Inside The In-laws. The Reunion. Part One.
The inside or private intricacies of any family anywhere in the world are varied and interlaced with culture and tradition so it’s very hard to even know how a ‘typical’ set of in-laws could be defined, much less categorized so I won’t even hazard a guess if my in-laws are normal or usual for Thailand, but I do think they’re interesting so they have the dubious honor of being the topic of this weeks submission. Family history must be a part of any meaningful discussion, yet it can be revealing and often embarrassing and this family will be no exception. There is something about the family while not unique, may be useful to the discussion. We know many families move to Bangkok from outlaying areas for various reasons, and we’ve all heard of “Bangkok Thais”, those who claim to have “come from” Bangkok and often consider themselves superior to their countryside cousins. My in-laws' history in Bangkok is perhaps between the two, they moved to Bangkok over 40 years ago so while you can’t say they came from Bangkok, you at least know they’re well established and do in fact consider themselves “Bangkokians.”
The mother is a fair/white skinned lady most likely of Chinese descent and in her day she was probably a looker, in fact in her mid-50’s she puts many of her western counterparts to shame. Still in shape and well kept if it wasn’t for her decidedly matronly like appearance she might still attract an interested western suitor. The father is from Isaan and typical in appearance for the region. What I still don’t know for certain is how this rather ordinary dark brown skinned Isaan man of extremely modest means came to marry what was once a highly desirable white skinned lady of Chinese decent, but I do have my suspicions even if no one talks about it. This man ever obedient to his wife worked in factories, drove a tuk-tuk, and did whatever else his wife directed while she was busy giving birth to and raising four children. Knowing the mom as I’ve come to it comes as no surprise when it’s explained to me that he “cheated” on “our mother”, was a drunk, and allegedly typical of the worst type of Thai man. I know we’ve all heard this stereotype but the more I knew the mother the more I had my doubts. If he did cheat I figure he was driven to it after years of being told he wasn’t working hard enough, making enough money, or producing as a man should. So one day I decided to question my wife about her father.
Asking what age she was the last time she saw her father she thinks back and tells me she was about 8 – 9. That would make the oldest sister 10 – 11, about the latest you could ‘get rid’ of the man in the family without the kids having definitive knowledge or memories of the marital relationship. “What do you remember most about your Dad?” I asked. My wife silently bowed her head in thought and considerable time went by without a response, and when she finally lifted her head there were tears in her eyes as she explained to me her father used to read to her every night from a book and sometimes he would make up stories and these were her favorite. She went on to tell me how her father took her to work with him, cooked for all the children, and would organize games and activities even on the nights when he would come home dead tired from working heavy construction jobs. “Was your father ever mean to you or hit you or any sort of abuse?” She didn’t want to answer this so I let it drop for a few weeks and when revisited she told me there was a big family secret only her sister (the oldest child) knew about and that her sister and mother told her the father was a very bad man. Pressing I asked her, “exactly what bad things do you remember?” Answering she told met she didn’t remember any bad things, only all the good things and how comfortable she was when he sang her to sleep. I let it go for a while as it was obvious this was an emotional subject and even the tiny bits and pieces I was able to pick up from family and extended family were hushed and well guarded.
One night we were sitting quietly outside in the garden and I brought the subject up again, asking her if she could forget about what she was being told about her father from her mother and sister, how did she really feel about her father. Minutes ticked by in silence and I thought she wasn’t going to answer when all of a sudden words rushed out of her and she started talking faster than I’d ever heard her talk before. She said she missed her father terribly, that he was the only one who ever understood her and loved her and after her mother made him leave she was handed off to “grow” with a grandmother until such time as she was big enough to earn her keep in her mother's home. She followed with many heartfelt stories that depicted a loving and caring father, far from the stereotypical Thai man we’ve all heard before. The more she talked the more I knew something was wrong and the more I knew I must do something.. but what?
It didn’t take long for me to decide I was going to find her father and reunite at least him and his youngest daughter, but it wasn’t going to be easy. Discussing him was a taboo subject that would spoil the mood of any family meeting or function so I carefully chose who and how I asked. Asking her to collect her records ‘just in case’ we needed them provided me with school and medical records and this is where I started. “Borrowing” school age photos from the family albums I visited the schools and asked if anyone remembered my wife. I was starting to get discouraged talking to the officials at the school and while walking away from their office on my way out an old cleaning lady who was in the office before grabbed my arm and asked to look at the pictures. Almost immediately a toothless smile crossed her face and looking up at me she said she remembered this little girl well and I asked her why. She told me because she was the only child whose father walked her to school every morning and played with her until the bell sounded. Asking if she knew him, or how I could get a hold of him resulted in no new information. Leaving the school I was even more determined to find the man.
