Throughout 2015 I was living with a local family in rural Thailand. I was in a small village called Broken Road found in the Buriram Province of Northeast Thailand, better known as Isaan. With too much time on my hands I decided to chronicle my life there in ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ which follows the relationships I create with my wife’s family circle and surrounding community. As the new member of the family I find myself bound in all sorts of tradition and unexpected family dynamics. Given there’s really not much going on in the area, and there are more or less no people of similar interests or background, I spend much of my time following the local grannies and retirees of the family. Where we live is on a compound of three houses. There are two front houses where the grand-parents and aunties live in the main front house on the left. Then it would be me and my wife Fanfan in the house next to it. Follow the gravel path between and this leads to the family of our great aunt in the back house. Each of these people will become part of my daily life.
In 2012 I married Fanfan in Bali, Indonesia, during a lengthy month of travel through Europe and Asia. Our wedding would be the highlight of our past four years in which we have been pretty much inseparable in our comfy and cush lives living in Bangkok. For the past four years we have been somewhat cut off from the world living in a city centre condo, with few urgent daily duties in our lives other than to feed the cat. These weren’t the most strenuous four years of our lives. In Bangkok I had always taken on the role as house husband while Fanfan studiesd I needed to keep busy. It also got me out from the condo quite a bit where I’d go exploring local backstreets for our meals for the day. But now, with our move to rural Thailand, these roles have been flipped, as Fanfan is forced to take on the role as a traditional house wife. Otherwise she’d be deemed a bad wife. But it is these old-world, and somewhat oppressive traditions in rural living which made Fanfan leave her home over six years ago so it is entertaining for me to watch her begrudgingly adapt and abide to them. The changes don’t go down well with Fanfan, but it’s mostly because I make the most of them.
As we make our move to Broken Road, so does Fanfan’s mum, as she retires from her previous life in the lesser known city of Nakhon Phathom in central Thailand. As far as mother-in-laws go, I really quite like Meh. She cooks top notch food and, given the language barrier, I don’t hear her complain about me. So with her retirement she will struggle in being idle, where, in the past, her work ethic has been the absolute opposite of any I will know. With Meh it almost seems that she enjoys menial tasks. She owns a washing machine, yet washes clothes by hand. She owns a dining room table, yet she eats meals sitting on a small shin-height stool outside. It’s as if she more comfortable in discomfort, which may be a Buddhist thing. And this doesn’t just happen around the home, where, if we ever lose her when out at the temple, or at celebrations, or at other people’s houses, we just look for the kitchens and she’ll likely be there hacking a papaya or cleaning pots. Meh in her element. Note I’ve added an exclamation mark to Meh above because everything in rural Thailand is shouted as “old people don’t hear well”.
On our first visits to Broken Road we would always stay in the upstairs rooms of granny Yai’s house where we slept on thin mattresses under mosquito nets. Each morning I would wake to the crack of knocking wood as Yai begins every day, smashing a mix of areca nut, with betel leaf and a limestone paste. Better known as betel nut. The same sound continues throughout the day where Yai is never far from her betel basket and mini mortar and pestle. This is a habit she’d taken up when only eight years old when she first began chewing betel after leaving school to work on the family farm looking after the buffaloes. Now almost every day is identical where Yai would sit on the porch, from dawn to dusk, chewing betel, and nattering with her gang of betel chewing grannies. Occasionally, on her more adventurous days, she’ll potter around the gardens to pick ingredients or nab eggs from the chicken hutch. I often join to sit with her in daytimes as I find her quite adorable to be around with her wooly hair and cheery smile. She’s ideal granny material. She also likes me, from what I can tell, although I occasionally notice a suspicious look from her, slightly confused at why I am there. She, along with most of the Broken Road, is new to foreign faces.
I remember being stung by a bee while sitting on the porch of the grandparent’s house and it led to a translated conversation with Ta on work related injuries from his years working in the rice fields. The list begins “Bees, spiders, centipedes, scorpions, a lot of scorpions”. “Snakes, twice, green ones with brown tails, they’re dangerous”. He’s never been bitten by a King Cobra however, although they do occasionally sneak into the back outhouse for shelter. But none of these compared to the pain from being bitten by a rabid dog or maybe the barbs of a catfish. The sorest however was the time he fell under the wheels of a buffalo cart where his upper arm was apparently shattered at the time. He’s had a tough life and, despite being the eldest of the family, he’s still one of the more active. When not reciting verses from his Buddhist prayer book, he will typically be poking through his gardens; whacking things with hatchets, climbing trees, and setting fire to old shrubs and branches. He even puts me to shame when I tried to help as he spread new stones over the compound pathway with a rake. I offer my hand, but last no more than two minutes, before I’m sweat drenched and dry heaving in his basil shrubs. I of course blame the treacherous heats for this, and I manage to get away with it.
