This post is a little different today. It's not a recipe post but about Thailand and some of my stories.
(Above Image: Sunset behind a lotus pond in my village in Surin, Thailand)
I'm heading to Thailand in 3 weeks and will be documenting my trip about the culture, travels, and food scenes. So I feel compelled to write this blog post and share a bit about my background and how Thai food and Thailand are part of me.
The last time I was “home” in Thailand was for my mom’s funeral. But let me stop right there and explain something.
I don’t have just one mother. I have three.
Thailand was my first home. It was where I was born to a young Thai woman in the capital city of Bangkok. She birthed me out of wedlock. Her unknown American soldier lover did not know she had birthed a child. She gave me up as an infant to her sister because she couldn’t care for me. She was my birth mom.
My aunt is my 2nd mother, who raised me from infant-hood to age 13 in a small rural leprosy village in the NE of Thailand. Her name was Bunsee*. She and my uncle, who both had leprosy, raised me in a government-run leprosy colony for 13 years until I came to America.
Finally, my third mom is an American woman who brought me to the US at 13. We met when she traveled with a leprosy doctor (Dr. K) to help leprosy patients in my village.
Since I was the only half-white, half-Asian child in my village, I felt an instant connection to this white woman who shared my half-white part. You see, since I was half Thai-half white, I never felt like I was truly accepted as a Thai person in the only culture I’ve ever known. Anytime white foreigners or missionaries came to my village to do leprosy-related work. I was always fascinated by them. I would ride my rusty bicycle to the church at the center of the village, where they usually worked, to watch and observe them. Usually from a distance, as I was painfully shy as a little girl. But I was so curious, always. I wondered about their world. A world that I was supposedly part of in my half-white physical appearance, but also a world I knew nothing about. So with this American woman, R, we formed a connection that propelled her to jump through hoops to bring me to America to live with her, so I could have a better future than what the village life had to offer me. Also, Dr. K told her I wasn’t safe in the village because the corrupt government official was trying to groom me to be his mistress. I was 9 years old.
My aunt and birth mom gave their permission to let me go because they also knew I’d have more chances at a safer and better life. So, I came to America at the age of 13.
These 3 women are all my mothers for different reasons and seasons. My relationship with each one is different. Each one had a big part in shaping my story.
Now, I want to go back and tell you about the last time I was in Thailand.
I had been away for seven years. I had never been away from Thailand for that long before. There were times in my life after I moved to America when I would go back 3-4 times a year.
Not this time. After having my first child, I spent seven long years away. Here’s why:
The last time I was there was for my 2nd mom’s, my Aunt Bunsee’s, funeral. She was dying slowly over the years. She was very sick for a long time from leprosy, a rare disease that had affected her since she was 15 years old. You can read about leprosy HERE and HERE.
Just a little bit about leprosy here. Thailand had a huge leprosy outbreak over 60 years ago. The few affected people were forced to move away from their homes and families to live in controlled government-run colonies for fear of spreading the disease to the rest of the country. There were 13 of these colonies throughout Thailand, and these villages were gated and locked to keep people in and out. The leprosy patients were not allowed to go out or go to public places to work or interact with the rest of society. The people outside the villages were afraid of these patients and did not receive them well in their communities for a lack of understanding and fear. Some patients had their families moved to these colonies with them. Others started their new lives there. So, in a nutshell, 3 generations of families live in these colonies. The 1st generation is the people infected with leprosy. The 2nd generation is the children of these patients, like myself, who were either moved there by choice or were born in the colonies. Finally, the 3rd generation, the young ones, the children of the 2nd generation group. The grandchildren of leprosy patients who were born in these leprosy colonies. The 2nd and 3rd groups do not have leprosy, but the societal stigma of living in a leprosy colony carries over to all 3 groups. (Above Image: 1st Generation Patients. My friend's father was fishing from a tire tube. Leprosy caused nerve damage in his feet, making him disabled and unable to walk. Notice the joyful smile on his face despite his situation. He asked why I was taking his photo, I told him he was pretty clever and asked how many fish he had caught. )(Above Image: 1st Generation Patient. She thanked us for bringing food to her, despite the cultural norms that an older person does not wai younger people. (Wai is putting your hands together prayerfully, like above. She was extremely grateful that visitors were unafraid to come near her.)(Above Image: 2nd Generation children of leprosy patients. A childhood friend pushing her gas tanks on a pushcart in front of the church in my village.)
