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fallen tree

A family of 5 lives happily in a comfortable home for many years. The children, 2 girls and 1 boy, fight and bicker as siblings do, but underneath the squabbling they genuinely love and care for each other. The parents are happy to have such a warm and happy household.

Outside, in front of the home, stands a large tree. When they were younger, the children used to chase each other around the tree. The boy learned to climb the tree at a young age as he sought refuge from the teasing of his older sisters. The tree stands tall and proud, as if guarding the home behind it.

On a dark and stormy night, the family are sitting in the warmth and comfort of their home listening to the wind and rain crashing against the house. Inside the house is silent. The children are studying, the mother is cleaning up in the kitchen and the father is reading. A powerful crack breaks the silence startling everyone in the house. The children run towards the front window and try to see outside. The tree has been struck by lightening. The family watch as the glowing embers of the fallen tree fade away in the wind and rain. The children are beyond excitement at the sight of the now fallen majestic tree. The scream and shout over each other. Father tries to calm them down and finally orders them to sleep. As he gently pushes the children up to their bedrooms, mother stays at the window, silently staring outside. she feels uneasy. She closes the curtains and follows her family upstairs to bed.

The next morning, the mother wakes up suddenly. She hears a weak moan and jumps out of her bed, running to the bedroom of her eldest daughter. The girl is shivering and clutching her stomach in pain. The parents rush her to the hospital…

In the days and weeks that follow, the rest of the family soon become inflicted with the same mysterious sickness. The family’s doctor believes they have contracted a virus, but the antibiotics prescribed do little to fight the illness. The mother believes a different type of treatment is needed…she calls her aunt to ask for help.

Auntie shows up at the house the next evening with an elderly man. The man enters the house and stops. He senses the coldness of the house although it is a warm night outside. The mother welcomes them and quietly leads them to the front room. The furniture has been pushed to the edge of the room to clear the floor. The man gently asks the family to sit down on the floor, forming a circle. He lights a candle and closes his eyes. The family bow their heads and close their eyes. The man starts to speak; his voice gentle and calm.

“Tell me, who are you? Where are you from?”

“In the tree? For how long?”

“Yes, I understand how upset you must be. Nobody wants you to be unhappy but this is someone else’s home. Can we not find somewhere else for you? I think there is another place where you will be more at peace…”

The man continued to talk to the spirit for over an hour as the family listened with their heads bowed. Then, the man was silent. As he lifted his head, the candle flickered out. The family lifted there heads and opened their eyes, all looking at the old man.

“The spirit had lived in the old tree for over 150 years. In his lifetime he was an explorer and travelled to many different lands. He was upset that his home had been destroyed by the lightening bolt. He is sorry that he has made you all ill. He has agreed to move into the cherry tree that is at the bottom of the back garden. He has gone now.”

The mother smiles in appreciation and invites Auntie and the elderly man to join the family for their evening meal where the food brings warmth and comfort back into their hearts and the conversation brings laughter and love back into their home.

The next morning, the mother wakes up and looks outside her bedroom window. The cherry tree has its first blossoms of the year.

Most of this is made up, but some of it is based on a true story. All Thai people know that spirits live in trees. Hope you all had a happy halloween!

