How I Learned To Find Family In Northern Thailand
I’m not a very touchy person. Hugs are reserved for good friends and family, and I can’t remember the last boyfriend whose hand I actually enjoyed holding. I’ll slap you a good ‘ol American high-five but please do not force me into the fashionable double-cheek kiss scenario.
This preference for personal space was never more obvious than when I spent four weeks living with a Thai family at their homestay in the mountains of northern Thailand. The woman who ran the homestay with her husband, whose name I learned the first day and called her by for the first two weeks, preferred to go by “Mei” which is Thai for mom. It didn’t occur to me to call her this until I finally noticed that I was the only guest at the homestay who didn’t.
Despite the first name faux pas, Mei was very affectionate with me from the start. I arrived before anyone else and stayed longer than other guests, so she immediately showed me extra attention — attention that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. I’d be sitting at the table for dinner and suddenly find her head on my shoulder or her hand cupping mine. She’d even offer up her masterful Thai massage skills to me or anyone else who looked tired or sore from the day’s activities.
But my western preference for at least six inches between myself and those around me rejected these affections. I’d pat her hand and slide away and I was never a fan of massages — far too ticklish to enjoy them. I was polite and appreciative but nothing more. I was in my own world and didn’t care to let anything in but the scenery and the food. People were baggage and I was already over my limit.
The house dad, or “Pa” as I eventually learned to call him, treated me like a daughter as well. In his limited grasp of English, he constantly asked me how I was. Happy? Hungry? Thirsty? Happy? Yes, yes I was happy. No, not hungry. Yes, a little thirsty. But always, very happy. Like I would tell him otherwise?
Then one morning, I woke up early for a routine elephant ride to the throbbing pain of a massive headache. When Pa exclaimed “Good morning!” and I did not respond as joyfully, he knew something was wrong. “My head hurts,” I tried to explain, pointing at my head. “Need more sleep.” I retreated to my room and stayed there the whole day, my body switching from intense chills to soaking sweats, every few hours. I was taking medicine to relieve the fever and still it climbed to 104 degree Farenheit by midday.
I took a cold shower and some more pills, getting my temperature down to a more reasonable 101, and went back to sleep. Dear Buddha, please don’t let me die of Dengue Fever or some weird jungle disease, I pleaded as I wrapped more blankets around my shivering self.
When I woke up at 9 p.m., my teeth were chattering so hard I thought I was going to chip them or bite my tongue off. My body ached with the uncontrollable shaking and I doubled over into a quivering ball, trying to make it stop. It didn’t stop. Finally, I staggered out of my hut to find Mei and Pa entertaining guests. I stood in the doorway, trembling and chattering, while their company looked up — just in time to see the tears welling in my eyes.
No words were necessary. Mei and Pa leapt to action. They laid me down on the floor, piled blankets on my body and held me tight, trying to stop the shakes that wracked my weak limbs. Their guests were equally helpful, each trying to soothe me in their own way. One pulled out a smelling stick to keep me from vomiting; another tucked the blankets tighter around my torso; another fetched hot water for me to drink. Had I been thinking straight, this overdose of concern would have been terribly embarrassing, but all I could do was lie there and accept it.
When the shaking became bearable, Mei and Pa got me into the van headed for the hospital. Mei sat in the backseat, holding me tight as we bounced over potholes, my body crying out at every harsh movement. She dabbed a cold cloth on my clammy forehead, her face pinched and focused — obviously frustrated that her efforts weren’t working. Pa drove, constantly looking back to check on me. His glass-encased Buddha swung from the review mirror and he grabbed and steadied it at every jolting pothole. A swinging Buddha is bad luck, and we certainly didn’t need any of that.
By the time we arrived at the emergency room (two hours later), I was starting to feel human again. My shakes had subsided and sweat was beading up on my forehead, soaking my shirt and signaling a break in the fever. The doctor diagnosed the flu and sent me home with enough medicine to knock me out for the rest of my trip.
On the ride home, I curled up against the window and Mei laid her head on my shoulder. Suddenly, I found myself grateful for her touch and hoped she would leave her head there — her wordless presence somehow making me feel better.
Mei made me sleep in her bed that night and she slept beside me on the floor. Every time I woke up she was awake, feeling my arm to check my temperature. I slept with the comfort that she would watch over me and that I wasn’t going to die in the middle of the night by myself.
The next morning I felt strong enough to emerge from Mei and Pa’s bedroom, squinting at the sunlight and at their bright smiles. They made me some toast and tea, and by the time I finished forcing down a few calories, both of them were sleeping, obviously exhausted from the night I put them through.
Needless to say, I didn’t mind Mei’s physical affections after that. She and Pa had seen me at my worst, and I had seen the best of them in the form of genuine concern — maybe even love. From that point on, I found myself leaning my head on Mei when she leaned on me. Her arm would wrap around mine and her head would rest on my shoulder, leaving mine to rest on top of her head as she stands about six inches below me.
They may not be Mom and Dad, but by the time I left Thailand, Mei and Pa had become family. It took a horrible flu for them to break through to me, but by the time we said our goodbyes, I had learned to appreciate the ability to find family anywhere in the world.
By Britany Robinson
About the Author
Britany is an aspiring travel writer who fell in love with solo travel on a post-graduation trip around Southeast Asia. She knows how to properly ride on the head of an elephant while it scales the side of a mountain and has taken shots of snake whiskey in Vietnam (although she still prefers Jameson). Britany currently resides in New York City where life continues to be an adventure. You can read all about her Southeast Asia trip at SotcBlog.com.