“My dad would buy scary looking fruit with spikes and needles”
Thai people call me a dek meung nok, which means a foriegn country child. My parents lived in Chicago when I was born. At the time, they were undecided about whether I would be raised in Thailand or as a Dek Nok in America. (They ended up raising me in America, I lived in Thailand for a few years during my twenties, and now I live in the middle of England with my British husband) They decided to register me with both a Thai name and an English name. My Thai name (Nalisra) was registered as my first name and my English name (Lisa) as my middle name. Mom and dad would never call me by my first name. As a rule, Thai parents do not use their child’s given name. Instead, they use a ‘play name’. They try to dissuade evil spirits from taking their child by using a name like ‘pig’ or ‘fatty’ or ‘rat’. I never had a Thai play name, I guess my parents thought using my foreign name was enough to dissuade evil spirits that might be tempted to take me.
My parents shared Thailand with me through their stories. Most of dad’s stories were about the river…the time he nearly drowned in the river as a toddler, how he used to play in the river until it was banned after a neighborhood man was eaten by a crocodile, and about all of his favorite food stalls near the river side that he would stop at just before or after travelling on the river ferry. Food was a popular story theme for my dad. On my childhood visits to Thailand, dad would hit the market to buy scary looking fruit (with spikes and needles) then he would seek out his favorite hoy tod stall that was across the river from his university. My father’s years in Bangkok were mostly occupied by studies (he was in med school) and food. When he left in the 1960s, Thailand was beginning to change, largely from the impact of the Vietnam war.
Thirty years later, I moved to Bangkok, living and working there for over 3 years. My Bangkok was very different to my father’s. I travelled to work by car, driving an hour in the morning to travel about 10 miles along Petchburi Road and an hour and a half in the evenings to return along Sukhumvit Road, doubling the travelling time in the rainy season. Like my father, my friends and I sought refuge through food. Dad’s beloved market food stalls were still there and provided daily meals, chicken and rice, bamee noodles or pad thai for 35 baht; but in the evenings my friends and I could sometimes be found at a sophisticated Europen restaurant where we paid 500-800 baht per head for dinner before hitting a Thai discoteque or karaoke bar into the late hours of the evening. On the weekends, we would hit to the road, escaping Bangkok along the multi tiered expressways to visit coastal towns where we bought live crab off the beach and, on every street, golden mangoes appeared in March/April, piled high alongside sweet, sticky rice.
So many things about Thailand has changed since my parents left. At least some things, a passion for food and life, will never change.