Baby talk

I flew over to Chicago last week and have been spending time with family. This trip has given me the opportunity to get to know my new cousin, the 18 month old daughter of my first cousin. The baby looks a lot like my older brother did when he was a baby. I’m sure that is part of the reason that my parents are so enamored with her and treat her like she is their own grandchild. Her true grandparents are half a world away in Bangkok.
My cousin and his wife are both from Thailand and both have been living in Chicago for about 6 to 7 years. They speak Thai at home, but my baby cousin watches a lot of children’s tv in english. She babbles incoherently (at least not coherent to any adults), but seems to understand almost everything we say to her in Thai. Granted, usually we say the same stuff to her every day: Do you want to go outside and play? Do you want to eat yet? Are you thirsty? Do you need to go to the bathroom? In resonse to each question she either nods her head and says mmm, or shakes her head. The way she says mmm, I think, is very Thai. The words that she does speak now include mum, papa, bu (grandfather), and maa (come). She also said oui the other day. I think I taught her how to say ah (aunt), but it could have been one of the random sounds that come out of her mouth. Last weekend we went apple picking and by the end of the day she was saying ple (as in the second syllable of apple).
One thing that I have often heard about babies that are born in America to parents who don’t speak English at home is that they are slower to start talking. My dad said that my brother didn’t start speaking until he was 2 years old. But at the same time, he was reading simple words by the time he was 3 (he learned this through watching sesame street). One of my dad’s friends used to look after my brother during the day and was surprised when my brother, at the age of 3, would shout out exit when he saw the exit sign on the highway and he would also shout out the numbers on the balls when my dad’s friend took shots playing pool. (note to self, do not ask a Thai man to babysit …he will end up taking baby to pool hall). My dad told me that my brother had a photographic memory…it’s no wonder that I grew up with performance anxiety issues.
As for me, I don’t know when I started speaking but I do know that my early words were as much in English as they were in Thai- perhaps even more English than Thai. When I was a baby, my parents had been in the US for a few years and my dad had gone through a lot of struggle with his English. I think he wanted to make sure that his kids didn’t suffer the same embarassment of not understanding and not being understood by people in the US. So, he spoke to us mostly in English and my brother and I certainly spoke only English to each other. I know other Thai-American children whose parents only spoke to them in Thai. As they started school, it didn’t take long for them to pick up English.
My cousin’s wife commented that out of the three kids in my family, I speak the best Thai (probably because I spent a few years living in Thailand when I finished school). She said that my brother can’t speak Thai at all. However, she was surprised when my brother was playing with the baby and said ja-ae (peek-a-boo).
I’m really curious to see how my baby cousin’s language skills develop. At the moment, she is mostly exposed to Thai speaking people. She doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to speak; she seems content communicating in other ways. When she wants to go outside and play, she’ll pick up our coats and bring them over to us. When she wants something, she points to it and makes an mmm sound. If you ask her, do you want to go to see mum? she’ll nod and say mum. If you ask her do you miss grandpa, she’ll nod and say bu. So she is communicating in her own way but doesn’t seem upset about not being able to express herself more. With English, when she watches TV she’ll copy the body movements she sees on tv, like touching her toes or clapping, but she doesn’t seem interested in trying to say the words she hears. She is starting to babble more, so I guess it isn’t long before she starts saying new words.


I was watching Ong Bak on dvd the other day (it only recently come out on dvd in the UK) and after watching the movie, I watched the behind the scenes stuff that you get with the dvd. In one segment, Tony Jaa was about to do a stunt. He was standing on a platform about three stories high, he looked straight ahead, put his hands together and bowed his head before doing multiple flips down to a lower platform and then another.

I was very touched seeing Jaa wai before he did the stunt. It reminded me of a lesson I had with my Thai music teacher many years ago. I was learning Thai classical music and my mother had arranged for me to have private lessons one summer to learn a very well known, but difficult and long, piece. On my first one-to-one lesson my teacher spent a long time telling me about how music is traditionally taught in Thailand. He told me about his old music teachers and what he gained from his relationships with them. He told me that everytime before I perform, I should put my hands together and pay respect to all of the teachers that came before him who have played a part in passing their art down to me. It was a very deep and spiritual lesson. Compare this to my first clarinet lesson which started with, “put the reed up against your bottom lip, rest your top teeth in the instrument and blow!” Of course, I don’t know if Tony Jaa was paying respect to his teachers or if he was praying please don’t let me fall and break my neck, but in any case I felt it nice to see such an endearing, and very Thai, ritual on screen.

Rituals are very common in Thai culture. Of course, like many cultures, Thai people have rituals to remember and honor their ancestors. But Thais have many other rituals, like building a spirit house and making offerings to appease the spirit that occupied the land where the home is built. I saw one ritual that I will never forget in 1995, when there was an eclipse in Thailand. Thai superstition, which I think comes from a hindu myth, says that eclipses are omens of evil. In order to ward off evil, my aunt and uncle prepared a table of eight black offerings (such as a black chicken, coffee, black rice…) and we burned black joss sticks. My aunt and uncle didn’t actually know how to perform the ritual; either they never saw an eclipse or they couldn’t remember. They had to read the instructions out of a newspaper on how to conduct the ritual.

