Stephanie Loui is a 2019-20 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Pattumpittayakom School in Ubon Ratchathani. Born and raised in Hawaiʻi, Stephanie attended Wesleyan University and received a B.A. in English before pursuing her passion for sustainable education. After working in the non-profit sector for four years, she chose to embark on an adventure to Thailand in order to enrich her teaching experience, learn about Thai culinary and agriculture techniques, and deepen her understanding of cross-cultural learning.
How to tell you about the smells: charcoal fires and smoking oil, lemongrass braids and marigold chains, the living decay of standing water. We’ve learned to hold our breath over sewer grates, use the sky-bridge to escape the motorcycle exhaust, and yet sometimes we inhale on purpose and taste this burning city and the dust from the new skyscrapers, eating up the old.
How to tell you about the tastes: a fire down your nose, throat, blooming across your lips. The confusion on your tongue as the contradictions hit together, sour fish sauce and burning vinegar chili, salty-crisp shallots and palm sugar that makes your teeth ache. You’ll never know a people more deeply in love with their own food than khon Thai.
How to tell you that this place is familiar and that we have been here before. Eyes tracking the plants we grew for medicine, the flare of this nose shaped by our path, these fruits like the ones we carried. I pocket seeds everywhere I go, even though I cannot bring them home.
Sometimes, I want to tell you in the moments when I miss home the most. A picture of my niece, the new baby’s first smile. A flavor that I want to tell my ancestors about (even though they surely know it already). I want to tell you that people here care a lot about their families, and take care of their elders, and spoil their children. It is hard to know when I will cry here.
I want to tell you that I am finding purpose in the small things. I play the ukulele now. I go to park zumba. My students friend me on Facebook and ask how to spell things.
There is a lot I cannot tell you but I can say that this year will be a short one—a blink—and we will have these stories for the rest of our lives. I will show you the recipes I have learned and we will plant new seeds like the ones we carried and I will wonder, in the back of my brain, how to tell this part of myself goodbye. This speck that has burrowed and grown, adjusted to this soil and set fragile roots, fruit that will take years to bear.
The first thing they taught me was that the lines that divide countries are not precise ones. That when the French took an invisible knife and carved the loops of the Mekong splitting Laos from Eastern Thailand, there might be people stuck in between. There might be fishermen casting nets from creaking long-tails, and children bathing on eroding shores, and women whose cooking was older than countries. They might not be interested in the line or the untangling of their histories. They might grow into something different all together, adrift with the changing tides, but rooted deep down like a lotus.
They taught me that they are khon Issan not khon Thai. That identity is in the ripples of a rice field, stitched in to the indigo of homespun cotton, the recipes that call for fermented river fish, rice powder, blood, mint to cool the intensity of a flavor that is almost too alive to swallow.
They taught me that it is impossible to isolate identity from language and that words are never perfectly synonymous. They teach me the nuances of a bow, the gentle musicality of politeness and the intimate articles used for close friends. They leave me clues in Issan and I wonder which one of us is the teacher.
They teach me that learning a language is hard and that culture is ancient and evolving and imaginary. They teach me to be patient with the meandering, the switchbacks and the times when it feels like nothing is moving at all. Sometimes I draw a map in my mind, as if I can guide this journey with a pen, when really why would I lead? Unmoored in between, I learn the currents from my students, who call me their teacher, imprecise I think, but not incorrect.
6 a.m. and we are driving
Past fields where rice once grew
raked across the pavement to dry)
between piles of smoking cane husk
Sloping buffalo backs, the last planting of corn and cassava
before the real heat sets in
8 a.m. and we are cross-legged on your family’s floor
with the bob-tailed cat that twines around your mother’s ankles
Sharing rice your family picked
green and young, with a scoop of sticky tamarind paste
we press handfuls to our mouths
and lick between the creases of our fingers
not a single grain will fall
This is your family’s rice.
10 a.m. is blustery and it’s a blessing
machetes singing clean through stalks, slicing husks, roots, rot
ants that recluster
moments after they fall.
your mother scrubs each with a washcloth
the wind slicking the moisture from her brown arms
We press the juice twice,
track the trickle into stainless steel
sweet as honey, green with chlorophyl,
errant ants, a squeeze of lime
winding down our sticky hands
we pick out the seeds with our fingernails
sip cane juice over crushed ice
(forget the ants)
At 4 p.m. we arrive at the Wat where you grew up
a network of familiar hands
from dusty truck to shaded table
cradling bags of cane juice
your mother, your sister, your father, your nephews
ushering in something personal and precious
we slip out of our shoes
offer our monk a sweating plastic cup,
full of a day’s work, a year of growth, a family’s history
he offers us his blessing,
a gentle joke about my familiar face
that is not in fact khon Thai
I rush through three bows,
and wonder how I got here
6 p.m. and we leave the countryside behind. You talk about what it’s like when the rain comes, when everything is alive again and everything is as green as the cane juice and the limes and the sweet green rice slurping deeply from the ground.
I’ll still be here, I say,
Love Letter to Home
First of all I miss your rain:
the taste of the approach
a whisper or a whistle
setting the cadence
of what’s to come
I miss you drumming on the rooftop
slithering through the cracks,
the way the mud gives below my feet
and I sink into your earth.
It’s dry here like you wouldn’t believe
months where the ground cracks
and the trees shed all of their leaves,
draw their energy in
and down, still
in the breathless wait.
I miss counting waterfalls
down the bends of the Koʻolau mountains
your ancient notched spine
each groove a memory
a home hidden in a vertebrae
Sometimes I see you here
in the vines that ensnare the monkeypod trees
on the face of the woman who sells me sweet tamarind
even the glowing lizards that cross the ceiling
behind my eyelids
I taste you in chili oil,
when I stand over my sink
sucking the pit of a mango
that never quite tastes like home
Sometimes I am disoriented:
by the flatness of this land
the endless yellow of rice fields left to rest
spotted with water buffalo grazing dried up ponds
to bubble again
(Even when the rainy season comes)
I will still think of you the most.