Suwanee’s mother, who I call Mae“mom” picked up the phone. I needed to get hold of Suwanee so that I could get an invitation in Dankwian for Fulbright Grant application. Mae (the vowel here is similar to the “a” in Dad, and the syllable has a falling tone) did not speak English.
We had a converstation. It took a long time. She told me to call back in one day. I confirmed that I should call back in 24 hours, she said yes. The only word she used in English was bye bye. I was thrilled.
There are a few things that I feel like I have done really well at during my life. This phone call was really well done. I prepared. Prior to the preparation I knew how to count to ten, ask where something is, but not understand the answer, and a few simple words. I checked out a phrase book from the library ( there was no internet to speak of in 1987). A Googleplex was a large number, but the “Search Engine” had not been invented.
I got a very big sheet paper and wrote a chart. The first column was my introduction. I am calling from The United States. I do not speak Thai. Is Suwanee Natewong there? The next column had possible responses with key vocabulary underlined.”not here”, “who?”,”I don’t understand”, “Could you repeat yourself?” “please repeat” etc.
The next column was a list of vocabulary and phrases for my responses. I had a list of time terms, tomorrow, hours, week, and other phrases like different number. It worked. Suwanee’s mother was not particularly “well educated” but was smart as they come, but could read and write well, and raised incredibly smart children. While we are on this topic the phone call was quite expensive. I do not remember exactly how expensive the call was, but $8.00 per minute seems about right. It could have been $3. I really am not sure.
When we did get to Thailand Mae was very helpful. She had no idea what we knew and did not know so she showed us how to do many things. It was really rather amazing. She was in someways clueless and in otherways so full of welcoming gratiousness, nam jai, literally “liquid of the heart”. She showed Gail how to use hangers. She always smiled.
When we arrive Suwanee’s father was still alive. He grew up in a family of farmers. He was smart and was small. So instead of becoming a farmer he decided to study and studied law. He became a federal judge. It was a remarkable achievement to come from the Northeast in those days and rise to the level he did. Being a judge did not keep him from playing cards, gambling or drink. I have not asked about he met his wife, I have learned little things, but Mae was a beautiful young woman in her photographs she had delicate graceful hands, and her smile was penetrating and captivating. She was always busy until the last few years of her life, when she was just mostly busy.
It is such a different culture. There were people who had some international experience and people that did not. Some of them understood that we had different cultural norms, some did not. Some could deal with it, some could not. For Mae we were what we were. She was always nice, mostly tolerant, welcoming, and often amused by us. I said something off color once. She took my hand, held in in hers bracing on her hip, and brought the other one around in a long arc with a constant accelleration and smacked the back of my hand. It raised a welt. I think she really liked that I smiled. I thought it was funny. She probably thought I was practicing “mai pen rai”, the philosphy of letting go of things that you cannot change. I am not sure.
Mae, like her husband like to play cards, and talk with other women. While I was away, she was bitten by a snake. It was a white lipped pit viper,Trimeresurus albolabris, The Thai translates as “Green snake with wooden tail”. We went to visit her in the hospital. She was in a public ward. A private room would be too boring. When we got there she introduced us, and then went back to talking. The beds had been rolled to the middle of the room. The patients were enjoying themselves.
My best memory is supported by video. It was my birthday, and yes, a party was thrown. I was the excuse for the party. In the video she says, “Mom comes already”
Today is the birthday of Louis, Young Suwanee come translate for me, Ask for Louis and Family and child, progress or something like it, as a government worker (professor) and every kind, more riches, better than time past, much much. Do you understand? I said a little (its all easy now).Suwanee come translate so we can here.
Suwanee repeats the Thai, but she does not repeat exactly what was said, she includes “enjoyment”, but repeats success at work.
There is another video of he singing a song “come dance with me” at the botanical garden in Arizona.