Aunty Napao would be the glue of the family where she has held things together for the past many years. On top of her full-time job in the nearby town of Nang Rong, she has been taking care of the aging grandparents, and running the household errands during her time off. One of the reasons for our move to Broken Road was to take some of this strain, as we otherwise weren’t really doing much. This was the plan at least although it felt more the opposite at the beginning where she was driving us around and helping us organise the move. So she just seems to be busy constantly where she’s the first to leave the compound in the morning and is always last to sleep at night. She’ll always be brushing away dead insects from the front porch before shutting the house doors at night. Even at weekends she refuses to enjoy herself and instead travels out to a forest temple where she takes on strict meditation with forest monks. On the rare occasion where she isn’t working she’ll probably be speed walking, up and down the driveway, or playing hula hoop. She’s also very loud, where you’d hear her before you see her. This actually goes for most people in Broken Road.
One of my first memories of Yai Thip was during the clear out of the new house in Broken Road where we were burning cartloads of junk next to communal lake beside us. When I approach there is a loud explosion as an aerosol canister explodes to uncover bag full of them. We warn Yai Thip as she arrives with her own cartload but she has no interest whatsoever. She empties her load on the fire and, as she turns to walk away, there are huge bangs. Fire explodes around her, debris goes everywhere and Yai Thip doesn’t flinch. It was all very Hollywood. Anyway, of the family, Yai Thip would be the street-smart, badass, which means I follow her around a lot when in the local village, just to gain street cred. I have become somewhat fascinated by her and, of the family, she’s the only person who drinks alcohol so I often call in to share shots of rice whisky or whatever hard liquor I have at hand. She’s easy to find as her shouting, which turns to squawking when excited, can be heard throughout the compound. Otherwise she will typically be haunched over her coconut husk fired stove cooking all sorts of weird and wonderful recipes.
In the back house with Yai Thip is aunty Aom and uncle Nasek who are closer to our own age and interests but are rarely around, so we don’t really get to know them. Instead we have become close to their daughter Mai where every day after school hours she will be loitering around the compound with nothing to do. Mai goes to the same primary School as Fanfan did many years ago, and in many ways Mai’s life offers a glimpse into Fanfan’s own childhood and upbringing. But it did take a while for Mai to come out of her shell as I was the first foreigner she had seen other than in passing in further towns and cities. At the beginning she would give no more than a wai (bow) and a giggle, before chasing away. But gradually she would ease around me as she began to pass the house with her poodle dogs and make weird noises through the windows. Soon she was jumping from behind doors trying to scare me before she finally began hitting me and giving me adorable names like “old man”, “bad teeth”, “fat fat” and “orangutan”. I guess she was just practicing English, as I am obviously none of these. But given my own novelty value here I thought I would make use of my time in Broken Road by sharing my own culture with Mai. I taught her how to use a knife and fork and introduced her to treats such as Nutella Toast, Big Macs, Krispy Kreme Donuts and Cheddar Cheese. She really hates cheddar cheese.
Moo Ping is our pet Persian cat which we named after grilled marinated pork skewers commonly found as a breakfast street food snack. Of us, she would definitely feel the weight of culture shock with this move as before she was a condo cat where, other than views from our balcony, or that one quick visit to the swimming pool, she’s never really been outside before. Other than me and Fanfan she’s barely met any other humans before. On top of this the move was extremely hard to communicate to her, given she’s a cat, so, without warning she was suddenly stuffed into a laundry basket and bundled into a car. She then whizzed past countless landscapes only to arrive to a completely new and unknown world. For most of the journey she sat with her tongue out gasping in shock and panic which was somewhat heartbreaking for us. We knew it was guaranteed to be hard for her as well given she’s a pampered Persian cat, whereas the other cats of Broken Road are scrawny semi-strays fighting over scraps of rice and fish bones to survive. The coming months would be a struggle for her as she slowly adapts to her new surroundings, with some heartbreaking moments in between. But ultimately she does come out stronger and for the better.