Samut Sakhon, Thailand: February 2011
Sing to me, O America, a meal song. Of fast food joints draped in neon light, or fryers still hissing. Sing to me of the slow drip of ketchup from the stained red bottle. Sing to me of mall food courts—of burrito shops beside sushi beside pizza beside hot dogs. I will sing to you the song of the expatriate.
I will sing to you of the expatriate living in a small town in Thailand. Of the endless homogeny of cuisine. I will sing a song of rice, grains and grains clumped on the end of a spoon, mingled with vegetables, with the nascent taste of meat stirred in. I will sing to you of woks hissing on open stoves, cleavers falling with steady thwacks, of plastic plates and metal cups, of blocks of ice chopped by hand with the silver blade of the machete. I will sing to you of kao pad gai, of khai jeow moo, of pad thai my plaa, of caffe yin on the dull blue mornings before the sun has fully risen.
O America, can you know the taste of butter? You eat it every day. I will tell you of the taste of butter after weeks and weeks of none. I will tell of its slow seep into the bread, of my knife’s slow dance over the surface, spreading it thicker and thicker. I will tell you of the rich, heady, salty, pure yellowness of it on my tongue. I will tell you of the Fall mornings that taste conjured, the sound of toast springing from a toaster so suddenly sorely missed.
O America, can you know the taste of cheese? Of pizza? Of hamburgers? Of chicken strips, battered in eleven secret herbs and served with French fries? Can you know the taste of pot roast, meat melting in your mouth? Of salt, of pepper? I can tell you of spice—chili flakes redder than setting suns, oils that flare and flame on the tongue. I can tell you of walks, choking on the passing sharp zing of a pepper thrown into a pot, of crying on sidewalks amidst billowing steam, a ragged tearing in my throat. The sudden, brilliant need for water. For ice. For piles of soft white rice to pull the taste. For cucumbers, as green and pale as new grass.
I will sing to you of my old spice cabinet. Of the rows of glass jars so neatly contained. Of cinnamon and nutmeg that fell in brown clumps. Of oregano—hanging in the air as I crumbled it into a pot. Of black pepper and olive oil, grainy and slippery on a slab of raw meat. Of flavors wide and diverse as the people who brought them, who cultivated them on the turf of countries far from you…Sing to me, America! Of diversity.
My dreams are haunted by America. In my previous trips abroad, I learned the ups and downs of my country from afar. I learned the way Europe sees it, the way Asia sees it, how rich countries see it differently than poor countries. But in Thailand, I surprised myself by becoming patriotic. In a country where diversity is a rarity, the range of America—from people to cities to food to opinions—became something fresh and beautiful, something that I can acknowledge I took for granted before. At night I dream of city sidewalks, of brick brownstones and Califonia stucco. I dream of cacti and salt flats and red rock and forests. I dream of sand and pine trees and snow drifts and maples. I dream of color spectrums. Of celebrations that toast Dia de las Muertas and Christmas and Kwanzaa and Independence Day, riots of color and song.
I miss the homeland because I miss variety, and while I toast to Thailand’s harboring me here for lo these seven months, for introducing me to so many spices and dishes and people and ideas, it will be good to be home.