A Short Essay on Being

Monday, July 5, 2010

A pad is something you can write in, as in sheets of paper bound together. It is also what you bleed on when you first start. When I grew older, a pad was someone’s house. My college roommate and I had, according to many persons who traipsed in and out of our campus apartment during our senior year, a cool pad, a “budget” pad. You could also pad something, as in stuff it with cotton, or you could have a bra with built-in or removable pads: a padded bra. Pad is all of these, but seven years ago, I learned that it is a type of Thai noodle dish: pad Thai, it’s called. One weekend, I was going to visit a friend from graduate school in Austin. I told her that I would visit and make her pot Thai. She told me, “It’s pad Thai.” And even though she knew I was Thai and even though she knew that I was born in Thailand and had been back numerous times and even though she knew that my mother raised me to speak Thai and still spoke to me in Thai, I thanked her for correcting me.

Very early childhood memory: I’m playing on the carpet with my older sister in a hospital waiting room. Two older, white women are sitting on chairs in front of us and ask where we are from. We say we’re from Valley-Hi, because that’s the section of San Antonio where we live. No, they say, what’s your nationality? We had never heard that word before, and although we had never heard that word before, we answered that we were Thai, although our nationality was American. My aunt would die in a few days. And my sister and I lived much of our lives after that believing we were Thai nationals.

I would like to know why, more often than not, the pad Thai that I order in restaurants, even if it’s made by someone who is Thai, is orange and served in a syrup so thick that I’m sure there’s high-fructose corn syrup in it. And even though all of my friends have told me that they have never ordered pad Thai in a restaurant that they haven’t liked, I’m ashamed that they are served something that isn’t, to me, either good or authentic.

The boy asked me if I was mixed. He was about my age. I was about twenty-two, and I was on my lunch break at the shopping mall where I worked. At first, I didn’t understand what he had said. He asked me if I was mixed. Yes, I said.

Once, I sent back an order of pad Thai three times. It tasted of pineapple and was covered in syrup. Each time I sent it back, it would come back the same. This was in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and I was new to the city but believed that because I was in the city that the ethnic foods there would be authentic. Sticky rice was served in a little bowl lined with a plastic bag, which confused me and made me feel slightly sick. I told the waiter that the noodles reeked of pineapple, that every bite tasted of pineapple and that it was all too sweet. In the end, I accepted it. I didn’t eat it, but I accepted it; I was charged $12.99 plus tax and tip for a dish that tasted of syrup and tin.

Sometimes, they simply ask if my father was in the military. Of all the ways that I have ever been asked, that, perhaps, is the worst way of all.

I have warned people to use my mother’s ground red pepper sparingly, but they never listen. Because they never listen, in college, I kept packs of sugar in my dorm room. I cooked rice in a little rice-cooker that my father and mother sent me, along with a tiny jar of her freshly ground red peppers, peppers that she had planted, picked, cleaned, and allowed to dry for days in the Texan sun before she roasted them and ground them into a powder. Some days, instead of going to the dining hall for fried cheese or dry meat parts or fried corn nuggets, I would steam rice and eat it with a few sprinkles of fish sauce and a sprinkling of my mother’s red pepper. Anorexic girls, who didn’t want to go to the dining hall either, would come to my room for a serving of rice, and they would never listen. They would turn red and sweat and nearly convulse and run out into the hall to hit the water fountain until I could convince them that sugar was their best bet for dissipating the heat. I would tear open a sugar packet and tell them to stick it all in their mouths, which they would do because sugar was only calories and not fat so that made it OK. In the end, they would thank me for saving their lives, and I would mourn that rice had been wasted and I would mourn that the red pepper had been wasted.

Instead of correcting her, I thanked my friend from grad school for correcting me, because that is just the Thai way. You move about quietly. You don’t show others their errors—you let them eventually come to learn the errors of their ways and have them come to you for forgiveness later. Sometimes, it takes a long, long time, as when I apologize to my mother now for things I did in my youth. Sometimes, it never happens. In the case of my friend from grad school, it has not happened; it probably never will. In the Thai way, it’s a battle, however small, that I have won, because I have not brought it up, have not corrected her or mentioned to her that it was probably very wrong of her to correct someone’s Thai who is Thai.

