“Julia! Julia!…Julia!” Bong screamed from downstairs.
“Ka. Yes. Coming,” I saved my documents, shut my laptop and descended down stairs to the outdoor living area.
The house was an interesting piece of architecture. Nearly the whole house was technically outdoors, interspersed with walls here and there to specify rooms. The downstairs were entirely exposed to the outdoors and the house lot sat right next to a canal where one could often find children playing in the water, a daily activity to squelch the sweltering heat. Fences marked where the designated “insides” of the house were supposed to exist. Inside quarters were typical items you would find in any American household. Sofas with holes dug out of the center by any one of the playful, mangy dogs that roamed the village roads. Family photos with inches of dust clinging to the viewing glass. Knickknacks and stuffed animals that adorned shelves and wore their own layers of dust to either signify importance or a life forgotten. Enough calendars hung from walls to incorrectly think that Thai culture relied heavily on dates, time, and deadlines when really it was just an excuse to hang another picture of the royal family or Thai botany. I pulled out the chair to the dinner table with one thing in my mind, stick to your guns, Julia.
My host mother picked up a bowl, scooped it full of white rice, stuck a spoon in it, then handed it over to me. “Oh, no thank you. I don’t want any rice. No rice please,” I said with a Thai-sized smile on my face. With these words, I swear the country of Thailand must have stopped for a second amidst whatever it was they were doing. The whole roomed got quiet and my Mom stared at me then crooked her head in disbelief. I continued to smile at her and she laughed, smiled back and scooped only half of the rice back into the rice cooker. As soon as she handed the food over to me, I scooped the remaining rice back into the serving bowl, scrunched my nose a bit and affirmed, “I am only a little hungry.”
“You’re not going to eat rice,” she asked again.
“No. Not today.” I scooped tom yum gung into my bowl and breathed in the aroma of the vegetable based soup. It reminded me of American food. I scooped a little extra. Next, I focused my spoon’s attention on the heaping pile of steamed vegetables. Wilted morning glories, my favorite. Nearly every Thai dish is sprinkled with a bit of sugar and I inhaled its sweetness.
Just as I began putting my dinner to my mouth I heard my mother start talking about me.
“Paaw. She isn’t eating any rice,” she said. My host Dad chuckled shyly with his round belly and continued to flip through the television. He was a very patient and non-prodding man who often left my business to myself. I enjoyed that quality about him.
Bong strolled by the nearby fence and implored, “What is she eating?” I tried to reason this odd question by saying that because Bong prepared the food everyday she wanted to make sure I liked everything. I noticed in the beginning that they served a great deal of fish but I would seldom eat any. As the days passed, more and more dishes of vegetables and fruits starting appearing. They were trying their best to accommodate me.
My host Mom peered over the rim of my bowl and dutifully replied, “Tom yum gung, pad pak, and a teeny bit of pork. But she doesn’t eat any rice. She said she isn’t eating rice.”
“What?” Bong said. Not believing the statement, she walked over to the table herself and peeked at the contents of my bowl. She stared at me for several minutes watching as I ate my food. In awkwardness, I flashed a smile at her. She offered up a crooked half-smile not knowing what to make of me.
“It’s delicious,” I reassured her.
“You aren’t eating rice,” was her response, stale as one-year old cracker left out to dry.
I laughed at the hilarity and tried to explain myself. “Americans eat rice every once in a while. Sometimes four times a month, sometimes twice a month. I like rice, but not everyday, not three times a day. Nan nan tii.” She walked away.
My host grandma hunched over the top of the fence with her aching back and mumbled, “She’s not eating rice,” then kept to herself.
A friendly neighbor from across the way strolled into the dining area eager to tell a story from the day’s happenings. She entered the setting with her story already started and her farmer’s hat tucked under her arm. I had never met the woman before and continued to eat my food slowly and contented, catching snippets of the story. Mid-story, the woman stopped, looked at my dinner and said, “She’s isn’t eating any rice. Why?”
My host Mom laughed and told her I wasn’t eating rice today. The woman expressed worry and concern. In a brief conversation my mother informed her about my tummy aches, my diarrhea problems, my food intolerances and my food preferences. Actually, she did this to most people I had not met before. It was almost a conversation rite of passage type thing.
From nowhere, my Thai grandma hollers from across the living area, “Her belly aches because she doesn’t eat rice.”
I finished my bowl of food, sans rice, grabbed my mother’s bowl, as well, and washed them together in a nearby bucket of water. After my Mom insisted I eat some fruit, I grabbed some slices of mango and headed back upstairs to continue writing. In the distance I could hear my mother walking over to the other neighbor’s house to talk about how I didn’t eat rice for dinner.