It doesn't really feel like Christmas in Bangkok. Certainly, there's the gigantic Christmas tree in Centralworld, the lights strewn about the walkways, and no one can ignore the Christmas gorilla, but for me, Christmas is family, my mum baking cheesecake, neighbors sharing dishes of tamales, and holiday music filling the house.
For Ethan, who admittely has less of an ingrained connection to this holiday, Christmas means snow, also absent in Thailand.
We are not going back "home" this Christmas, which is a first for me in many, many years. The break is short and my family is coming to visit us in January!!!
And, with the wedding looming, we have decided to go back for a few months this coming spring. It will likely be a shock to my system, but overall, it will be very good for me. (It's nearly been three years.)
For now, Christmas will have to be the holiday greetings the refugees offer, brunch with colleagues and a decent cup of coffee at Pla Dip (love this place), and our trip to Cambodia this weekend. We have a Christmas Eve dinner planned with friends before heading to sleepy Kampot.
Also, Christmas means another care package, this one filled with more dried fig from our tree, chocolates, and Trader Joe's baking goods. My parents are awesome.
Actually, it's not. But we did take an afternoon off to join a holiday celebration, where we made paper ornaments.
Children are so beautiful. It's obvious, no? I was struck that afternoon by their openness and happiness. Even as refugees recognized by the UN, the vast majority of these children are illegal and could be snatched up and locked away in detention just like that. (And they often are.) Yet, aware of this risk, they don't carry that fear in their faces or their laughter.
That fear is what I encounter every day at work. No matter what the country of origin, unaccompanied or with five family members, adult refugees speak of that fear and how it dictates their daily lives.
The first few times I heard their stories of flight and sat witness to the welled-up tears and then the sobs that grew violently heavy, gripping them, I was paralyzed in my seat. What do you say to someone who has just escaped a mob of religious fundamentalists who tried to burn down their family's home? "It will be okay," sounds incredibly patronizing in that context.
In that regard, this work has been challenging for me. Although I remain logical in that interview room, I take their stories home, whether I want to or not. Increasingly, I have dreams that resemble the stories I hear.
On Monday, a rare Thai holiday, we took a walk through Chinatown (littered with pomegranate juice vendors), up into Little India, through the sari stalls and fabric markets, and dead-ended at the Chao Phraya river, where we hopped on a boat taxi.
Over the past two weekends, Ethan and I have played host to three different visitors, all friends we met in Cambodia. We have another visitor this week. (I am envious of the numerous Cambodian holidays.)
As a result of these visits, I believe we may have an itinerary down pat - and it always involves at least one Bangkok market because one of the most enjoyable things about this city is its variety of markets.
This weekend, we went to Bangkok's famous weekend market, Chatuchak Market, also known as JJ Market, a sprawl of stalls and makeshifts shops filled with just about anything you can think of: vintage clothing and furniture, young Thai designs, trashy tourist finds, used books, and more importantly, food vendor upon food vendor.
Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention and there is no domestic legal protection afforded to asylum-seekers and recognized refugees undergoing the UNHCR refugee status determination process. The practical reality for asylum-seekers and recognized refugees in Thailand is that, in the absence of valid visas (the vast majority do not have this), they are formally considered illegal aliens; they have no authorization to work; their children do not go to school. And they are subject to deportation and detention. The African asylum seekers/refugees especially stand out in Bangkok and are more prone to extortion by local police.
It makes for a not so good environment, veritable limbo for years. Families literally go underground.
Some of the Hmong asylum seekers are raising money with a craft sale. I love Hmong embroidery, and I could not resist buying a few tree ornaments and cards for the holiday presents.
2012 is nearly gone! There's so much I'm grateful for this year. I'm grateful for all the small adventures this year has brought: the travel, the move to another country, a new job that has reminded me to be open to learning new things; and yes, now that I have had more distance, even the tumultuous experiences of my last few months in Cambodia.
I'm also grateful for the quiet moments in my day that ground and replenish me: early mornings in my light-filled apartment (usually, accompanied with papaya lemon curd toast), when the day is wide-open; my walk home from work, with the sky overhead burning red and cool air stirring; evenings spent cooking with Ethan in our tiny Thai kitchen, with the produce finds from the local market. I'm grateful for the presence of so much love in my life, of my family and friends - and my soon-to-be family, who has been super supportive (i.e., wholly responsible for any movement on the wedding planning).
