Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Motherland Visit, Part 4: A Love Letter


A while back, I wrote this: A Thai Person’s Guide to Thai Food in Los Angeles. In this short post, I explain why if “Food” was entity of Facebook, my profile would simultaneously say “I’m married to Food” and “It’s complicated.” Then I proceed with discussing my favorite Thai restaurants in LA. Just putting that out there because I don’t want to repeat something I’ve already written. So, let’s get on with it.

It has always been a keen interest of mine to take note of how contexts influence human interaction, behaviors, and thoughts. Much like the premise behind The Botany of Desire (fantastic PBS documentary), I am enamored with the “novel” idea that certain things we thought were under our control actually can influence us in major ways. It is a symbiotic relationship that we often forget.

For example, when I was in Berlin, Germany, the refrigerators were smaller. Yes, this was a function of smaller living quarters (at least the apartments I stayed in), but the limited amount of space forced users to continually buy less items that needed to be refrigerated, but shop more often. This almost ensured that most items were fresh. Think about your American refrigerator and how many groceries it can accommodate and how long it would take you to eat all that. This is just a small but effective interaction between a kitchen appliance and humans to encourage different food choices.

In Thailand I was fortunate enough to eat healthier as a result of the proximity of where I was staying to where food was being produced and the tropical climate.

How long have nutritionists been touting the benefits of fish? And how long have we heard the horror stories of how fishing is dangerous for the environment or eating too much is bad for your health? These two ideas can and have caused cognitive dissonance within others and myself for a while, but in Thailand I freely ate as much seafood as I could get my hands on. There must be some mediating factor(s) to this fish / seafood = good + bad relationship... I propose two: freshness and a connection to the source. And I can provide two examples of how I encountered them firsthand: one delicious example and the other, not so much.

Delicious example: My father’s side of the family in Thailand owns a fish farm. And have friends that own fish farms.
And that’s what the fish farm looks like. A building that houses the people that tends to the fish. In those “plots” of water. That’s it! No crazy contraption in the ocean, no big nets to catch other animals while targeting “wild” fish. The fish are raised and to my knowledge there’s no funny genetic modification business going on. For the most part, people knew where their fish was coming from.

Not so delicious example: So, as you know, any traveler, from time to time when they frequent “developing” countries, gets Montezuma’s Revenge. In my case, it was Don Hoi Lot’s Revenge. Don Hoi Lot is a small town off the Bay of Bangkok (gulf side) where locals go to dine on the finest street seafood, often buying it from the stands or carts and sitting bayside to enjoy the tasty treats.
And hot damn, do they look good…
None of these were the culprit; it was these damn mussels we bought as gift for my mother’s friend! I felt like I was in rehab: sweating, tossing and turning, running from bed to bathroom, and drinking this Thai re-hydrating concoction of flat 7-Up and salt. This is where I was holed up for about 24 hours of abdominal pain:
In hindsight, the overheard comments of how the sea was dirty that day are the perfect example of how fresh and connected to the source those damn mussels were. Let’s not talk about this anymore and think other food related good thoughts, like this one:

Our local cook-it-yourself joint called Moo Gah Tah (Pork Pot)

Another factor that contributed to my healthy eating was the tropical climate. Fruits and veggies flourish there! Whenever I think of affordable and easily accessible fruits in the US, I think of apples, bananas, and oranges. Boring as hell, right? After a couple dozen times, even the LA fruit dude’s selection doesn’t seem appetizing. Not in Thailand! Here’s my janky inventory of fruits that I had the pleasure of eating. This list is obviously not exhaustive of all the fruit in Thailand and please ignore personal thoughts, dream lab notes, and especially bad spelling and grammar:
I call you your attention, the Makhamm Tate.
This is a delicious fruit as it is part of Tamarind family, due it's overgrown pea-pod shape. However the edible part inside is unlike anything I've encountered. It looks like a mini-white cabbage encasing a black seed and tastes sweet and peppery. They literally got offered to us after lunch at a roadside noodle shop for less than $1.

