My host mom, Jam, slumped into the hammock the second she got home Sunday night, the one stretched out in a space between the parked truck and the dining table outside, exhausted from two days of a family event. One of her older brothers had built a new house in a neighboring town and Sunday was the day the monks were blessing it. The party started Saturday. The new home sits in a slightly older neighborhood, on the corner of a street with homes of similar architecture, fancy gates and glazed tiled patios. This is a nice neighborhood, a neighborhood in Thailand where most of the dogs are behind gated entrances and not roaming the streets, mangy and looking for a fight. Jam had spent all day Saturday helping other family members with the preparations and Sunday making sure everyone was comfortable and fed.
Tents had been set up across from the house, in a narrow dirt strip between the paved road and a scrubby wooded area. There were tables and plastic chairs to seat well over 250 people. A stage and loudspeakers were in place for the inevitable karaoke Saturday night, Sunday for the more traditional Thai music a young people’s band played. A colorful foam board sign stretched across the back of the stage announcing the big occasion, in Thai. It announced the main event and the date 25 January (มกราคม) 2558. I left home for Thailand on January 9, 2015. It was a long series of flights between Albany, New York and Bangkok and I crossed 12 time zones, including the International Date Line. But now I find myself 543 years ahead of things back home. I need to remember that Thailand is 97% Buddhist and their calendar reads 2558 B.E. (Buddha Era).
When we arrived for the pre-blessing party Saturday evening we were each handed a bowl of rice before we had a chance to take a seat. Once we sat, bowls of food starting arriving, one right after the other. There were soups and sausages, spring rolls and spicy dishes. After an hour more food appeared and someone offered us roasted rat. I passed on the rat, I had had some the weekend before and figured that should tide me over for a month or two. The karaoke started and I smiled as they prodded me to join in. Jam’s brother, Wanchai, sang a song in broken English especially for me, Five Hundred Miles, that classic American ballad by the Journeyman.
We didn’t stay late that night but were back by 8:30 the next morning for the formal Buddhist ceremony scheduled for later in the morning followed by the banquet. The tables and chairs under the tents were now covered in white cloth, the chairs were adorned with large gold bows. Dress was not as casual as the night before, everyone in their Sunday best, an expression not particularly suited for this Buddhist country even though it was Sunday.
A half dozen monks arrived, being seated inside the house in one of the large front rooms. Their ritualistic chanting was broadcast over a PA system so that the guests outdoors could hear and bow their heads in respect, hands clasped in front of chests, the traditional Thai “wai” (pronounced ‘why.”) Children ran around and many guests chattered amongst themselves a bit during the ceremony and when the chanting was over, the monks dispersed, one staying behind to anoint the entrance of the home. Bowls had been set out for the monks prior to the ceremony and many of us took turns spooning a little rice into each of the bowls, a Thai tradition of showing respect, paying alms. Upon leaving they were given gifts by the family, gifts that the monks could use and share with their followers, simple gifts, flowers and chopsticks.
As the only foreigner I was instantly the center of attention and all eyes were on me. I smiled and “wai-ed” at anyone who came within 5 feet of me. I tried my best to listen to the Thai around me. Many of my family’s friends are teachers, like Jam, and they know a little English, each trying to speak to me in my native tongue. The Thai heat and the questions were relentless. I sweated and smiled and smiled some more—for 5 and a half hours. A few times I had to excuse myself to take a walk to hear myself think but I was sure to let my host family know where I was going. They watch out for me, this foreigner sharing their home and their lives for 9 weeks. After the banquet, the bouts of small talk and constant smiling, I noticed bottles of whiskey starting to appear. My host dad saw them too. He knew I was tired and suggested we take an early leave. He’d come back later to pick up Jam.