Pot Thai is not an everyday food, and although children especially like it, it is not a dish that a mother can quickly whip up. To make pot Thai, you need patience, and you need to spend much time preparing to make the meal before you can make the meal. There are no ingredients in a pot Thai dish that would make the noodles turn orange or soggy or slippery or syrupy. Although you can add a slight bit of sugar, the sweetest ingredient that is used in pot Thai is tamarind, a slightly tangy, slightly sweet bean that grows high up in tamarind trees, the fruit of which is rich brown and pasty and can be eaten as is, although I always preferred a sprinkling of salt.

I was quite pleased when, upon moving to Chicago, I found that there was a Thai grocery store within walking distance. When I lived in Brooklyn, I had to venture into remote areas surrounding Chinatown, but not in Chinatown, to get things that I needed. My mother once made the trip with me: we were on the hunt for fresh rice noodles. We came up empty, disappointed and empty. Surely, the only Thai grocery in New York City would have fresh rice noodles, but it didn’t; it was so tiny that there was hardly anything, and we quickly regretted having made the outing at all. After that, my mother sent me regular care packages of basic Thai staples, including things that she had just picked from her garden. So, when I found the Thai grocery store in Chicago and realized that not only was it within walking distance of my apartment but that it was also huge, I immediately called my mother to tell her all about it. They even have fresh rice noodles, I told her. My husband and I moved our cart up and down the long aisles, filling it with various sauces and vegetables and meats. The workers there were Thai, and although I usually do not pass as Thai, the owner began talking to me in Thai. He told me, At first I didn’t know if you were Thai, but then I saw that you had a good husband, and I knew you were Thai. My husband was puzzled when I told this to him, but I knew what the shop owner meant: Thai husbands always readily engage in what is considered “women’s work” in the West. And so, because my husband was pushing the cart and lifting the bag of rice and participating in the grocery shopping and said that he knew how to cook pot-see-you, the owner knew I was Thai.

Maybe I was about twelve or maybe fifteen when I was entering the shopping mall as the man was exiting, and he began to speak to me in Spanish and I told him that I didn’t understand and he looked at me sternly and said shame on me because I didn’t know my mother’s language shame on me. And although my mother’s language was not Spanish but rather Thai and I knew that language very well, for the rest of the day, I carried a shame within me and felt, quite acutely, that I had done something very wrong.

Because I am part Thai, I didn’t have to pay an application fee when I applied to graduate school at the University of Notre Dame. This, I believe, was the only time that my being Thai held an advantage. Although I have had many academic successes, none of them were due to my being part Thai. Although I applied many times, I never won a Ford Foundation Fellowship for Minorities, and although I was a finalist one year, I didn’t win the Soros Fellowship for New Americans. Although I was Asian, and although Asians are stereotyped as being smart and hard working, I have never gained any money for being Asian. I could not compete with Asians. The Asians I met in academic settings were never Thai. There were plenty of Asians, but there were no Thai people. I knew one Thai girl in undergrad, and when I tried to compare stories with her about our mothers, she was very confused and said that her mom didn’t do or say those things. Her parents were doctors; they were from Bangkok, and they were paying out of pocket for their daughter to go to school. When I met the other Soros Fellowship finalists, I met some Asian students, but none of them were was Thai and none of them were working class. They, along with the other finalists, had gone to Stanford or Harvard and were studying law or business or medicine, and their parents were lawyers or MBAs or doctors. I knew, when I learned these things, that I would not get the fellowship. At dinner, someone brought up a recent piece of news: a sweatshop was discovered right here in America where workers were forced to sew clothes for many more hours a day than eight hours a day. My mother sewed clothes all her life, and there were weekends when I didn’t see her much because she was at her industrial sewing machine sewing the same clothing item over and over and over again to make money in her own house. A man would show up once a week to take things away and drop things off. I said something at the dinner in response to the remark about the sweatshop; I don’t remember what it was that I said, but it did convey that my upbringing was quite different from anyone else’s in the room and it wasn’t the right thing to say. The next day, the first question I was asked during my first interview wasn’t a question at all. I was asked to recite some of my poetry. I cried. As a poet, I couldn’t tell them that I was not in the habit of memorizing my own poems. At the second interview, no one seemed to know what “criticism” meant, and the grandson of Mr. Soros looked out the window the whole time.

