Deck the Halls With Bottles of Maggi
She’s got her elbows on the table and she’s smiling. She’s still as lovely as the day I met her, but what strikes me in this moment is how comfortable She seems eating at a table. I could count the number of times we ate at a table on the fingers of one hand. We always ate on the floor; that’s how She grew up and a dining table was not on the list of requirements She presented before She would agree to live with me. We never did own a single chair.
The cutlery on Her table now, the plates, this homey kitchen, all Western. The only obviously Asian things in the room are Her face and a bottle of Maggi sauce. I was the expat when we were young, or at least when she was young. Now she’s the expat. How is that for her, I wonder. Is it like it was for me? Is the expat experience something we have in common now?
The Borough Council goes to great lengths to keep a sense of nostalgia on the streets where She lives. The town sells itself as historic; there are building codes meant to preserve the flavor of a medieval market town. When She sees the twisty pre-conquest streets, the fitted stone footpaths, the red brick lintels above the narrow windows, does She think, “How quaint?” Does she have the necessary cultural touchstones to be charmed by the faux Tudor store fronts and the Gothic lettering on the signs? Or is it all still slightly alien to her, like the Sino-Portuguese architecture of Phuket always was to me? Did it take her longer to learn to sleep in gas heat than it took me to learn to sleep under a mosquito net?
The first time I drove into Phuket I was struck with the otherworldliness of the Heroine’s Monument: Women in armor, bearing swords. By the time I left, seven years later, those two women meant, “home.” When She drives into London, does Nelson’s column mean, “home?”
I used to listen to Luk Thoong music on FM 89.7 in Phuket, and I loved a DJ named Roonghtip, because she spoke a slow, clear Bangkok Thai that I could understand when all the other DJ’s spoke Lang Dtai. Does She have a favorite disc jockey on the BBC? Maybe Jo Whiley? I’m sure that even after 20 years She couldn’t understand a word Cerys Matthews says. The Lord Mayor of Cardiff couldn’t understand a word of what Cerys Matthews says.
People on Phuket used to say I spoke Bangkok Thai with a Southern accent. My employer, a Thai nobleman educated at Andover and Harvard, said I sounded like “Jethro Clampett reading JD Salinger.” I used to catch myself sometimes thinking in Thai. I still sometimes dream in Thai. Does she think in English? Does she dream in English? Does she cringe when her children meet Thai people, because they speak Thai with an accent or not at all?
When I got homesick on Phuket I used to go have a burger at the Bluefin Tavern, because the owner’s accent was pure New Yawk. Does she have a Thai restaurant in London where she goes when she’s homesick, where they make curried crab Phuket style and the waitresses speak Lang Dtai?
When I lived on Phuket everybody had an opinion on American politics. Usually I just smiled and nodded, because it was never worth the argument. When some farang who spent a couple weeks in Pattaya tells her why the red shirts are right or the yellow shirts are right does she bite her tongue and smile? Does it make her uncomfortable when her husband makes jokes about the British Royal Family? Does anybody there understand her feelings about her own Royals?
Nobody in England throws water at each other to ring in the new year, nobody celebrates Father’s Day on December 5th. Does she sometimes get tired of being a stranger in a strange land, and does she ever question her decision to live on that island, as I did on her island?
And how about Christmas? That was the thing I missed most when we lived on Phuket. A hundred degrees, a hundred percent humidity, and exactly twelve hours of sunshine every day, year round. Coming from New York City, a melting pot of a hundred cultures where everybody gets on board the Polar Express, where even my Mexican Jewish friend would unplug his phone so he wouldn’t be disturbed during the annual broadcast of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Christmas on Phuket didn’t seem like Christmas at all.
My first December on the island a friend sent me a Christmas card from Macy’s, showing the Fifth Avenue windows all decorated for the season. Animatronic elves and a robot Santa Claus. Cotton wool snow in the windows that was whiter than the snow outside. I put that card on my book shelves every December I was on Phuket, where I could see it as soon as I came in my front door. Seeing that Macy’s Christmas card was always a mixed blessing, on one hand evoking a sweet nostalgia for the life I left behind, on the other hand making me a tiny bit more comfortable in this new one I was trying to build.
So what is Christmas to Her now? Family and duty and status, of course. I mean, She’s still Thai. A huge family to cook for, lots of presents to buy, a big house to decorate. Sublimation of the individual to the primacy of the group, because she’s still Thai. But does Christmas make her feel more at home, or less, after two decades in a Christian nation? The Christian nation that gave the world Dickens, and thus gave the world its idea of what Christmas should be. Does she understand the moral redemption of a fictitious Victorian moneylender? As much as I ever understood the victory over absolute good and absolute evil by a morally ambivalent monkey in the Ramakien, I guess.
Is the cold, wet Christmas of England a time when she misses the hundred degree heat, the hundred percent humidity, the murmur of the surf, and eating on the floor?
Is her bottle of Maggi a Christmas Card from Macy’s?