In the west, a lot of people are sceptical of rituals and superstitions. My philosophy is that it doesn’t hurt to try and there’s a possibility that it might actually work, so I may as well try it. But also, I see things this way…there are a lot of forces beyond my control that have contributed to my current situation; they may be human, spiritual, or natural. As an American raised Thai, I do not understand all of the Thai rituals and the reasons behind them but they at least remind me that nothing should ever be taken for granted.

Energy drinks

In the 1990s, one of my farang bosses was concerned by the curious behavior that Bangkok taxi and tuk-tuk drivers had of making quick stops into little shops and coming back with a small brown bottle. At first he was worried that all of the taxi drivers in Bangkok were alcoholics and he declared that employees that need to travel in taxis must wear seat belts. Eventually, someone told him that the little brown bottles were not alcoholic drinks, but they were energy drinks. He was intrigued by these energy drinks and some of the girls in the office made fun of his interest, telling him it was a drink for taxi drivers, not high powered businessmen.

Maybe back then they didn’t realize that a European partner would help make Red Bull (gives you wings!) a leading brand name in more than 100 countries and the Thai owner of Krating Daeng (Red Bull) would soon be included in every “world’s richest” list. In Thailand, it was not only taxi drivers that drank this. Late night partiers mixed energy drinks with their alcohol, keeping them going all night (back when the bars were open all night). The energy drinks are also used by many Thais as a hangover cure.

These drinks are packed with a combination of vitamins (mostly B-complex vitamins), caffeine, and other ingredients that are known for boosting energy and mental alertness. I don’t think that any of the ingredients are dangerous but I also believe there is such a thing as too much of a good thing so I am cautious about using energy drinks. I’m pretty sensitive to caffeine; a nice cup of green tea is enough to keep me happy.

Know a shortcut?

Anybody who has never experienced a traffic jam in Bangkok has not truly experienced Bangkok and anybody who has been a regular driver in Bangkok traffic jams should be granted a special award for courage and patience under extreme pressure.
My route to and from work was pretty straightforward, on paper. I travelled straight down Petchburi Road to soi ekamai 63 to get to work. On the way back, I had to go down to Sukhumvit road and drive a full circle to to get home due to the one way traffic on Petchburi road. Without traffic, the journey to work would take twenty minutes. But I didn’t live in a Bangkok without traffic. I lived in a Bangkok that had loads of traffic. Going to work wasn’t too bad, it usually took 45 minutes to an hour, depending on what time I left home. Coming home was a nightmare. They were building the skytrain along Sukhumvit and it could take anywhere from an hour to 2 hours to get home. There was one night when I was stuck in traffic approaching Siam Square, my petrol refuel light was on, and I hadn’t moved more than 2 feet in 45 minutes. I could see the petrol station up ahead…it wasn’t terribly far away but I was so scared I broke down in tears.
One day, I complained to my coworker about driving in all the traffic and she asked me how I got home. She was truly shocked to find out that I travelled on the main roads all the way home. She couldn’t believe my ignorance and gave me the greatest gift I ever received in Bangkok…a shortcut.
By winding through a series of lanes between Sois 21 and 63 I could cut out a big chunk of the traffic jams. At first I was uncomfortable driving through such narrow lanes which were flanked by the high walls that surround the grounds of residences and condominiums in the area. But it wasn’t that difficult really. Mirrors were mounted at blind corners so you could see if there was traffic approaching and the gated entranceways to properties provided enough room for you to pull in if you had to make way for a car trying to pass from the other direction. There was still a lot of traffic in the short cut, but it flowed better than the main roads. Plus, because I had to weave around a lot it was a more interactive driving experience. It was also a good way to discover different places to eat and shop. But it was not good in rainy season. You never knew when the next turn would bring you into a flooded soi.