I want to know when it became trendy to go out for Thai, because growing up, I do not remember anyone wanting to go out for Thai, and I certainly do not remember anyone knowing what Thai food was or even what Thai was. After I turned twenty-one, it seemed that Thai was the thing. There was a credit card commercial that featured a New York City workaholic who charged Thai take-out. My grad-school friend called me from Austin to tell me that she had the most awesome picnic with some writers, because someone brought “pad” Thai to the picnic. Another friend of mine said that she loved Thai food, especially Thai beef salad, because they use vinegar in it and it was less fattening because of that. I didn’t tell her that Thai beef salad should not have vinegar in it. Another friend said to another friend, Oh, you haven’t had Thai food? It’s just like Chinese food, only better. I didn’t say that Thai food was nothing like Chinese food. I let them all enjoy feeling that they knew things that I didn’t know, knew them better than I knew, let them keep saying pad Thai.

When I first met my husband, I was a graduate student at Notre Dame. He confessed, later, that he thought I might be Puerto Rican at first, but then surmised that I was Native American, which is true: I am a quarter Cherokee. My husband has a bit of German in him, but is, for the most part, Irish and Italian, types of whites that are—in this country where “white” is a disclaimer for absolutely no ethnicity it seems—historically and culturally significant in that they are white “minorities” that have a history of being ill-treated and discriminated against and are, even today, often made fun of and parodied in popular culture. If my husband and I ever have children, what a mix they will be: German, Italian, Irish, Cherokee, Thai, and white—that white that I always say I am: white with no signified because that part of my father’s history is lost. All we know are two family names: Jackson and King, and what kind of whites are these?

Of course, I do realize that there are differences in pronunciation, as there are in any country as you move from region to region and even from household to household and even among members of the same household. My father, who was born in Missouri and raised in Oklahoma, says “greazy” instead of “greasy.” He has also never caught on to the fact that people now use “dinner” to refer to their evening meal. If one of his daughters tells him that she is coming over to make dinner, he’ll be ready to eat at noon at the dining table, because, to him, dinner is formal lunch and supper is your evening meal. The Thai dialect I grew up with is from a region of Thailand that exists about three hours north of Bangkok if you’re driving. It’s where the U.S. Air Force was stationed during and a little after the Vietnam War, and it’s where many U.S. Air Force men met their Thai wives and fathered half-Thai, half-American children, many out of wedlock and many outside of their marriages to American brides back home. I was never aware of the many different varieties in Thai, just as I was never really aware of class until I went to college. Where I grew up, all the Thai people I knew were from the same region, and we had all come to America in the same way: all the children and all the wives were about the same age. In my very poor neighborhood on the southwest side of San Antonio, near Lackland and Kelly Air Force Bases, my parents provided for us very well. We had two cars, and my father owned his house. We had the Valley-Hi home layout that had two baths and four bedrooms, instead of the smaller one-bath, three-bedroom model. We had central air instead of window units, and we never used fans during the summertime or even had our windows open. In the winter, we could turn on the heat. I would visit other kids’ houses and find that they bundled themselves in sweatshirts, and if someone showered, they had to open the door to let the hot steam into the house. We had it very well, and we knew we had it very well. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that I did not have it so well. And it wasn’t until a Thai friend was showing me Thai music videos that he had just picked up during his last visit to Thailand that I realized that there were different varieties of Thai. The song on the video was called som-thom, a Thai dish made with shredded green Thai papaya, fish sauce, peanuts, smashed peppers, and, if you’re doing it right, bla-la, which is, for the most part, a disgusting liquid that comes from keeping salted fish in a jar for months. My Thai friend, who was from Bangkok, said, “This is a song for you: it’s a Korat song.” Som-thom is supposed to be so hot that you will barely be able to stand it; you’re supposed to eat it with rice or rice noodles to cut the heat; you serve it in a big bowl and invite your neighbors to come and share it with you. I can eat very hot food and I know other Thai people who can eat hotter food than I can and som-thom is always supposed to be too hot for even the most resilient of hot-food eaters. If you order “papaya salad” in American Thai restaurants, you won’t find heat and you won’t find bla-la and in most cases, you won’t even find fish sauce; you’ll find vinegar instead, and if you want rice, you’ll have to order it separately. And so, I came to find out that a food that I had loved, a food that had produced so many euphorias in my family, was a food of the poor. It was folk food, and that’s why there were folk songs about it. The songs said that it was OK if nothing worked out and that you were poor and that people were bent low working in rice fields and if the children couldn’t be sent to school anymore; the song said that these things were OK because just think about how wonderful it is to make and eat som-thom. That is when I learned that I was an eater of som-thom.