(Above Image: 2nd Generation children of leprosy patients. My nephew is fixing the broken sump pump used to pump out water from our pond so we can catch fish by hand.)(Above Image: 3rd Generation grandchildren of leprosy patients. Everywhere I went with my camera, the children would follow and ask if I could take photos of them while they goofed off being children.) (:
I left my village and came to America in 1991. Despite having a new life in America, my heart stayed tied to my home country, the country, and the people I grew up with. Even though it was a difficult life, I loved the culture and the people. I especially feel for them because of the hard life they live and the suffering they endure. I love Thailand, and I love America. I love both cultures and am undeniably still part of both worlds, then and now.
However, my childhood strongly shaped and influenced me.
I kept finding ways to return to Thailand over the years, including applying for a study abroad program in my last semester of college. Then I extended my stay for another semester to travel and work with the leprosy doctor, Dr. K, who introduced me to my 3rd mother.
I finally realized why I kept going back year after year despite a new life that was presented before me in the US. While living the American dream, the gravitational pull towards my first “home” was stronger than I could ever express. I could not hide from it or deny it. It pulled me back more and more each year, even when I thought I didn’t want to go back. I saw, experienced, and felt too much to leave all of it behind. I couldn’t leave those I grew up with to suffer in agony and poverty.
I couldn’t stay away.
After Bunsee died in 2013, I realized even more clearly why I kept going back. It was her. Bunsee was the reason I kept returning. She was the last link to my childhood. I just couldn’t let that go.
The last time I was in Thailand about seven years ago was very traumatizing. I had just moved away from home my husband, and I had created in Spokane, WA. Also, I wanted to be a mother, but my husband and I struggled to have children initially.
A month after we moved away, my brother and sister-in-law lost their first baby at 8 days old after he was born prematurely at 28 weeks. That was October 2012. Our family grieved. On December 14th, 2012, I got a phone call from my American mom that my adopted brother, from Vietnam, had died in a car accident. Scotty, my brother, was 24 years old. He would have been 25 on December 31, 2012. Our world turned upside down. My family grieved deeply for Scotty.
In January 2013, I was finally pregnant with our first baby. I was over the moon and excited despite the grief of losing a brother just weeks before.
Then in February of 2013, my Thai family called and told me to come home immediately as Bunsee was not doing well. My husband and I flew to Thailand within 3 days. A few days later, she passed away. I was thankful to be able to say my goodbyes and see her one last time. A beautiful funeral was held to honor her life. While still in my village in Thailand, a day after the funeral, I had an ultrasound at a city hospital, and the Thai doctor told me I had lost my baby and miscarried.
I flew back to America a few days later. That was the last time I was in Thailand. Devastated and heartbroken.
Grieving 3 deaths in 3 months was something I had not seen coming my way. I spiraled into sadness and depression quickly thereafter.
Within those 7 years of being away from Thailand, I had 3 more pregnancies, and today, I have two beautiful babies; one boy and one girl.
Despite the beauty and blessings of being a mom, postpartum depression hit me hard after both pregnancies. With navigating through motherhood, several big military moves, long deployments, and minimal family support, I was in survival mode for many years. I forgot to mention that my husband is in the Air Force.
Thailand never left my heart, even though my head was mostly foggy. I always looked for opportunities for all of us to go back. Especially for my 2 children to see Thailand for the first time.
