfelt condolences go out to you.