My Yai is My Best Friend

My Thai Grandma Stayed as Dry as a Whistle. I Wasn't So Lucky

Two months ago in July my host grandmother, Yai, stayed in the hospital for over 5 days. At that time, there was a lot of chaos and anxiety in the family; I couldn’t pick up enough of the technical medical terms to figure out what was wrong. One night I went along with a truck-full of farmers and my extended host family to visit her. When I came into the room I handed her the heart-shaped card I had made with “I love you. Get Well Soon,” written in Thai. Everyone smiled. I teared up.

After five very worrisome days she was able to return home but with handfuls of bags of medication and strict instruction to rest easy. The first time I went to sit by her I asked her if she had eaten lunch or not. She stared blankly at me with her mouth slightly gaping open. I felt confused. My Yai normally conversed freely with me. She entertained my silly questions and always replied with a little sass and snooty-nosed smile. I figured she needed more time to recover.

The weeks went on and I’d try again to talk to my Yai. Nothing. Silence and staring off into space. I asked my host Mom, “What’s wrong with Yai. Why can’t she understand? Why can’t she speak?”/“She’s just really tired,” she replied. My heart sunk into my chest when I realized: she’s not in there anymore. I don’t know where she went but the once bright, smiling and sassy older grandmother that I’d spent hundreds of days with poking each other, asking what we each had eaten, and just sitting atop her wooden mattress as she watched soap operas until the late hours of the night, was gone. Sometimes I saw her wring her old hands together as she lie on the tile floor. She lay there for hours refusing to get up and try to walk as others suggested until the hardness of the floor hurt her body. Then she rolled back and forth trying to make herself comfortable and relieve the sores. I went to sit by her often, placing a pillow beneath her lower back. I also sat there in silence; it felt good to be near her. It made me happy. Sometimes, when she had enough energy, she crooked a smile at me, too, just like old times.

Recently I was away facilitating a Peace Corps training session that took me out of my village for almost two weeks. The night I returned home I called my host Mom before leaving the city to let her know I would be home soon and needed a ride at the village roundabout. She told me that my uncle would have to pick me up. My Yai was in the hospital again.

When I hung up the phone I burst into tears in the public mall. I quickly left the city and headed home. After my uncle dropped me off, I went upstairs to my bedroom. I opened the living room door and, to my surprise, my Thai aunt was sleeping on the floor next to the couch. After putting my bags down, I went to sit by her on the 1” foam mattress she’d turned into a makeshift bed. Immediately I asked, “What wrong with Yai?”

“She’s sick,” my aunt replied.

“How long?”

“5 nights now. Ever since you left.”

“What did the doctor say?”

“He said that she is very sick.”

“Is she going to be okay?”

“Nevermind. She’ll be okay.” I nodded. “Do you want to go to hospital in the morning to visit her?”

I lit up. “Yes. What time?”

“7 in the morning.”

“Okay, I’ll wake up and go.”

“I’ll pack you a lunch and you can eat with Yai,” she said.

The next morning I climbed into the old pick-up truck of a host family relative with two other yais (Yai is the Thai word for maternal grandmother). After arriving at the hospital, I walked down the hallway to the hospital room and excitement started to stir in my chest. I was so excited to see my Yai. I didn’t care how sick she was or if she was able to talk, I just felt this urgency to be with her. I needed to be near her. I took off my shoes outside the hospital room while the two yais sat on the bench outside and rested after the “long” walk from the car. When I opened the door and went into the room, there I saw my Yai, sitting crossed-legged on the hospital bed, her faded, green gown hanging loosely from her body. She turned her head around when I walked in and when I saw her face I instantly smiled. It was so good to see her face. She smiled back at me, bright and cheerful. Could this be true? Is she back?

Chatter floated around the room and I watched as she laughed. She rubbed the soles of her feet and sat smiling at her family. Smiling at me.

“You cut all your hair off!” I said. All 16 inches of it. Yai loved her hair and always refused to cut it, no matter how matted it became or difficult it became to manage. I knew she didn’t want to part with it. “It’s really beautiful,” I told her. And it was. Her gray hair mixed in with small, puffy tufts of white-ish blond. It made her face look youthful, full of life.

After awhile, I helped my host mother and father gather their things to head back home. The doctor released Yai from the hospital and said she’d be right behind us with my uncle. In the car I told my host mother how happy Yai looked. I told her that she looked so much better, healthier and happier. I told her that I was so happy to see her. A couple of minutes passed and I sat in the car filled with so much joy that the Yai I befriended long ago was getting back to her old self.