This is my fourth Thanksgiving spent out of the country. I'm finding that there's a part of me that wants to ensure that next Thanksgiving is different.
A few weeks ago, my friend Rachel visited from London. We met in Cambodia a few years ago during those first few months when everything was new. We explored the city together. We even survived Rabbit Island.
One evening in Bangkok, Ethan, Rachel and I headed to the Thong Lor neighborhood to sample dessert at Mr. Jones' Orphanage and Milk Bar. The decor is just as strange/interesting as the name - saccharine and sweet, a throwback to an orphanage playground in Old England. In the day, when the sun is brightly shining through the windows over the enticing displays, it looks playful. In the evening, it can be a little eerie and melancholy.
But it comes highly recommended.
As tempting as it sounded, we decided against the Custard Cow's Poo, and instead we ordered the date and apple cake, which was moist with a crunchier crust. Just perfect.
They showed us to our table on the second floor, which is so small/short that we were required to practically crawl to our seats. Ethan is over 6ft, so I felt especially bad for him.
Damn. That was an exhausting week. I haven't done that in a while. It feels so good when I know I've poured myself into something and there's a little movement. (I'm talking vaguely about a case.) But at the same time, I'm often left drained. Wiped out. A big ball of mush.
I'm also not so good with certain cases. Gender-based persecution. Female genital mutilation. Rape. Forced marriage. Honor killings. When I sit in a room across from a young woman with this kind of story, a small part of me comes unhinged.
I took refuge this week in the small meals and conversations with Ethan, dark chocolate bars, Vietnamese coffee, and my new habit of going to my rooftop gym in the early morning for a quick run on the treadmill. I've noticed that seeing the Bangkok horizon, early in the morning and under the golden sun, is a good salve for the hub-bub on the ground.
And one night, I was happily distracted by the Steven Alan sample sale. I tried to pull the trigger on a few items, but they don't take Cambodian visa. I took that pause to re-evaluate my need for yet another dress. Pass.
This item below, however, may be a good addition. It looks very much like an ivory silk Mayle blouse I left Stateside.
Candystore Collective, based in San Fransisco, is having a closing sale and offering 40 percent off all their brick-and-mortar and internet stock, including all Dream Collective baubles. Tempting. Use code: thebig40sale.
I was jittery all morning (by the time the polls closed Stateside, it was Wednesday morning in Bangkok). I was glued to my computer, watching the play-by-play. Suspense drives me crazy. It also sucks being the only American in the office on such an American day.
Last election, I still lived in Northeast Portland. I remember walking through the neighborhood - Obama signs on all the lawns, cold mist hanging, Halloween pumpkins lingering on the porches.
Now that it's over and I have screamed and laughed in celebration, I can perhaps get back to the growing caseload of refugee appeals on my desk. Hello, Iran.
The Bo.lan farmers market is held on the restaurant's grounds every first Saturday of the month. It was my first time.
I made out like a bandit: I picked up two gorgeous loaves of bread (a dark rye with pepitas and a sourdough with chili - both are nearly gone), stuffed peppers with ricotta, passionfruit and lemon curd, organic veggies and herbs, and a sharp white-wine mustard.
Juice concoctions - the beetroot mix was particularly delicious. Look at that color.
Fleur de sel.
After the market, we had brunch at Roast, where I had a PROPER cup of coffee - good enough by Portland standards.
Some Bangkokian friends tell me that it is autumn in Bangkok. While it's true that the nights are a little cooler, it's still really hot and humid here (no surprise).
Can you believe this is the third proper autumn I've missed (and technically the fourth continuous autumn I've spent out of the US)? It's no wonder that there are days when I simply ache for the small things the change in season brings: the growing briskness in the morning air, cozy sweaters and jackets, woolly socks, tights under my summer dresses, mugs of steaming cider, the crunch of red and golden leaves under my boots, the talk of holiday events looming, Thanksgiving Day. . .
(I know those things await when we return to the US and at that time, I will probably wax nostalgic all my experiences here.)
Today, it's the actual cold I miss.
The closest memory of cold I have is the two weeks of cool, drizzly, jacket weather spent in Darjeeling and Sikkim province.