On the school enrolment forms the father was listed from Isaan and since I had been told previously he was from Isaan I figured he probably went back near family. Thailand is one place where computerized records from 20 – 25 years past probably wouldn’t be available and my searches proved this to be true. In one of my submissions previously I mentioned an aunt I was taken to for the sin sod discussion and she spoke perfect English. I remembered her name and asking my sister in law to borrow her phone (my wife had never been allowed to have a phone) I went outside to make a call and looked through the phone book on her phone. This turned out to be a disaster. First, the menu on the phone was all in Thai and I was lucky to even get inside the phone book, and once inside the phone book area the only names were in Thai. I needed help, and I needed the phone. Slipping the phone in my pocket I hoped she’d forget I had it and she did. We left for home shortly after and I called my ‘Thai daughter” and asked her to meet me at home. I had turned my own phone's ringer off in anticipation of calls and half way home it started vibrating and kept on vibrating for a while. As soon as we got home my wife went to take a shower and soon my ‘Thai daughter’ had found the number I needed. Slipping the phone back in my pocket and turning the ringer back on my phone I looked properly surprised a few minutes later when it rang and a panicked sister was asking me about the phone. I asked my wife if she would mind returning the phone and while she was gone I called and had a chat with the aunt. From my last submission you’ll know that this aunt didn’t like her sister at all and in fact warned me about her. It turns out she was very helpful about the father and told me the mom had literally run him out of town with her constant nagging and accusations and that he was a great father. She also knew his home town and with some help I had the proper spelling and closest big town. A devious and busy day, but all necessary.
This started a series of “work” trips as I’d tell the wife. I’d load up my Tiger pickup with camera gear and tell her I was going to research some projects and instead I’d head to Isaan with a town circled on a map, a name, and a few pictures. 5 – 6 trips later I found him. Sitting across the street on the steps of a 7 Eleven I watched him greet his customers and cook them their meals from the modest food cart he owned. He didn’t know me and I hadn’t introduced myself, but after watching him long enough to “age” him in my mind I was fairly certain this was the man. Crossing the street with my “Thai daughter’ who was working as my assistant in those days we approached the food stall and she ordered some snacks and asked him about his family. He said he lived with his wife close by. We left and walked down the street and I asked her to push him about if he’d ever had children, I was sure this was the guy! Going back by herself she asked if he’d ever had children and his response said it all. He got angry and told her it was none of her business and then started closing up his cart and pushed it away in apparent anger. This was too perfect, not only did we now know where he set up his cart every day but we were soon to learn where he lived. Marking down the address and other information we left town and headed back to Bangkok and man was I excited! I’d finally found the guy and he was alive and healthy and I knew where he worked and where he lived. But what to do with this information?
Usually we chatted a lot, but all the way home I was trying to think of a way to get my wife up here and make it seem like we accidentally ran across her father, certainly I didn’t want to admit I’d been snooping and planning this, at least not until I saw both of their reactions. It had been over 20 years since she’d seen her father, would she even recognize him? Would he want to see her? Would she immediately see through my efforts and be angry at me? My ‘Thai daughter’ told me I was skating on very thin ice, that getting involved with family affairs was unheard of by outsiders. She advised that I never ever tell the truth.
If you go back to one of my previous submission “She taught me to smile again” and read the history of how we met and our dating, this part of when I was looking for her father was happening right before she had moved into my condo, but before we were married. We weren’t married and I was way out of line in my actions. Yet, personal experiences in my own life motivated me that much more to learn the truth and if possible reunite the man who sang a little girl to sleep with the woman I was to marry. Arriving home my ‘Thai daughter’ once more cautioned me to think long and hard about my next move. As we pulled into my condo on Ladphrao and the security gates slowly opened my wife watching for us from the upper garden / pool deck looked down and gave me that famous smile I would do anything for and I knew that soon we’d be heading to Isaan together to see her father.
Over the next few weeks I could barely sit still, in one breath I wanted to tell her everything right there, and in the other breath I was planning this dramatic accidental reunion. She noticed something was on my mind and asked me about it and I told her I was thinking about my own father and that I needed to call him and chat, so I did. At this point she was still learning to understand my English in person but she still sat and listened to every word with interest as my father and I chatted away about nothing in particular. When I was done talking she had a thousand questions about what we talked about, my relationship with him, and when I’d see him again. I told her that my dad left town when I was about 8-9 years old and I didn’t see him again until my early 30’s. She asked why I would want to meet a man who deserted his children after so long. I told her my two sisters and brother never forgave him and therefore didn’t have a father to have a relationship with, but I saw no sense in holding anger over something that happened so long ago and because of this I’d been enjoying a meaningful relationship with my father. She asked why he left. I told her I didn’t exactly know and at the time I didn’t, but I had my suspicions. I loved my mom and she was a good woman, but I also knew her very well including her faults. I told her that my dad was accused of cheating on my mom and my mom asked him to leave and he left and never came back as she asked of him. I was to learn later in my life that this was far from the entire story. That night as I held her to sleep she put her head on my shoulder and told me “I wish I knew where my father was..”
The next few months went by quickly, exams at school, assignments that took me all over SEA, and great times with my wife. Soon a break in my schedule afforded me the chance I’d been waiting for and I asked my wife if she’d like to go on one of my work assignments and she was really happy to go. We packed equipment and loaded the truck and set out for Isaan. As we got closer my apprehension over her possible reactions grew worse and I wondered if I was doing the right thing, and I wondered if this could backfire on me and hurt our relationship. Before we left my ‘Thai daughter’ once more told me I was risking everything and wished me luck, and I must admit that didn’t make me feel better about this at all. Would she recognize him? Would she be happy, sad, angry? Looking over at her she flashed me her wonderful smile and suddenly calmed I drove on..
Until next time…
Wow, this is one hell of a story. Can't wait to read part 2!