biovignette, life


There is an art to eating with two required utensils and swatting away flies at the same time.

I have been living in Thailand for nine months now, and I believe I have gotten the hang of at least that much. A fly or five descended to feast upon my dinner of Pad Thai and sprouts the other night. Ordinarily—ordinarily for the life of stickiness-loathing and hand-washing every five seconds that I used to live in the States—this would have been cause for a gag reflex. But no noodles flew in the harming of some pesky dinner-desecrating insects.

Amazing all the kinds of flies they have here. Stuck-in-traffic-for-two-hours flies. Expensive-air-conditioning-in-one-hundred-eleven-degree-weather flies. Practice-language-forever-and-people-still-don’t-understand-you flies. The variety of shapes and sizes is remarkable, as is my capacity for violent reaction to each: swatting swatting swatting. And yet they keep coming at you.

When they told us about culture shock in my company orientation, they were not vague or unhelpful. On the contrary, the gentleman who spoke in my session was a first-class storyteller with the sort of examples that remain with you, particularly in the moment you realize you’re having a Moment. One story he shared was about the Africans who would show up at his house when he was trying to work, the same Africans who would not show up to his community meetings. The story came flitting to my mind as I sat at the dinner table of my sweltering house, trying not to be seen by the broke couple banging on my door, the ones who refused to get a job and survived by asking the farangs for money, and feeling like the farthest from a kind soul possible.

Or another story: a lady named Patsy was attacked by culture in the checkout lane of a Big C. The cashier took the bag of potatoes she was buying and let it come plunk—right down on top of the white bread. Fidgeting there in line, Patsy cried. And one does not cry in Thailand.

The first Saturday I sat in a meeting with all the Deaf I was to work with, I was still jet-lagging and getting used to the heat, even though it was cool season. I had already sweat through my jeans and been taught so many sign names, I knew, even as I was smiling and signing them back to my new friends, there was no way in any place I would retain them. I was a closet with no more stacking space.

“Why do they keep making the pointy nose sign at me?” I asked my supervisor.

“They’re calling you farang.” Foreigner. I was, as of yet, nameless. Only later would they name me, after the fashion of picking a distinguishable feature, Eyelashes.

We sat in one giant circle, Deaf-style, and Adam, the leader who was leaving for America, signed an introduction. I think. Then everyone else signed. And signed and signed. Signed until I started looking at the clock on the wall. Signed until I stopped trying to understand. Signed until I stopped trying to look like I was understanding. Signed until suddenly there were twenty sets of eyes staring at me, and I choked because apparently they had been signing their way around a circle and I did not even know how to say hi.

Turning to my supervisor, making bleary eye contact, I shook my head. Someone signed something that, in context, I guessed meant: “you guys could interpret for her.” But I just shook my head, a three-year-old determined to have his way: I’m not saying anything. I don’t want to. I have nothing to say. I want to go home. Home home.

The only other thing I remember of that night is staring at my blue jeans and thinking, Just think ‘blue jeans.’ Blue jeans blue jeans blue jeans blue jeans blue jeans…until the choking in my throat, that big knot that would burst up through my eyes at any hint of kindness, trickled away.

You learn, eventually, to master the art of shoving that knot away in Thailand. Just as you learn to eat with a fork in your left hand and spoon in your right, the fork never rising to touch your lips. As you learn to drive a manual car on the opposite side of the car in “wrong way” traffic. As you learn to give monks their public personal bubble and wai to elders. As you learn to duck your head when you walk in front of anyone, or smile with no teeth, a calm cheer. Just as you learn to learn and learn and learn and take tea for your headache after a day of feeling three years old and still learning.

I’ve decided: the fountain of youth is an eternal cross-cultural experience. A fountain of honey drawing droves of flies, and strange — the diligent product of beings other than as you are — but with a bit of smushed bread, sweet.