Other fresh fruit, vegetable, and related photos:

Thailand’s famous Floating Market
(The rightmost boat holds my favorite Thai fruit that I encountered:
The Rose Apple / Chompoo)
The real deal Coconut Bliss
Again, the simple notion that I want to convey is that I was pleasantly surprised to find that by simply being closer to the source and in a different climate that my eating habits changed. While this is not a profound notion, I think that it has implications for how one interacts with their environment to promote healthier eating habits. You say you can’t stop eating McDowell’s? Think about how many McDowell’s you pass on your way to and from work … If they weren’t so accessible and you had to drive out of your way to get it, would you still want it? If the answer is YES, don’t talk to me. Gross.


I have to say that I found it completely fascinating that I did not eat red meat and virtually no cow by-products while I was there. Upon doing a little bit of research, I found out that my family in Thailand doesn’t eat beef as a personal household choice and that it tends to be more expensive than the other white meat. There goes my profound epiphany about beef… Dairy farming, on the other hand, is a relatively new enterprise in Thailand. There are very few large-scale dairy farming operations and number of small farmers, but, in general, the demand is not that high, leading to an expensive price tag that perpetuates that unpopularity. Personally, I can understand that drinking creamy milk or a grilled cheese sandwich in a hot climate does not sound that appealing.

Why does everything in Thailand have to be so DAMN sweet? Where did this need for additional sweetness in drinks, food, and dessert come from? My father’s answer:
I don’t know why. If you ask most Thai people they don’t think its’ too sweet. They just say, “It just has to be that taste.”
I guess I just don’t know how to eat it.

Two words why you will never go hungry in Thailand … Street. Food.

Finally … Monks gotta eat too.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Motherland Visit, Part 3: A Brief Case Study in the GxE

Hi-jacked by psychologists for describing humans, a number of agriculturalists already got this simple notion on lock:

It’s not about nature vs. nurture, your genetic heritage vs. the environment … it’s the all about the interaction that creates unique individuals from such deterministic sources. And, the phenotypic results (i.e., any observable trait) of genes and environment interacting are called the Gene x Environment Interaction, or GxE, for short.

Hands down, the best part of Thailand, was watching my father’s personality blossom as a result of GxE.

Now, my father is strange cat. I’ve only been exposed to certain dimensions of his personality and the roles that he inhabits. As a father, he’s protective, but always gives that real talk. As a boss, he runs a tight ship (evidenced by 5 years of working with him at the family restaurant), is calculated and thoughtful. As a husband, he diligently attends my mother’s side of the family’s events, drinking and smoking with the uncles in the past, but still being cordial now that that time has passed.

But. Every now and then, I get a glimpse of other dimensions of my father. Old pictures like this (Um, excuse me? What’s that look? With the High-Life ringer tee?!) or this (Why with the gun?!). Stories of how when he came to America he and buddy started off as dishwashers at a Moroccan restaurant and moved up fairly quickly to basically run that. Or, how he got krunk and drove 120 miles per hour on dirt roads (a cousin witnessed this, my father never told me). What about how he would serenade my mother outside her house with his guitar? Let’s face it, at one point, my dad seemed like he was a severely cool guy.

So, maybe he can’t wild out like he used to, but let me tell you … there’s something about Thailand brings out the best in my dad. On the real, my dad is FUNNY. And smart, witty, and so open. So gregarious. I don’t know how to describe it. It is a wonderful event to witness.

I’m not saying he wasn’t all those things in the states. He’s lived in the states for over 35 years, more than half his life. He speaks English. Fluently. While he’s no professor, he understands how to make puns and be funny in English. He understands intonation and cadence to get a feeling across in English words. Don’t get it twisted. But, something about being in Thailand, speaking his native tongue … He’s so quick. Surrounded by smiles. Man, my dad is dope … I can’t write about it any more, I can only show you … Hopefully, his shine will emanate through the pictures.

All photos (with the exception of the super AZN ones) were taken with his old Minolta SRT102 that he gifted to me … It was kept in a dusty case for almost 20 years in Thailand.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Motherland Visit, Part 2: Was it All a Dream?

The Context

I consider myself quite a good traveler, in the sense that I am pretty aware of importance of time, being open, and myself.

The importance of [linear] time manifests itself in little things, e.g., jet lag and idle traveling time to different places, and big things, e.g., the amount of time you have afforded your self for the entire trip and at certain places, and how you structure your time with either purposeful adventures or purposeful idleness for the possibility of unexpected adventures. Again, I believe awareness of [linear] time (I just got done reading The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching by the brothers McKenna; their discussion of “time” has got me all heated…) has the capacity to thoroughly enhance or hinder a trip.

