My Asian Mom

I squeezed past a middle-aged woman, making my way to my seat on my flight from Phnom Penh to Bangkok. Som toh, Khmer for “sorry” or “excuse me”, I said, and she quickly informed me that she was Thai and not, in fact Cambodian.

Damn. Strike one for still not being able to tell the two apart.

Strike two came when she told me that in fact, she was an American citizen now and not even Thai anymore.

Lucky for me, there was no strike three. By the end of the hour-long plane ride, she had invited me to stay with her in the hotel room she had booked — free of charge. Mind you, this woman could have been my mother; for all intents and purposes over the next three days, she was.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’m fairly Caucasian. I’ve never had an Asian mother (go figure), nor are any of my relatives from “The East”, unless we’re talking east coast USA. I had no idea what to expect from this small, fierce woman who had decided it was her personal mission to welcome me to Bangkok.

Through Ubon (for that was the name of my adoptive mother) I quickly learned the hierarchical state of things in Thailand. She would give stern orders to waiters and taxi drivers who scurried to carry out her every demand. Her 5-foot frame somehow commanded an astounding amount of respect from anyone behind a counter. And for some unfathomable reason, everyone in the tourism/hotel/service industry seemed to think she was actually my mother, despite the (obvious) discrepancies in appearance.

(Not the Emerald Buddha)

That’s not to say that I didn’t do my usual gingery thing and go wandering off on my own. I highly recommend the Grand Palace and its Emerald Buddha (which is disappointingly made of jade and not emerald). The optical assault of colors, patterns, mirrors, and the tinkling of bells made for a surreal atmosphere that almost made up for the fact that the palace grounds were overrun with large groups of Russian tourists. A 5-hour afternoon bike and boat excursion with Co van Kessel Bangkok Tours was also well worth the short flirtation with death by hellish traffic before reaching quieter, lush suburbs of Bangkok.

Solo-Ginger day was followed by a mother-daughter day of intense shopping in the city — where you can buy literally everything and that in 50 different colors, styles, shapes, with googly eyes or polka dots — you name it, Bangkok has it. I escaped without a huge dent in my wallet, but learned an uncomfortable bit of cultural information. You see, whether in a hotel, a shop, or a restaurant, the Thai employees gave me the distinct feeling that they were serving us. Not just waiting on us or helping us, but serving, as in “thou art higher than I on the social ladder, oh noble one”.

I have no problem accepting generosity from warmhearted givers, or even being spoiled by people who care about me (or in Ubon’s case, by a complete stranger). It was, however, unsettling to be treated as if I were somehow better than they were. After consulting my Asian mom about this cultural difference, I realized Ubon was used to it. It was simply a question of money, again the issue of ‘have’ vs. ‘have-not’.

The discomfort was temporary, however, as I was looking forward to the tranquil atmosphere of Wat Prayong…the temple where I spent a week as a Buddhist nun. Keep an eye out for the next post on meditation, monks and “My Asian Dad”, for yes,  I managed to be adopted again…

Vicious Cycle

A bike ride through rural Cambodia led by Grasshopper Adventures’ Vicious Cycle Shop turned out to be 70 kilometers of rice paddies, naked children, hundreds of ducks, and sweaty (painful) fun…

The tuktuk ride back to Ramon’s place was well-deserved after returning to the crowded city streets. We were in a humid daze and had lost our butts to a state of numbness, but had gained perspective through glimpses of the rural Cambodian lifestyle.

30 km and we're not even halfway?! Time to stretch...

The “ß” in Gießen is “ss”, fyi

The last post ended with a hasty farewell, as I was in a rush to get to a salsa dancing event in Gießen.  I’ll back up slightly and give you an idea of the adventures of last weekend…

I stayed with Kyra in Gießen from Friday to Sunday, mostly to get acquainted with the city and start to figure out if I’d rather live there than in Laubach.  Friday night Kyra and I were planning on finding a place to dance, so I borrowed her roommate’s bicycle and we went on an extremely long quest.  Our first stop was a ballroom dance studio that normally hosts dance parties on Friday nights.  Unfortunately for us — and for a German couple who pulled up in their car just as we arrived — the studio was closed for the night.  We chatted with the couple for a bit and learned that the ballroom scene is primarily made up of “older” people, i.e. people who are already married and bring their own partners.  The man said if he’d known we two young ladies would be coming, he would have had two sons and brought them along with his wife (oh, German humor, you sound suspiciously like my father’s humor).  We told them we’d come next week and headed off to the next destination on our quest.

On the way to what is supposed to be a dance venue on the west side of Gießen, Kyra and I stopped at a gas station to ask for directions and coincidentally ran into the older couple again, who were headed to yet another ballroom event down the road.  (Here I started thinking, ok, well I really should move to Gießen then).  We started biking again and, long story short, ended up going waaaaay outside of the city in the middle of the night, biking on an unlit path next to the equivalent of a county highway.  After twenty minutes of this, we decided we probably weren’t going to find any dance clubs out there and hopped a conveniently timed bus back into town.

Hell-bent on finding some sort of location with heart-thumping music, we settled for a smallish club clearly meant for 18-20 year olds.  I can only imagine what the Germans, being hesitant to dance without a few drinks in them, were thinking when we stormed the dance floor with our crazy-bold-sober American moves.  We were literally the only ones dancing for a good 40 minutes.  It was actually pretty fun — we were definitely “am abspacken”.  There’s really no English translation that does the German verb justice, but the closest definitions I can think of are “to go wild” or “to cut loose”.  Good times.

Saturday was full of sleep and relaxation, followed by shopping at the outdoor market and various stores to pick up a few essentials (bright yellow bath towel, fruit, gelato) with the only other Fulbright teaching assistant in Gießen, Rick.  That evening we made falafel and had a nice picnic in a park by Kyra’s apartment.  Her friend Allen, a bloke from Manchester who’s been living in Germany for 20 years, joined us with his guitar and singing skillz.  Some extremely aggressive swans crashed our picnic party, but we managed to hold our ground and avoid getting bitten.

That night was full of salsa dancing (finally!) at Bootshaus, on the riverbank downtown.  It was interesting coming into a brand new salsa scene, wondering how things function, if everyone asks anyone to dance, how old or experienced people would be, etc.  Turns out, the music was excellent and most people were between 30 – 45 years old yet willing to dance with “a stranger”, after I asked them to dance a couple of times.  There were two middle-aged German men who could salsa decently well, but I especially enjoyed dancing some salsa with a guy from Paris (named Jacques, of course), an older Italian man (named Giorgio, of course), and a younger Turkish guy who was definitely the most experienced of anyone there.  The salsa was a mix of Cuban and LA-style, with merengue and bachata thrown in throughout the night.  Happiness achieved.  I’ll be back soon for more…