The Acharn’s Somtam
I had somtam at my local Thai restaurant yesterday and as usual it was a huge disappointment. Because fresh raw papaya is so expensive in Iowa they use very little of it in the salad, substituting an enormous amount of shredded carrots. They never make it spicy, because they refuse to believe that Iowans can eat spicy food, no matter how many times I ask, in polite Thai that is still well accented after thirteen years away from The Kingdom. They don’t even put peanuts in it, let alone crabs. The guy who cooks in this restaurant is a graduate student in chemistry during the day, stays up until 4 a.m. doing his homework, and I never have the heart to complain. The somtam costs nine dollars and feeds a single diner. Don’t even ask for sticky rice.
I break down maybe once a month and settle for Iowa somtam, and every time I do I am reminded of Acharn Kanokrat’s somtam.
I never learned her nickname; nobody ever called her anything except Acharn Kanokrat, or more usually “The Acharn.” She was the administrator of Wittayalai Chumchorn Phuket, the island’s community college. I went there looking for work when I first arrived on Phuket, after a guy in a bar told me anybody could teach English in Thailand. I went into the interview feeling cocky, because after all I was “anybody” and thus qualified. The Acharn deflated me with about ten words of perfect British English. My degree was in Theatre, not education. I had only been in Thailand a few months and spoke very little Thai. I had no teaching experience at all. She made it clear I was not a very desirable candidate. In desperation I mentioned my mother was an English teacher. At the mention of “mother” the Acharn, who was childless, gave me the job.
I taught a class of students from the Rubber Technology Program. They were the scions of the upper class, privileged and spoiled, and uninterested in English as the lingua franca of the rubber industry is Malay. Their fathers owned miles and miles of rubber trees; they knew what they would do with their lives and saw no need for education. They came to the college to please their parents, and they came to my classroom to please Acharn Kanokrat.
Everybody in the building did whatever they could to please The Acharn. There were lots of people on the faculty who had earned the title “Acharn,” instead of the more prosaic “Khru,” but Acharn Kanokrat was always “The Acharn.” Once I learned what the title meant I did not allow my students to call me Acharn or even Khru. Just Mister Rosse.
I struggled at teaching. I sucked at it. Honestly, I am the least qualified person by temperament to be a teacher. I am selfish and impatient and scatter-brained. I am a creature of impulse and inspiration and a lesson plan is as incomprehensible to me as the tablets of Hammurabi. But I’m a born clown, and Thai people love nobody more than a clown, so after the first week the parents of my students were calling The Acharn to say how much their kids loved the new farang acharn. She favored me with a smile. My heart skipped a beat.
The Acharn was probably in her mid-fifties, and I was thirty-two. She was tall for an Asian, probably five-nine or five-ten. She was thin, extremely thin, and she walked with an absolutely noble posture that accentuated her height. She was serene, and when she walked down a hallway crowded at the end of the day with students rushing for home her aura spread out and calmed the frantic mass of humanity like a drug. She was strict, and she was stern, but she was fair and honest and she loved her students and she loved her faculty and there was not a human soul in that building who did not love her back.
I worshiped the ground she walked on.
She forgave me a host of sins. All of them did. All of the teachers were better educated than I was, several spoke English fluently. All the faculty members of the Tourism Management Department, the flagship program as you would expect on Phuket, spoke several European or Asian languages. They were all career educators, dedicated professionals, and I was nothing but a tourist who stumbled into a dream job, but instead of the scorn I should have had at their hands I was treated like an honored guest. I made blunder after blunder, even bringing my prostitute girlfriend to a faculty party, but they forgave my every faux pas with grace and charm. The Acharn set the tone by being kind to me, and they all followed her lead. She was the Alpha Female, and anybody in the building, student, teacher or farang, would follow the Acharn through the gates of Hell.
Her husband was a government official they all said, somebody in a gray uniform, scary powerful. Because she had been unable to give him children The Acharn’s husband lived in Phang Nga with his mia noi and their kids. The Acharn lived alone in a beautiful house on the mountain over Cape Panwa; she tended her garden in the late afternoons and corrected papers in the evenings. She had been one of the first people on the island to own a VCR, and she watched a lot of foreign movies.
She liked to talk to me. Maybe she found me exotic, but I honestly think it had to do with mentioning my Mom in that first conversation. I don’t know exactly why, but I became one of The Acharn’s favorites, and about once a week she would invite me to eat somtam with her in her office after work.
There was always another teacher there for propriety’s sake, but during the time I taught at Wittayalai Chumchorn Phuket I was the only regular to The Acharn’s weekly somtam parties. She made the salad herself, in the staff lounge, from papayas she grew in her garden, and in all my time in Thailand I never tasted better. It was just sweet enough, just hot enough, just enough peanuts, just enough crabs. The Acharn taught me to roll the sticky rice in my palm, and if I ever managed to produce a bite-sized ball with no kernels stuck to my hand I was rewarded with one of her saint’s smiles. We talked in English, because every Thai intellectual loves to show off her English. We talked of local politics and Thai manners and whether America would invade Kuwait to kick out Saddam Hussein. We ate with our fingers and slurped the ambrosia of the Acharn’s somtam. We talked of the monsoons and motorcycles and fish. We talked about nothing at all. I laughed, she smiled, our chaperone did what chaperones do. We were flirting. Odd, nonsexual, never-going-to-turn-into-anything, flirting. Everything I was not getting from the woman I lived with, I got from The Acharn.
It was a beautiful season. Wake up late, eat a huge breakfast, hang around the beach smoking pot and shooting pool. Come home for lunchtime sex and a nap. Shower and go to work. Bask in the adoration of my students and the camaraderie of my colleagues. Share lingering eye contact with The Acharn. Eat the best somtam I’ll ever eat. Go home, shower, head out to the bars. Rinse and repeat.
Then I got another job, a better job, a non-teaching show-biz job. At the end of the semester I told the Acharn I would be leaving, and she acted like she had expected it. Remember the scene in “Kung Fu” where the old abbot sends Grasshopper out into the world? How about the scene in “Tea and Sympathy” where Deborah Kerr says, “When you speak of this in future years… and you will… be kind.”
The faculty threw me a little party in the staff lounge. My students gave me a present. Some of the girls cried. I felt like a heel for leaving.
As I climbed onto my motorcycle in the parking lot, The Acharn came walking out to me holding a bundle wrapped in tin foil and saran wrap. She didn’t hurry; she knew I’d turn off the bike and wait for her. She handed me the bundle and I knew from its weight what it was. She didn’t say anything; she just smiled at me and turned. I watched her walk away with her Cleopatra glide.
The Acharn is dead now. Liver cancer. I’m in America now, working in a place where the people will forgive my absent-mindedness, my forgetfulness, my impulsivity and impatience. I eat somtam made with carrots by a boy chemist. With every bite of it I miss a woman I never touched.