Her sign name looks like “Dimple,” and she is better at eating than any Thai person I know. The first night we met, she picked a seat near me on the ground and exuded a faint scent of flowers. It made me self-conscious. I myself smelled of chlorine: my clothes would not dry in the fan-stirred humidity of the house, and the warm, tropical air blew over me, lulling me into sleepy stillness after swimming. But they–all the Deaf I had just met–gathered around. They sat on the floor, signing with Berry. She was popular. Why would she sit by me? Continue reading



Bokeh light dots in the enameled mirror corners where they smile at one another, at themselves. Black clothes like posh Europeans, bundled against cold and all they weren’t saying to one another: define hipster (on a coffee-drugged night like this, so young and lipsticked, thick with gel and expectations, does it matter?); define the relationship (who are we two, eating pizza with Indians and wishing to see Maya Angelou and picking one another up out of the mud without words?) Continue reading


wild-haired hipsters

I am a wild-haired hipster–one of seven–wild and herded onto the road with the angel-headed brethren: they are harried by world to cover, covered by wiry hair. It falls above, below their eyes, like dark tears dripping to their chins. Continue reading


exoskeletal collision

She stumbles out the sliding glass door to the back porch, trips over the rocking chair, and suddenly absorbs the deliciously uncomfortable warmth of the August midmorning. They will never suspect her destination. And so she escapes.

2008-01-01 00.00.00-1The bicycle is a refurbished tie-dyed multi-hand-me-down and actually her sister’s. She manhandles it into the back of the car and ponders the existence of adjectives meaning “of August” — > “Augustinian” … “the Augustinian midmorning” …? “That’s having to do with St. Augustine,” she sing-songs aloud, sliding into the hot leather seat and shoving an orchard apple into her mouth. The apple is crunchy, too sappy sweet. It is not autumn, not yet, and the apples don’t bite like the (Augustinian) wind doesn’t. Not yet.

After gunning down the highway, indie rock blaring out the open windows, she arrives at the first park. It fails her: no bike paths. So she does quiet bookish things at a wooden table and watches ducks. With its great orangey bill, one lone white duck nips its wings clean, feather by feather.  It exhausts her to watch. Yet she lingers until her apple is down to the core. Then she cycles back to her car and tries again.

Though known for its running trails, the second park surprises: a Green Way, sanctioned by the city, that mosies by not only main roads but also rivers, fields, and endless rows of corn. It is not autumn yet. But as she kicks her bike into gear and pedals into the heart of a corn maze, she can almost imagine that it is.2008-01-01 00.00.00-3

She has escaped the house and also most of the lonesome musings in her head of old concert photos, of shut-down coffeeshops, of jotted-up private notebooks, of abandoned stuffed animals, of lost song contests, of graduations… She has escaped most everything except for the barefooted pedaling, the fallish longing for fiery leaves and spicy smells in the air, and the constant thwacking of bugs with hard shells against her damp forehead. One thought of the three rises to her consciousness: the harder she pedals into the golden afternoon, the harder the bug thwacks.

“Exoskeleton,” she says out loud. Third grade teacher taught her that one. She even remembers the picture: a roundwinged black beetle crawling along a green leaf. He looked curious to her with the explorative antennae and bulgy eyeballs, and she wonders now if the kind of bugs that keep hitting her are at all friendly-looking like that. The spider on the bottom of her bike — she knows he clings there still, braving the wind with angry-eyed fierceness — is certainly not.

DSCN1693What do we have? Endoskeletons? Imagine if we were born with exoskeletons, how funny we would look… she thinks. There would be far fewer babies in the world. And she supposes God thought about that, when he gave humans kind surfaces and bugs, particularly evil spiders, harsh ones. She always intuited he had favorite creations, and this seems now to prove it to her.

Most suddenly, God’s favoritism feels as factual to her as the clothes clamped damply on her legs, as the bobby pins stuck in her scalp, as the gravity fighting her over whether or not she will reach the top of the next hill. Oxygen hanging low in her lungs, she pedals harder. It is fact, she thinks. Thwack, thwack, thwack. And she coasts down the big dip in the trail, her heart riding the elevator up to her throat…

The last bend in the cornfields spills her out into the main park again, and she cycles to a standstill, legs straddling either side of the bike. She does not sweat, so she always tells herself, something her high school best friend always told her: “Girls don’t sweat; they glisten.” Now, under one of the last August suns of the year, she glistens profusely. It is quite hot.DSCN1692

A car lingers on the edge of the main road outside the park. Within the car, an old lady pinches at a white bread sandwich, alternately eating the pinches and adjusting her wide brim hat in the rearview mirror. She calls out hello to the girl on the bike and waves and flings crumbs out the window. A gold band gleams on her left ring finger.

As the girl pedals back to her car, she imagines that the old lady also has escaped on this hot, road-hungry day. Possibly because she too thinks too much. She too gets bitten by bugs. She too bears old old memories. She too has realized: “We are God’s favorites.” And it is with an ennobling sense of superiority that the girl finds a twig and bends by her bike to relocate, gently, the ferocious, little spider.