I woke up at 5:30 this morning (not hard to do with the chickens outside my window) and hopped on the bus to the city. I watched the sunrise and tried to wrap my head around the fact that I would be seeing my family from America in just over an hour. It was mind-boggling. Perhaps if I had met them in Bangkok I would have been less stunned, but as my Dad emerged with a crowd of Thais, in the little Ubon airport it seemed as if my two worlds were colliding. I could barely contain my excitement about introducing my dad, mom and brother to my new world. We headed to the village around lunchtime and were treated like royalty at one of my favorite schools. After a hearty lunch of delicious Thai food and plenty of awkward but fun conversations, I realized we were to be treated one of Isaan’s most traditional dances and ceremonies. Some of the best students had dressed in traditional clothes, and overcome huge amounts of nervousness to put on quite a show for my family. As they danced, the elders that live close to the school wished us luck, happiness, and healthiness by tying blessed strings around our wrists. I remember when I first partook in this ceremony and watching my family experience it as well was quite special. I felt so proud of my community and I felt a part of it. I also felt blessed that they were so warm and welcoming to my family. I must have been doing something right all this time.
After the ceremony we were immediately shuffled off to another school that I have worked with. We were given a tour, my family was told to make speeches (I translated) and the best students were forced to give statistics about their school in English. Thus my family was able to experience another part of the Thai culture. This being the extreme show that is put on for VIPs. Not as fun or warm as the first school but an interesting experience nonetheless.
As the afternoon speed by, I realized we had better head to my office. When I called for a ride of course there was no one who could be bothered, both disappointing and annoying, as my family all the way from America had come to meet these people. Of course we found someone else and when we pulled up the parking lot was pretty full of perfectly working cars. As the Peace Corps Volunteers say, “This is Thailand!”
All of my co-workers are fun but can be very formal and definitely have very limited English skills. This made for awkward times for my family and co-workers and I was mildly amused for the time. After the third or fourth awkward silence in our meeting of them I suggested we head outside with the head honchos of the office for a game of bay dtong. This is quite similar to bocce ball and my dad and brother were easily taught the rules of the game. This turned out to be an immediate bonding experience and much more interesting and fun than touring around the office. As we played 3 on 3 my mom stood by with her nifty flip video camera (if you are interested in footage, please email me). We were never too far behind, but the Thais ended up winning. A for effort, Brooks Team!
After another hop, skip and jump we met my best friend and Thai tutor for a beer. This is where the family really started to get tired. The combination of beer, evening breeze and jetlag was hitting them hard. But we had one more stop to make: my house for dinner with my host family (20+ people).
We arrived to a karaoke set, table and chairs in the garden, and of course a bar with plenty of beautiful fruit plates. I knew we were in for a long night. I had asked my host family not to do anything big, even suggesting that my host parents, sister and her husband just meet us at a restaurant and I would treat everyone. As I counted the number of chairs I realized this would never be; in fact the whole extended family from Ubon was coming! We chatted the evening away with my host family; mostly my host dad talked at us, and handed out the Christmas gifts that my mom had carted over from America. After a few hours there was no sign of the rest of the group or starting dinner. My dad and I sang a few karaoke classics and enjoyed the nice evening in the garden. Every time I really looked around I was overwhelmed by the fact that my Thai family and American family had finally come together. As my family got sleepier and sleepier more and more people arrived. I was nervous.
The final car arrived just as my family had finished up dinner that we were given to early. My host brother’s mother had gone all out with gifts for us all. It was quite the show, but a bit embarrassing because I had nothing to give to them. She couldn’t have been more friendly and really gave us all some beautiful things. Again, I felt overwhelmed. I was singing some of my favorite karaoke songs (Zombie-Cranberries, Heal the World-Michael Jackson, My Love-Westlife) with my favorite group of cousins, when my host sister leaned over and whispered that she thought my family might need to return to the hotel in the city. When I turned around, I knew she was right. My poor family could barely keep their eyes open!
As I packed up my things, various people stopped me and asked where we were going, why we were leaving and why we couldn’t stay for the third and fourth courses. I felt as if my heart were tearing in two. It was my responsibility to take care of my family from America and I knew that awful feeling of jetlag, yet I was so touched by the warmth, effort and hospitality of my Thai family that I didn’t want to leave. I actually cried and hugged them all as we loaded up the car, as I knew I couldn’t really ever say thank you for all they have done for me.
After the car ride back to Ubon, feeling pretty guilty, I crashed, all the while trying to pump myself up for the vacation of the lifetime that we are about to embark on.