I mentioned to my landlady that I had “gluuai” for breakfast. “Gluuai” was one of the first Thai words I learned and a word that I can use with confidence. She repeats the word several times but it sounds different from the word I uttered. She says it again and her pronunciation, with her rural, southern twist, changes the “glu” sound to “gwa” and finally to “gwaai.” She hesitates for a second and then translates it into English, one of the few English words she knows, “banana.” She snickers at the sound she makes; it’s a funny-sounding word. She had asked me if I’d eaten yet, “gin kaao ru yang.” Eating only bananas for breakfast isn’t very Thai and through this short exchange she infers that I eat only 2 real meals a day and it gives her license to ply me with food. Now she knows something intimate about me, that I can’t take care of myself and eat properly and she’s armed with this dirty little secret of my eating only bananas for breakfast and can pass this information onto others in the neighborhood who want some sort of news about this strange farang (foreigner) in their midst.
Gin kaao. Have you eaten? It’s a question that gets asked throughout the day throughout Thailand. It’s a polite greeting and a conversation starter. If Thais aren’t eating, they’re talking about food. Gin kaao. The first word has a hard g sound. It’s not pronounced like gin as in gin and tonic, but with the other g sound, as in give or get. Kaao, is pronounced “cow” and is the Thai word for rice. Literally, gin kaao translates to eat rice, but is typically meant as “Eat”, “Let’s eat,” or “Have you eaten?”
Growing and sharing rice is simply a part of Thailand, it defines the country. Thai farmers have always grown more rice than they themselves needed and instead of keeping any surplus, they cooked up the extra rice and presented it to the local monks as a way of making merit. Through the ages any celebration, big or small, called for inviting friends and neighbors to share a meal and rice. “Maa gin kaao gin bplaa kang kon” “Come have rice and fish with us first.” And these customs are still practiced today throughout Thai society to establish relationships. The typical greeting nowadays is “gin kaao leeo ru yang”, Have you eaten rice yet? It is asked simply to show regard to the person being greeted.
During my first few months in Thailand I was in the protective custody of Peace Corps training staff and a host family and with the exception of lunch my meals were regularly provided for. At my first home stay family, someone would get up in the dark, a hour or so before dawn each day to start the rice. I never figured out whether it was my host mom or my host dad who made the rice, both were equally comfortable in the kitchen. My bedroom shared a wall with the kitchen and I could hear the grains of rice poured and plinking into the metal bowl of the rice cooker. Next came the dribble of the water and I’d drift back into a sound sleep knowing breakfast was taken care of. Gin kaao was the call to a meal, an entreaty, a request to join in and share rice.
After training and my move to site, I lived with another host family for a month or so and dinner each night was graciously provided. Gin kaao was again a call to meal time, but now it took on a different tenor. This family did not eat with me. Rice and plates of food were set out for me on the front patio. I would eat alone swatting flies and mosquitos and watching the neighbor kids stare at me from behind tiled porch pillars and parked scooters.
Now I’ve moved out on my own and have set up house so that I can begin to provide my own meals. Gin kaao on my terms. I’ve got a rice cooker, a little stove top, a tea kettle, a few pots and pans and dishes. I’ve been to the market and have the ability to prepare some simple dishes when I choose. There are fresh fruits and vegetables and rice ready to be steamed. My landlady has been bringing me food because she believes I can’t take care of myself. I have a surplus. Now, if I just felt like eating.