biovignette

mark

“He was several years older than me,” my friend signed to me, “so I had to listen to him. And he just kept telling me again and again. It got on my nerves.” She wiped her face with typical Sugar peevishness, slinging her arms back down across her Hello Kitty purse.

“Who?” I asked, trying to understand the leap in conversation.We were in the middle of translating a parable, which they had been curious about for months: where the sower goes out and throws “rice” on the different earth. Who believes and grows. Who doesn’t. But it wasn’t unusual, this logic jump. Between talking about our friend Fiona’s disobedient cats, who had all died from various traumas over the course of a few weeks, Kuu’s plans to make a feathered hat for design school, and my flight back to America in a couple months, we had hopscotched around our subjects all morning.

Sugar signed his name again. “Mark. You know Mark. He got the cancer.” The sign looked like a creeping eating thing. I thought of my grandmother, the blooming purple evil spreading, a house divided against itself. “His knees swelled up,” she signed. “Then he lost them, lost everything below the thigh.” She shook her head with the memory. “Actually, you wouldn’t know him. He’s dead.”

“What did he–” I echoed back his sign name. “–Mark, do?”

Pointing at the crayoned version of “fertile soil” that they had taped to the white board, Kuu waved until she got my attention. “Chun would go over to his house–him and the other guys would rotate who helped him once he lost his legs–and do his laundry. Every time, he was like, ‘Jesus this Jesus that.’ My husband swore he’d never believe. All the guys got mad about it. But Mark ended up giving Chun some books. ‘When you’re ready, you’ll read these.'”

Sugar caught my eye hesitatingly. It had taken her so long to warm up to me, despite all the adventures we had had, wat-hopping and sightseeing and getting lost in Chiang Rai. I was surprised she shared even now. “We were awful to him all through school,” she signed, looking away. “He never retaliated. It was weird how nice he was. It almost made us stop being cruel. But not really. When he died, I couldn’t stop crying.”

“Did you believe then?”

“No.”

Kuu pointed at the drawing, circled the lush sketchy green of the field that thrived. The believing earth. “Chun was sitting at a bar when it hit him in his heart to go read those books. He can’t read well but he tried. He started asking all his friends, ‘Do you know anything about this guy Jesus?'” She switched posture in the Deaf style of becoming other characters, in this case, his drunk friends sitting on bar stools nearby. It was a humorously male posture, legs spread, shoulders lazily shlumped.

“‘No, dude, you’re drunk.’

‘Do you know anyone who knows anyone who knows about Jesus?'”

“‘Well there’s this farang white guy giving Bear stories over in the north district. He says they’re straight from the Holy Word. Not extra stuff like that scary Korean cult…'”

Sugar shook her head. I thought of her husband, the one with all the questions: Mammon said this. What does the Bible say? Mammon said this and they said it’s in the Bible. What does the Bible really say? 

Kuu’s eyes sparkled, corresponding dark jewels to the signature beauty marks peppering her cheeks. “That’s when we met Adam.”

“How long did it take you to believe?” I asked.

“After my dream? A few weeks.”

Sugar lowered her eyes. “I heard longer. But it took me longer.”

“A year?”

“Six.” She shifted in her seat. Then she signed the page on the board:

…a field of good earth. A man reaching into his satchel and drawing up a  handful of rice seed. It spills, it arcs. With a swing of the wrist, he strews it across the earth. And sun. And rain. And up comes the growth, a stalk, strong and sturdy. From it drops another seed, which falls to the good earth. And up comes the growth.

“Do you think Mark sees us in heaven?” Sugar asked me.

Kuu pulled a face, like ‘duh.’ “Don’t you know it, Sugar. He’s watching Fiona’s cats ’til we get there.”

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biovignette

a picture’s worth

melody

Erin perched on the edge of my ink-stained desk, and haloing wispy platinum hair, the Thai sun crept in through gold curtains behind her. I had not gotten used to this yet, the relentlessness of the light. Leaning in to smell the spiced pear candle–my one vestige of North American Christmas–she got that thoughtful crease in her forehead.

“It’s not the photography that makes me insecure anymore.” She shook her head, dipping an absent finger in the wax and jerking it back when it was hot. “I see something, I can envision it, and I know what I have to do to get it. But even the things I see. It’s just fashion. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s weird and artsy. But what does it mean?”

“Show me.”

“Scoot over a bit.”

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biovignette, life

learning

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.

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biovignette

sugar’s grandma

“Hettie!” I waved until I got in her line of sight. “Your shoes!”

Gripping the soft frame of her white hair, as if to catch her balance, my friend un-Velcroed her sandals and thanked me. “I almost forgot.”

As we crossed the threshold, a woman stood from the cushioned wood daybed. She looked rather more like a small child unfurling herself from the arms of a parent than that of a mother pushing away her oldest daughter.  Continue reading

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