My host mother who sat in the backseat put her arm on my shoulder and said, “Dear, your grandmother is happy because she is not stressed anymore. Her heart is failing quickly now.” I stared straight ahead at the road. “The doctor said not to do anything that would cause her stress. This morning he said directly, let her spend time with her family and loved ones. Soon she will die naturally on her own.”

“Did he say how much time she has?”

“No, he did not say. It’s not a lot.”

I think in that moment every single damn thing stood still in the world except for the car I was sitting in. Rice fields passed by us, the large canal, the river houses and long tail fishing boats. I looked out the window and soon tears streamed down my face. I knew I couldn’t stop them so I just let them pour out. I tried my hardest to muffle any noises but my mother knew anyway. We all sat in silence.

I remember the first day I arrived in my village after I separated from the rest of the other 51 volunteers. My uncle picked me up at the training hotel and later dropped me off at my new home where I’d spend the next two years of my life. The house was empty and no one was home to greet me. Birds chirped and motorcycles puttered by as I drug my large suitcase upstairs to the room I remember they’d chosen for me. The only thing that separated my room between my host parents was a thin wooden wall where cracks of sunlight peaked through during the day. It’s that room that I unzipped my bag and unpacked the few belongings and clothes that I brought with me. Life was enormous and strange back then. I couldn’t manage its size or confusion so I found myself going through the motions of trying to settle in, or keeping enough courage to continue to try, at anything. Before long, an elderly woman I’d never met came upstairs and opened my bedroom door. Without saying a word she plopped down on the mattress and sat there. Ten minutes passed by. She didn’t say a word, neither did I. Then, she turned to me and mumbled in Thai, “Over there (America), what do they do with people when they die?”

I thought for a moment. “Sometimes they bury them in the ground. Most of the time they burn and cremate them,” I replied.

“Really?” she asked.

I nodded, looked into her face and smiled softly. That woman was my Yai and from then on out, I knew we’d be best friends.


In a rural village of 2,000 people with a different culture, no one that speaks English, and the closest volunteer over 4 hours away it’s incredibly difficult to make friends. In the first months I felt like an outsider in a strange world; the Thai culture seemed alien to me, and I couldn’t imagine creating any resemblance of a deep friendship. However, without expecting it, my idea of friendship, and maybe even love, changed greatly. It became less about intellectual conversations, less about social events, less about how much I had in common with people, and more about the simple connection that we have with people. It became so much less complicated and so much more beautiful. My Yai is one of the people who taught me that. Long after I’m gone and long after she is gone, I’ll carry her heart with me. I’ll carry it in my heart.

Meet my Grandmother. She’s beautiful. **CLICK ANY IMAGE TO SEE AN ENLARGED VIEW**

Yai takes a break from stringing flowers. She carries a fierce beauty with rough edges from years of farming.

Yai takes a break from stringing flowers. She carries a fierce beauty with rough edges from years of farming.

Everyone lends a hand in genome making, including Yai, who wields a large wooden rowing paddle.

Everyone lends a hand in genome making, including Yai, who wields a large wooden rowing paddle.

Yai rinses her hands after a long day of candy making.

Yai rinses her hands after a long day of candy making.

My Yai Plucking a Chunk of Ready-to-Harvest Rice as the Sun Sets

My Yai Plucking a Chunk of Ready-to-Harvest Rice as the Sun Sets

Yai and I Post-Splash

Yai and Me After the Songkran Water Fight

My Thai host grandmother enjoying the wedding celebration.

My Thai host grandmother enjoying the wedding celebration.

Yai helps the farmers harvest and gather the rice before rainy season.

Yai helps the farmers harvest and gather the rice before rainy season.

My Yai eyes my speedy candy-packing skills with pride

My Yai eyes my speedy candy-packing skills with pride.

My Yai during Songkran 2012.

My Yai – Songkran 2012.

ฉันรักคุณมาก I love you very much. ขอบคุณสำหรับการเป็นเพื่อนที่ดีที่สุดของฉัน Thank you for being my best friend คุณสอนให้ฉันมากเกี่ยวกับชีวิตและความรักและครอบครัว You taught me a lot about life, love, and family.


3 responses to “My Yai is My Best Friend

  1. Such a moving post, Julia! You’ve built such a beautiful relationship with her, and I love how you describe friendship and love here in Thailand. Love based on human connection has been a hard concept for me. When I moved in with my family and they accepted me as one of their own, I was like, ” But you don’t even know me! How can you possibly love me?” But they do. Thank you for writing it so well, it’s made me more aware of one of the best lessons of Peace Corps.

  2. Pingback: Saying Goodbye but Not Just Yet | Light Enough to Travel·

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