I was there a year – just enough time to get attached and make friends. Wondering at the white Western girl, I think some just pitied my out-of-place-ness. But others truly loved me despite all my awkward oddities.
There was the Kachin lady who told me I was one of her best friends. My sayama (teacher) became like a little sister and the street kids like precious jewels to treasure. The Karen widow cried when I left; her tears flowed harder when I pressed the thousand baht bill into her hand. My Shan friend and her Chinese husband left me with laughter each time we had an English lesson. And even the Brit! With a Master’s in economics (or some other brainy subject), he set into motion a proposal for healthy NGO growth while endlessly teasing every single person within range.
But there is a picture in my mind that sticks out – the decorations in the Thai and Karen homes. Simple cement or wood walls were almost always covered with festive fare no matter the season. “Merry Christmas & Happy New Year” banners flapped wildly from the rain-driven wind. Tinsel and plastic flowers topped off the tacky designs. My eyes would always jump up to the walls and I would laugh inside. I would be quickly brought back down to the joy of interacting with the people in front of me. Life is meant to be celebrated together.
★ ★ ★
They arrived last night and now I’m knocking on their relative’s door. Their own apartment isn’t ready yet. The family has been living in a refugee camp in Thailand for over a decade having fled from the Burmese military’s stifling regime. Now they are here in the US where everything is so different. As the uncle opens the apartment door, my eyes are greeted with cleverly strung Christmas lights. Push pins stick through the cord strands to attach the blinking colors to the ceiling. The strands are arranged in a star shape. Torn out pages from Thai magazines are tacked to the walls along with tattered and discolored family photos. A little piece of Southeast Asia is at home in my city. And I laugh to myself while smiling and greeting my new family.
We fumble to communicate with broken English, Karen, Burmese and Thai. They finally comprehend that the interpreter will be at the office for their orientation. We leave the relatives to the smell of roasting chilies. A tasty and familiar lunch will be ready for them when they are brought back from the meeting. They seem eager to embrace the new changes while thankful for the established Karen community that is already here. The transition will not be as difficult thanks to a few comforts and companions from home.
★ ★ ★
Late spring settles in Mukwonago, Wisconsin along with the blanket of humidity. Robins’ song melds with the crickets intermittent chirps. The breeze blows through oak leaves; the green bounces in 3-D off the distance yet close grey clouds. A bell dings now and then from a hidden wind chime among woody branches. Two grey cats blend into the scene, one thin and one plumb. A calico long-hair peers around the corner of the house. A
quiet meow escapes as one slinks off to explore the multitude of smells and bugs. Visitors add to the overwhelming sounds for little feline ears.
The screened summer house buzzes with its own music. Happy “ha’s” ring from the hostess and float through the mesh to complete the peace. The guests rest under fan blades and are guarded by the long-horned cow skull over the screened door. Irises, peonies and a budding rose bush are among the flowers lining the deck garden between the screened room and the homey house. As you enter, you travel the world. Kitchy knick-knacks and framed posters of places far and wide greet hungry eyes. Chaco canyon beckons; the Pharaohs summon; the
art museum renditions dance; the Great Wall warns; Machu Picchu pulls; and the Chinese characters charm while challenging the viewer to understand. I try. The six hour drive to my great aunt’s house is a sauna of healing conversation.
She’s lived a life that’s left her with rich stories. I hear more of her mom (my great grandma), of her marriage, her divorce, her daughter who I am soon to meet again after twenty-four years and many other tidbits. As a school counselor and a paper away from becoming a psychologist, she has a wealth of tales on people-watching. And she can see me. Her advice is gentle; her encouragement is like that of a grandmother. Her words are a well to draw vision from. I’m refreshed. It’s been a thirsty time. Sometimes life can feel like a desert.
A stuffed bunny hangs from the dining room chandelier framed by arched entryways. The chandelier in the kitchen displays a red, green and silver jingle bell and a tarnished sliver pot Christmas ornament. It’s a celebration year-round. In the evening, five people stand under it. She’s learning from her nephew (my father) how to clean her new fancy “burner-less” stove top. “Woooonderful!” her voice raises in enthusiasm and surprise. The other three talk at once, overlapping the burner-scrubbers’ happy duet. The cacophony echoes in the arches.
At times, relationships may seem multi-colored, off-balance and out-of-season but it’s what puts the spring and fire into life. Without relationship, family, community… the ordinary is bland. People are like the chilies of life; some are just spicier than others!