Today marks the last day of my visit to Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand located near–and sharing an affinity with–Lao DPR. It’s a special day because by now my girlfriend’s family has started to like me, and because it’s the first time they’ve been around someone who gives a damn about Christmas. Like so much of the chocolate we eat on this tinsel-quality holiday of commercial cheer, it’s also bittersweet. Today, I miss my actual family, who as I write this are settling down with eggnog farts and visions of sleigh bells. And today, I’m leaving my newly acquired Thai family to return to the now-monotonous life of teaching in Pattaya.
As I write this, I sit at a picnic table constructed from bamboo shoots, while swatting flies and dogs away from barbecue chicken sitting out for sale to locals. The hollow clunk-clunk-clunk of a mortar and pestle keeps a steady tempo as Yai-Loh–my girlfriend’s mother–makes som tam.
Her shop is a makeshift vending booth, also composed of bamboo with a logged skeleton. Behind it is a raised bamboo platform for Yai-Loh to sit crossed-legged as she bashes away at strips of green papaya, chili peppers, garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce, long beans, lime, peanuts, and tomatoes. Occasionally she’s interrupted by customers, chattering in Thai, laughing, and most likely making remarks about the farang guy sitting and writing in his notebook. Except for their periodic appearance, Yai-Loh and I are alone outside. My girlfriend is inside cooking rice. When we’re alone together, we’re usually speechless due to our language barrier. By now, we’re comfortable with that, and use facial expressions and body language to communicate, often joking in a silent but powerful language, and laughing heartily at our jests.
The three of us, my girlfriend, her mother, and me, have had a tiresome 4 days together. We returned late last night from Vientiane, Laos.
Upon returning, I was craving some chocolate. Every Christmas in my memory tastes of chocolate–especially thanks to the Toblerone I receive in my stockings every year. Foreseeing this craving, and feeling the pain of being far from home, away from my family, and away from the holiday atmosphere that customarily annoys me, and knowing that nostalgia and sentimentalism are the languages of the holiday, I bought some chocolate in Udon Thani. And not just any chocolate–a special gift pack of Toblerone in a branded triangular box. And my intention wasn’t selfish. I wanted to share it with my Thai family, and give them a taste of my Christmas nostalgia.
So I came back from a tiresome visa run to Vientiane, to a home (Yai-Loh’s house) away from home (Pattaya) away from home (America), and I thought, I’ll sneak in one piece of chocolate tonight for myself. After all, I bought it, and I always sneak a peak on Christmas Eve.
I found the box next to my pillow–not where I left it under the blanket roll at the foot of the bed before we left for Vientiane. Perhaps someone–other members of the family–had cleaned the room while we were gone and placed the box kindly next to my pillow. I picked up the box and began to search its edges for its sealing tape. Instead of finding tape with that perfect factory seal–no bubbles or folds in the tape, and that transparent color-saturating quality–I found that the tape had small inconsistencies in its re-colorization of the yellow hue of the box, with small air bubbles. Its edges were also raised at the corner. The tape, in other words, had been unstuck and re-stuck. The box had been tampered with.
In a panic I lifted the tape on all three sides and removed the top of the box. In the bottom row, the middle piece of dark chocolate was missing. I checked the package count and recounted the pieces–the total number minus one! Someone had stolen a piece of chocolate–a piece of dark Toblerone chocolate!
I was hurt. Not over the missing chocolate itself–which would have been shared anyway. And not because I’m gluttonously fat either. I was hurt over the lack of respect and bewildered by this obvious breach of the code of hospitality–that someone would steal from a guest in their home. And not just any guest either–a significant other–a tentative extension of the family–a person whose lasting first impression matters more than most. I was hurt also by the lack of gratitude. I had already given so much to this family. I promised my girlfriend I could ignore their dysfunction for the sake of staying with her and enjoying her companionship.
But it wasn’t just the breach of trust, lack of respect, or principle dishonor. I was hurt because that box symbolized my holiday experience. It was home. It was a memory in the making. And someone tampered with it, and tainted it!
So I told my girlfriend. I told her my feelings in so many words, not expecting her or her family to fully understand. She was pissed. “I think my brother,” she said.
This assertion didn’t surprise me. At 18 years, he was rebelliously independent, conniving, and dishonest. My girlfriend warned me not to leave anything valuable when we left for Vientiane, for fear that he might pilfer it. Just as we were both considering the likelihood of his guilt, we heard his voice outside calling for her.
After some harsh Thai shouted back and forth, he stormed off on his motorbike. “He talk bad to me. He say he not eat it,” she said. “But he lying, I think.”
She called her mother, who was down the street in her junga, where he was also headed in a rage. She told her what happened.
Yai-Loh, after seeing her son come in crying, upset by the accusation, explained over the phone that he had been out working the fields all day, then went to play video games at a nearby Internet cafe. He hadn’t been to the house at all.
Samoa, however–my girlfriend’s niece and Yai-Loh’s ward–had cleaned the house that day. She had lately been defying her grandmother’s orders not to bring people over to the house during the day when no one else was home. Despite being a generally well-behaved, sweet 17-year-old girl–studious in school, helpful around the house and junga, and well-mannered, this disobedience and circumstantial happenstance left her looking rather suspicious. Yai-Loh chided her granddaughter amid Samoa’s insistence of her own innocence. My girlfriend remains convinced of her niece’s guilt.
Seeing a witch hunt in action, along with the realization that teenagers will be teenagers, I began to sober from my initial hurt. I assured my girlfriend, who was still conducting the investigation over the phone with her mother, that I would soon forget the offense and we should just let it lie
By Christmas morning–this morning–it had been forgotten. In fact, I had forgotten it was even Christmas. So I woke up thinking nothing of the missing chocolate, nothing of bitterness, or even bittersweetness. I just wanted to enjoy my last hours in this peaceful rural bliss by getting some writing done. I could finish a novel in this tranquility, I thought, as I walked out to the som tam stall with notebook in hand.
As I sit here writing on the bamboo table, listening to Yai-Loh bash her income into being, I begin a simple sketch of a Thai village on Christmas Day conducting business as usual, unaware that in 12 hours my friends and family will stumble sleepily to gather around their Christmas trees.
But while I write, the hollow beating ceases. Plastic rustles and bamboo creaks.
“Brandon,” Yai-Loh says nearly perfectly–I have been teaching her how to say my name all week.
I look up and smile. She hands me a translucent plastic bag containing peanut M&Ms and Ferrero Rocher chocolates. “Mah-lee klee-mah,” she says. She rarely smiles because 60% of her teeth are missing, and this gesture involves no exception.
Confused, I look up at her. ” Klee-mah?”
“Uhn!” she mutters, indicating “yes” in casual Thai.
“A-rai?” I ask. (“What?”)
“Klee-mah, klee-mah! Mah-dee klee-mah!” She smiles, showing her missing teeth.
I take the bag, understanding only that it’s a gift. I write “Klee-mah=chocolate?” in my notebook.
My girlfriend, who has just entered the scene during this exchange, explains that her mom bought the chocolate for me that morning, feeling bad that some of mine had been stolen.
Then it hit me.
Understanding is funny that way. It often arrives late to the party. Yet it holds all the booze necessary to make the party go. So in its absence, everyone sits around waiting, nervously tapping their feet or fingers, smiling anxiously at each other. Then Understanding bursts into the room, gallons of liquor dangling from each arm. Everybody cheers, pats Understanding on the back, and begins pouring their icebreaker over their ice.
I cross out my crude interpretation “klee-mah=chocolate.” I say to Yai-Loh, smiling, “Thank you! Merry Christmas to you, too!”