Finally, last year, my youngest niece told me she was getting married and would love for us to be a part of her big day. Of course! Of course, we are going to be there for her special day. It couldn’t be more perfect. I left Thailand with a broken heart filled with losses and sadness. But I’m returning to it this time to celebrate and overcome the horrific memories and trauma. This is our year to go back. To celebrate love and life.
I’m planning on being gone for 6 weeks in November-December 2019. I will be in my village again and see my family and friends.
Although I’m very excited to see them all again, I will do a few things differently this time than all the other visits. In the past, I’ve always gone back to the same place, seen the same people, and done the same thing year after year. Nothing wrong with that at all. I was glad to spend those moments with people I love, especially with my sick mom and family in my village.
This time, I’m planning on exploring more of my childhood country. I want to see and experience places I’ve never been to before. I grew up in Thailand, yet it feels like I know so little about the country. I want to see more of this beautiful culture that formed and shaped my childhood. I’m most excited about my two kids experiencing this part of the world that is a part of them.
I’ve been extremely nervous about sharing this story for a long time. Years. It’s been years of personal growth and healing and dealing with some difficult things. But it’s time. I’m sharing these stories because someone once told me, “Someday, somewhere in some moment, someone needed to hear this.” I want you to know you are not alone if you are that person. You are stronger than you know. Most importantly, you are not your past. You are not your struggles. They are a part of your story, and they change you forever. But those struggles are not your identity. The people in my village have leprosy, but leprosy is not them. They are NOT lepers. You are not your depression. You are not anxiety. You are not your sadness. You are not what some label says you are. You are so much more. You are GOLD. You are a beautiful human being who has struggles. Struggles that can make you an even stronger person than you could ever imagine. If you allow them, those hard things happened FOR you, not TO you. Embrace your story. Embrace all of you. Find healing. Don’t stop fighting, and don’t lose hope. Reach out for help. Take care of your heart, mind, and soul. You will survive this. I promise. The best is yet to come.
Thank you for reading this far.
Have a beautiful day, friends! I appreciate you.
(Above Image- Sunset after visiting patients in their homes in Khonken leprosy colony, Thailand.)
Update. For more Thailand trips and stories. Read about our Thiland Highlights in this post here.
Thank you so much, Ronnie, for your beautiful words...bring tears to my eyes and it means so much. I'm so happy you are here! (: Blessings to you as well Ka!
What an incredible story you have. You and your family have overcome so much and being a fellow Thai person, I can relate to some of your story but in different struggles.
You can do what you like and not focus on the past because the past is not you and some of it was not within your control. The only thing that can stop you from living your dream is yourself. Don't believe what others tell you, you can't do! You can do anything you put your mind and soul to and leave the past behind.
It is inspiring to read your story and your hardships. Those hardships are a part of your story but are not your future. We enjoy your recipes and have some similarities in our life stories. My wife and I are glad we found your page.
Keep up the great work and continue sharing them. You are one of those who give hope to others, as some believe they didn't have it. Many blessings to you and your family Suwanee. Thanks again for sharing your story.
As someone else mentioned, I too, just came across your website via Sylvia Fontaine's food blog which is also new to me. I'm soooo glad I found both! I can't describe how much I appreciate your above story & your beautifully gracious words at the end!! I've struggled in many ways over several years, especially this past year (2021-22) but your words are powerful & I just know you have not only deeply touched my heart with your encouragement but hundreds of others as well. Thank you for who you are, God bless you & your loved ones.
I just came across your beautiful website via Sylvia Fontaine's (also amazing) site and I'm so happy I did! For the simple reason that it was meant to be, I went strait to this story after scrolling the beautiful photographs on your site. Thank you for sharing your personal life and words of wisdom. It was timed perfectly. I look forward to your weekly emails and cooking your beautiful recipes. gratitude.
So Sweet Suwanee! I'm so glad you are going back for a joyful occasion. We'll be praying for all of you. I look forward to hearing updates.