I realized how much food was wrapped into being when I moved to New York City. I was young and a hard idealist who romanticized about crossing Brooklyn Bridge, but I never once crossed the bridge by foot in all the years that I lived there. I became a diner when I lived in the city. I learned to dine. And I grew to harbor a certain bias toward people who could, like me, appreciate the subtleties in varieties of olive oil. I mistrusted anyone who would not pay the high price for a wedge of aged, red-cow, Italian Parmesan, because it was among the best cheeses that I had tasted. My husband and I were friends with the food editor of a very important culinary magazine, who frequently invited us over to dine because he knew we would appreciate it. I couldn’t find myself being close to anyone who didn’t enjoy food, who didn’t enjoy eating, who didn’t know how to cook.

I suppose it could be “pad” Thai if you said it very quickly and sharply, but to me, the quick and sharp way that you say “fried” in Thai is more like “pot” when spoken quickly in English than “pad.” Some people who have been to Thailand try to talk to me in Thai, and I have absolutely no idea what they are saying. I haven’t been schooled in how to understand someone whose very rough second language is Thai, although I’m sure the people who work in the tourism industry in Thailand are able to pick out words that are mispronounced. (However, because I grew up bilingual and had to talk to many young mothers whose second language was English, I have an amazing ability to understand anyone who is speaking English as a second language when others cannot.) This inability on my part to understand just what these people are saying is often understood as my “faking” Thai. People assume that I am faking that I know Thai. The truth is that in English, no matter how you pronounce the word “book,” it will always mean “book.” You can say it high or low, draw it out or say it quickly, or else say it sharply or soft, and it will always mean “book.” Not so in Thai: one sound can have six different word meanings depending on how it’s inflected. And so, that is where the tourists get it wrong: they assume that it is, as it is in English, about sound, whereas in Thai it is about sound and inflection.

There’s a fabulous little place in New York City’s Chinatown that sells the cheapest but the best dumplings. I took my sisters, who were visiting. It’s also difficult for them, as it is for me, when we meet someone new. It’s difficult to be stared at and analyzed. Because it is a small restaurant, the staff will sometimes sit random groups of people together at one table. They sat us with a group of tourists, an Asian family. The mother and father and children were all Asian. That is, I knew they were Asian, but I couldn’t tell with any certainty what kind of Asian they were. I could only rule out Thai. We got to talking, and we found that we were all from Texas. I asked what city they lived in, and they said Houston, which made sense to me, as Houston does have a sizable Asian population, and my mother and I have gone there many times to eat Vietnamese noodles and to shop in the wholesale Asian markets there. I told the family that we were from San Antonio, and the mother just said, Yeah, I knew you were. Really? How did you know? Because you’re Mexican, she said. I wanted to say, Oh, well, you must be part hippo—they were, all of them, rather large—but I refrained and, as is the Thai way, I thanked her for giving me information about something that I didn’t know.

I don’t see my preference for food-lovers (and by “food,” I mean real food) as snobbery, and I often wonder why authenticity in cooking is, mistakenly, conflated with snobbery. To prefer real macaroni and cheese over the neon-yellow stuff from a box is supposedly an indication of snobbery. When my husband and I found a wonderful pizza place in Chicago, we realized that all was not lost; we might be able to live here. When we took a friend to the restaurant, the friend referred to the pizza as pretentious. The friend said that he wanted just like a plain pizza from a chain store or like just a New York slice. In my mind, that’s fine: we all have strange, quirky cravings for processed cheese and processed dough from time to time. But I still can’t figure out why an authentic pizza, made in the Neapolitan style, with real mozzarella and real dough, is a sign of snobbery.

I dated a boy for five months once. I was leaving for Thailand when we broke up, and he told me to enjoy myself in the land where so many plastic hamburger-chain toys were made. We had dated for five months, and all that time, he thought I was Taiwanese and not Thai.

I can’t figure out why authenticity has been linked to snobbery any more than I can figure out why, in an essay that set out to explore my being in terms of being Thai, I first launched into a tangent about Thai food and then digressed into preferring food that is authentic and true.

During my first days at Hollins College, which I have to explain to people in the same way that I have to explain to people what Thai is—that is, by prefacing what I say before I say it—I ate lunch with a girl who lived in my hall and her roommate. And because it’s never obvious to anyone just what “race” I am, during first meetings, I am inevitably asked “where I’m from,” which I have come to learn means “Just what are you?” I had returned from Thailand a few weeks before, not that it mattered, but I told her that I was part Thai. Her response was, “Oh, they eat dogs there, don’t they? My father told me that they eat dogs there.”