Timing: I was in the Thailand for 14 days. The minimum amount of time I like to afford myself on a (relatively) new destination that takes more than 12 hours to reach by plane. While there was full itinerary planned for us, it was a “hurry up and enjoy” structure in the sense that they wanted us to see as many enjoyable things as possible, valuing the quantity over the quality. Although this is not entirely accurate because there are a number of things that we purposefully did not plan to go see that would have traditionally been on a lot of visitor’s itineraries. Simply put, there are many things of high quality (my bias is towards the architectural, spiritual, and cultural significant) in Thailand, and we could only do so much.

I’ve always viewed “being open” as an attribute, which by definition allows for some people to come equipped with an openness or to cultivate it much like one would any skill. Being open is the mental state I would ideally like to inhabit in regards to traveling. When you expect nothing, or rather do not have strict expectations, anything can happen. I try to approach every experience abroad with as much openness as possible, allowing for the full range of possibilities that may stem from that experience whether they be beneficial or detrimental (but for real though, that which doesn’t kill you will make you stronger).

Being open: This trip was exceptional in the sense that while I have cultivated an openness, my openness was tainted by the undeniable desire to compare this current experience with the one I had 20 years ago. Thoughts of “Was it going to be like I remembered?” and “What do I expect?” littered my mind once I opened the flood gates to finally letting it sink in that I was going back “home” (in a manner of speaking). I believe this contributed to the dream-like state of the entire trip, but again, that is a story to be told later. Again, I tried to be as open as possible.

Finally, being aware / knowing oneself (as much as possible in the moment) is a process that comes from introspection and experience, which simultaneously exerts influence on and is shaped by one’s travel experience. In a larger sense, being aware of oneself, there’s a certain freedom attained such that you can push the limits of comfort and discover parts about yourself and the environment that you wouldn’t normally otherwise. In the smaller sense, you can plan the sort of the trip you know you would enjoy the majority of.

Awareness: This trip is not necessarily the trip I would plan for myself. While the destination was a goal for the better part of the past two decades, the major difference between this experience and past travel experiences is that I was more of a passenger along for the ride. Basically, Thailand is the only place I would choose to spend two weeks straight with my family, in a family house, always within reach 24 hours a day, with the day’s activities being planned by an outside source. But these are the circumstances and I was actually looking forward to being placed in a much more passive role than I would like.

As I am still developing and reacting to the experience, I have yet to concisely articulate how my awareness has changed. I believe it has, I feel it, and hopefully the writing process will facilitate this process.

Thanks for listening.

Part 3 to come...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Motherland Visit, Part 1: The Background

Thai-American. Ethnically Thai, culturally straddling the United States and Thailand for as long as I remember. Until January 2011, my interactions with Thailand, the actual country, were a brief stint in 1984 and somewhat longer stay in 1991.

1984 – Age 2.5ish, Status: Lone child

My mother and father tried to follow the most proper recent-immigrant tradition of leaving their child(ren) in the old country to be raised by relatives while they worked in the new, sending love and money over the sea. That lasted about 3 months before my mother sent my father on a rescue mission. My mother never ceases to amaze me, but that is another story altogether.

This was also the year of the deaths of both my mother’s and father’s fathers in February and December 1984, respectively.

My brother was born in February 1985.

1991 – Age 9.5 to 10ish, Status: Eldest child who was upset that she had to leave the US during the beginning of what she considered of the “coming of age” period

My father is the only male in a family of 4 children. In Asian cultures males hold a special cultural space insofar as they are first in line to provide a sense of future legacy and male stability. Males are second in line to have a heightened sense of familial obligation behind the eldest child. Practically speaking, this translates into when there’s trouble at the fish farm, it is all male children hands on deck ... in the literal sense. So, we go. Sell most everything we don’t need (e.g., cars, homes, furniture) and transition to Thailand (with a brief layover in Fresno, CA). I live in Thailand for about 6 months. And for reasons specifically unarticulated to me for the time being, my mother, brother and I choose to come back to the US with my father following a number of months later. During this time, I become nearly fluent in Thai, attend a British-based, English speaking school, and get Salmonella.

January 2011 – Age 29ish, Status: Self-proclaimed grown-ass woman with childlike innocence and sense of wonder still in tact

To be continued ... Part 2: Was it all a dream?