Inside The In-laws. The Reunion. Part Two.
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..
This is off-topic but the timing is right so: She had never been with me on a work trip before and even though this wasn’t a real work trip I decided to act like it was and see how compatible she was with my work style. It turns out we do vacations great together, but not work. When “working” she expects things to be like a vacation because that’s what we’ve always done. Since this trip I’ve kept my string of assistants who I travel with when working while leaving the wife at home. This might sound strange until you know that my work often has me leaving the hotel a few hours before sunset, standing outside with a camera pointed at whatever waiting for the right moment, working on a computer during the middle of the day without interruptions, and repeating the performance again in the evening. I probably tend to be bossy, precise, inpatient, and have high expectations. This is fine when you’re paying someone and I really do have a lot of fun with my assistants as we travel around, it’s just that they realize it’s work first and fun second.
So, you can imagine her mood by the third day when we arrived in the town where her father was. We could have driven there in a hard day, but making it into a work type trip with other destinations would hopefully make it seem more “accidental.” Tired, more than a bit annoyed with my constant attention to my work and not her, we checked into a hotel not even 300 meters from her father's vendor stall. As we carried the bags in I could see him serving customers in the distance and I wondered how to do this. Entering our room I was pleased to see we got a “street view” with a small balcony where we could sit and eat and see everything happening on the street. I told her we’d be in this hotel for a few days so she emptied our bags into the drawers and seeing our dirty laundry bag getting full she said she’d go get some soap and wash the clothes in the bathroom. I suggested we use the laundry service I noticed a few doors down and after getting the standard lecture about wasting money she agreed to take them there and off she went.
Standing out on the balcony I watched her head in the direction where her father was working, but she didn’t seem to notice him and instead went inside the laundry place. I sat down and waited for her to come out, she was never one to pass up a street food stall without stopping and getting at least a small snack so I was hoping she’d choose his. A few minutes later she comes out, looks around, and walks right past him heading for a 7 Eleven, probably to get me some ice and Pepsi. Right as she passes him she stops and turns and looks right at him. I held my breath, it was over 20 years and she was just a little girl so what were the chances she’d recognize him? Suddenly she turns and heads into the 7 Eleven and walks past him again on the way back with barely a glance. Minutes later she’s back in the room asking me if I’m thirsty and telling me the laundry will be ready later that evening. Not a word mentioned about the man in the food stall.
After showers we were laying on the bed but something had changed. Normally she’d lay close to me and be affectionate and talk, but this time she just turned over to the wall and acted like I wasn’t there. Did she know? I tried talking to her a few times but she said she was tired and wanted to take a nap so I pulled out the laptop and busied myself while she took a nap. An hour later she woke up and told me she had dreamed about her father.
“What about?” I asked.
“I dreamed he was older and working hard but he couldn’t see me.” Asking if she actually saw him in her dreams and if there was any details she said yes, and that he just looked older and tired. Going back to work on my laptop I let
her lay there a while until finally she got bored and poked me and asked if we could go eat. This was it, it was time..
We dressed and left the room and walked down the street in the opposite direction of her father, looking for something to eat, but each time she asked if I liked this place or that place I found a reason not to like it. Finally I said I saw a food stall really close to our room, why didn’t we just get something and go back to the room and eat. We hardly ever hold hands in public, but she does hold on to my arm right above my elbow when we walk and as we approach the stall I feel her grip on my elbow tighten, a lot. Her father looks up and starts to ask what we would have and then stops. He appears in shock and I quickly turn and look at my wife and she’s crying. I look back at her father and he’s crying. So far so good, if I can just manage to keep my mouth from saying the wrong thing maybe this will work out.
Her father was just staring at her with tears streaming down the sides of his face, and looking at her doing the same I was struck for the first time by their resemblance. Same color skin, same hair, same basic structure to their faces, and they were both standing the same way giving off the same body language. Of course he was a man in his early 50’s with an apron around him and she was a cute girl in her late 20’s with a short tee shirt.. but even a blind man could see they were related. Other customers seeing what was happening stepped back a bit and watched. I asked my wife if she was ok and without taking her eyes off her father she said “This is my father.” It was pretty awkward for a few moments until it registered with the both of them what had happened and I halfway expected him to come out from behind his food cart and give her a hug. Instead, he looks down at the food he’s cooking and continues on and they start chattering on in Thai for about ten minutes. She looks at me and says this is her father and he’ll take a break in about ten minutes and meet us over by tables.
Soon we’re all sitting at the tables and they’re chattering on so fast I have no hope of understanding anything. I never felt more out of place in my life. I asked her if I could go back to the room and wait for her and she asked me to stay. I learned that her father had met a really nice woman and everyone here thinks he’s married and has no children, and since he has to live and work here it wouldn’t be good for people to learn he’s not really married to the woman he’s living with, but instead still married to my wife’s mom and had four kids he hasn’t seen in over 20 years. She was so practical about this it surprised me, but Thais tend to be practical when it comes to matters of family and face, like some unwritten code of conduct. One things for certain, he doesn’t want his current “wife” to meet her and that’s ok with my wife, no desire at all to meet her either. He asks if we can come back in the morning because he’s expected home soon and we agree and head back to our room.