Usually, when asked where I’m from, I’ll say Texas, and it’s not a lie; however, it hardly answers the question for the interrogator.

When I went to Austin to visit my grad-school friend, I packed my car with the provisions I would need to make pot Thai. I also, as is the Thai way, filled a box in my backseat with gifts that my mother wanted me to give to my friend: clothes and souvenirs from Thailand, as well as fruit and plants. I drove the two hours to visit her. When I got there, her house was full of the usual Austin drifters—friends of friends just passing through, friends of friends who were looking to move, friends of friends who just needed to find a job for a few months, friends of friends who just couldn’t, for one reason or another, get their shit together. There was a boy named Justin there, who was lovely, but because I had recently started up again on a long-distance relationship with the man who thought I was Taiwanese—who I was crazy in love with, who just happened to be crazy, and although I tried to make it work for three years it just never did—I tried to distance myself from Justin, although I found him amazingly attractive. He played a guitar and hair hung in his eyes. He was leaving for Nevada the next day. He said random things about how great he was in bed. Some other boys were outside banging upside-down plastic buckets with sticks in a way that I was certain would make the cops come. I told my grad-school friend that I had brought the stuff to make pot Thai, and again she reminded me that it was pad Thai. Again, I thanked her for correcting me.

Justin asked that if I made the pad Thai could I please not use fish sauce. I told him there was no way to make it without fish sauce. He said that fish sauce upset his stomach, which I took to mean turned his stomach. My grad-school friend asked that I not use canola oil but olive oil instead. I tried to explain that olive oil was not used in Thai cooking, and that the two oils cook differently in addition to tasting quite different. She said something about her holistic doctor. Some girl, who was trying not to get pregnant for the fourth time by douching with lavender oil, asked that I not use chicken because she was vegetarian. Another guy asked that I not use egg because he was vegan, although I watched him and the vegetarian both drizzle fish sauce onto their noodles. Someone’s boyfriend had just finished shaving his head and was walking around in a skirt; he told me that he had a Thai girlfriend once who was very sexy and that I should read this certain book because it would help me to figure all my shit out; the girlfriend made a mad sound and stomped out of the kitchen.

I hate when I hear people say that it’s so great to go to Thailand, everything’s so cheap there! I find it insulting. I find it terrible how the very rich of this world can go and play in a country where the people are very poor. I just say things like, yeah, it’s so great. They go to Phuket, and I have never gone to Phuket. Phuket, my mom says, is annoying and expensive. Some annoying, drunk boys that I met at a party somewhere said that they liked to go to “fuck-et.” I was not amused, but I pretended to be.

Someone in the house had just come back from Thailand, and I thought he would be interested to talk to me about it. He wasn’t. I kept asking him how it was and what he did there. He said that he went there to stay at a Buddhist retreat and paid several thousand dollars to do so, and on the final day, he let them take a high-pressure hose and rinse his anus. He said all of this to me as if I knew what he was talking about. I went to temple many, many times—both in Texas and in Thailand—and never once did I have my anus rinsed, or hear of anyone else having their anuses rinsed. Just like I have yet to find a Thai person eating a dog. We compared notes about what we knew about Buddhism; in the end, he told me that the Buddhism that I was raised with and practiced was fake, i.e., not authentic. I told him that was great, maybe he could teach me real Buddhism sometime. He also complained about the treatment of women in that country, but I guess it was OK for him to keep knocking up his girlfriend and make her douche with lavender oil and get abortions. Yeah, it’s really bad, I said.

In the end, it was “pad Thai” that I made: something that repulsed me but that others ate up. And although everyone complained about it not being “authentic,” that is, not being the way they were used to having it in restaurants, it was all gone by three in the morning. Although the real Buddhist was now going to bed when the sun set and waking up when the sun rose, he had gotten up at three in the morning to eat whatever was left of the noodles, then went back to sleep again.

Pretty-boy Justin played his guitar way past three in the morning, and by five in the morning, he and I were the only ones left awake. He wanted to massage my hands, so I let him; he wanted me to massage his hands, so I did. He said that he had never been with a Thai girl before and wondered what it was like, at which point I suggested that, rather than allowing myself to become an exotic country for his conquest, it was time for me to go to sleep. I never told him that, although I didn’t cook the pad Thai with fish sauce, I had added some to his bowl. The next day, he would complain of blue balls; however, he never once complained of a tummy ache.

Thursday, July 1, 2010