The grip on my arm is tight as we climb the stairs to our room and only eases as I open the door and she used the hand to slap my head pretty hard! “Do you think I’m stupid?” Ok, so much for me getting away with a “surprise.” I’ve never seen my wife angry, not until we were married over 6 years and then it only lasted seconds. Still, at this point I was expecting anger after being slapped in the head so hard but when I turned around all I saw were tears and love. I tried to talk to her about him but all I got was small pieces of information like how long he’s been cooking at the food stall, how long he’d been in this town, and other bits and pieces. That night she gripped me tight as she slept and in the morning was awake with the soi dogs and dressed to go see her father before he opened his stall. This time she didn’t want me to go and that was ok with me. I had a telephoto lens and this was definitely a Kodak moment I was going to record even if from the balcony.
I’m not sure what I expected, but I expected more. But the bottom line was that her presence could really tear apart his life and the knowledge that she’d seen her father could really upset her mom and siblings. It turns out they talked, hugged, shared their feelings, and there really was no lack of love between them. The look on her father's face was the same as on any father's face when he’s proud of his daughter and loves her. A few brief meetings between them and I was told it was time to go home to Bangkok. Before I left I took a walk by myself and went to see her father. There was one thing I wanted to do. He saw me approaching and when I pulled out my wallet he told me no, he didn’t want anything and it was then I realized he thought I was trying to give him money! Sometimes I can be dense and this was one of those times, quickly reaching into my wallet I pulled out the small picture of me and my wife that I had put our phone numbers on the back of and handed it to him. I’m not sure he totally understood, but I tried to tell him I’d take good care of his daughter and to call us if he had a need. He wrote his number on a piece of paper and something in Thai, I think it was the hours to call him, and shaking hands we parted. I haven’t seen him since, and neither has my wife. Yet, every month on our phone bill I see a 20 – 30 minute call to a mobile phone in Isaan so I know they’re in contact and that’s much better than before.
The ride back to Bangkok was more quiet than usual, but for the most part nothing has changed except perhaps that my wife seems even more happy than usual which really isn’t possible, she’s the most happy optimistic person I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, in many ways the total opposite of me, but then she made me smile again.. It wasn’t until months later when she decided to share with her sister that she’d seen her father that things blew up.
As usual I was at the in-laws' house not understanding a word of what they were talking about when all of a sudden several sets of angry eyes turned on me as if to ask “why did you do that?” It turns out that’s exactly what they
were asking. My sister in-law who speaks some English asked me the question and I replied “because life is short and it’s the right thing to do.” She translated that for the mother and she looks at me seriously and surprisingly
shakes her head in agreement and that was all they said about it that day. Later I learned that in the days to follow the siblings had their own little arguments and feelings going back and forth about whether it was right or not for them to call
their father. Only one brother seemed adamant about seeing his father and about 4 – 5 months later he took on an engineering assignment near there.
Bonding. Bonding comes in many forms. My Thai brother in law now respects me more because I was responsible for finding his father. The other brother in law was less than impressed. One morning while staying over we go outside to his car and his windshield is shattered but still in one piece. All upset he calls his insurance company and they give him an address to take the car to and have it repaired. It’s still very early in the morning so the drive should be quick and safe and he asks me to go because I know a bit about cars. Sitting on the kitchen table was a roll of 2” packing tape, the clear stuff. Taking it I criss-crossed the windshield a few times to ensure the glass didn’t burst out and hurt someone (me) and he watched me doing this like I was wasting his tape and his time. But when we arrived at the windshield repair shop and they told him they’d mean to tell him to put the tape and forgot, and that he could have ended up with glass in his eyes, that was a moment of bonding. He looked at me with a new respect that day and from then on always asks me about new job offers, new cars he buys, and even if he should get married. Simple things yes, but the simple things, the acts of everyday life, are what really bond a family and the more involved you are with your family the more chances you have to bond and truly become a family member. I don’t think this is possible with short visits while on vacation, not really. But if you live in Thailand and you live close enough to become a regular fixture at their home and in their lives.. then you really can bond and become family. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll ever be “blood.”
It’s possible to be the head of your Thai family if you’re a farang, but it doesn’t come easy. I’ll talk about that more later, but the more you bond with them, especially the male members of the family, the better the odds are that you’ll find your “earned place” within the family. You won’t become the head of a family just because you’re older, or have more money, or because you come from a western country. These things help, but what really matters is do you have what it takes to counsel and advise the different family members when issues arise, or when major decisions such as home purchases and job offers are considered. You might not even be well liked, but if you honestly establish your value with the family and you have more value than anyone else, then you can become the leader of a Thai family and no major decision will be made without consulting you first, and if you choose to exercise your veto power it will probably be respected.
Until next time.
Really excellent. A touching submission. And I agree that a farang CAN become the head of the family. I know of one such fellow. An unusual situation, far from typical, but he is the head.