The shifting tectonic plates, part one

Two days after my birthday, the tectonic plates of my life started shifting. While I am not a believer in fortune-telling, one has to wonder if the stars and planets were aligned just so, to produce so much upheaval in such a short time! This chapter covers the first of the changes, involving my father-in-law.

For the more than 18 years that Tawn and I have been together, my father-in-law has wanted no interaction with me. Not atypical for a Thai-Chinese father, he wanted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Tawn’s relationship with me. In fact, the only time we spent together was some 15 years ago when Tawn’s parents came to visit him in San Francisco. That was limited to a visit to Mission Dolores and then dinner at a French restaurant.

In the 13 years since I moved to Bangkok, we have had only one very brief interaction until two months ago. Two months ago, while Tawn was taking his parents to the hospital for a check-up, he mentioned that I was going to be there, too, for an appointment. His father waited to see me, but that interaction lasted less than two minutes.

Then, two days after my birthday, Tawn had a severe allergic reaction to some medicine and I had to rush him to the emergency room. (He is fine now.) He called his parents and they joined, resulting in us spending the day together and having to confer on decisions about the best course of treatment.

At the end of the day as the staff was preparing Tawn for release, Tawn’s father suggested that if I had to work the following day, I should drop Tawn off at their house and they would look after him.

The following morning, after taking some conference calls from home, I dropped Tawn off at his parents’ house – about a ten-minute drive from ours. Tawn’s father came out and greeted me and suggested that after work, I come back to fetch Tawn and he would open a bottle of wine for us.

That evening, I stopped by after dark, not sure what to expect. What do you discuss with a father-in law with whom you have had no real interaction? Tawn’s father greeted me, invited me in and for the next two hours, served wine, engaged in a conversation about many things (including wanting to understand more about what I do for work) and we had dinner.

The evening ended with a “will see you again soon” that seemed to indicate that a new era has opened. In speaking with Tawn, we suspect that this medical emergency was sort of a catalyst. Perhaps Tawn’s father had already softened some time ago, but had not had an opportunity to break down the walls. The medical emergency provided the opportunity.

That was about five weeks ago and I haven’t seen Tawn’s father since, so we’re easing into this brave new world. But we have a holiday meal planned for the next week and I suspect that it will change the landscape of our world considerably.

For my own reflection, I realize that while I had accepted from the start that Tawn’s father’s openness and acceptance was not something I should expect or hope for, deep inside I think there was a lot of insecurity festering.

We don’t have the legal protections in Thailand that a married couple in the United States or some other countries have. Knowing that, if something happened to Tawn, my rights to his portion of our property could be challenged by his father, created underlying tension. As the relationship with his father has improved, it lets me relax my guard a bit and worry a little less about the future.

 

A Birthday Dinner for Friends

There are few things more satisfying to me, than to cook a meal for loved ones. To celebrate my birthday and the birthday of a friend, I took over another friend’s kitchen and we cooked a dinner for 13 people. It was a nice feast and an even nicer group of people.

IMG_3387The menu was full but not too ambitious. I was trying to do something in an autumnal theme, although a few ingredients like figs were not available so did not remain on the menu.

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The most ambitious item was the individual lemon soufflés. I did not have enough ramekins, so made a morning visit to the Chatuchak weekend market to buy a set of 20, along with a set of matching individual pitchers, perfect for serving sauces in.

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A salad of mixed greens including butter leaf lettuce, sunflower sprouts, and radicchio, with persimmon, pears, and pumpkin seeds. Served with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette.

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The side vegetable was a roasted saffron cauliflower, a Mediterranean-style dish from the cookbook “Plenty” by London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi. The combination of red onions, raisins, and green olives is fantastic.

IMG_3356The main course was a salt and herb-crusted pork loin with new potatoes. This dish, a mash-up from this recipe and another from Jamie Oliver, went okay but I didn’t have quite enough salt to make a full crust. As a result, the meat was just a tad dryer and the potatoes a tad undercooked. But still, very flavorful.

IMG_3364The finished product. I will play more with this means of cooking. The salt crust locks in moisture and adds seasoning.

IMG_3368To accompany the pork, I cooked an apple and onion chutney, based loosely on this recipe. I am not always good about following recipes.

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I think it made for a nice plate and reasonably healthful, too!

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Dessert was very ambitious. I had prepared the lemon cardamom base, which is essentially a choux pasty (milk, cream, flour, cornstarch, and egg yolks). I then added whipped egg whites. Sixteen of them, in fact.

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Top: as I put them in the oven (not quite as filled as they should be – I quintupled the recipe but only had enough for 13 instead of the expected 16). Bottom: just before taking them out. Since I did not smooth the tops, I didn’t get the typical “high hat” look.

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The end result was perfectly fine, though. Served with a side of raspberry coulis, the soufflés were a show-stopper. Recipe here.

I’m glad I could spend the night before my birthday celebrating with friends in the way I enjoy best: cooking for them.

Family Visit Part 2

The second half of my family’s trip to Thailand was spent in the south, in the Andaman coastal province of Krabi.

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For midwesterners, a trip to the beach is a highlight of any trip to Thailand. Amber waves of grain don’t have anything on the warm tropical waters in Thailand.

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For the one-hour flight to Krabi, we once again flew Nok Air (“Bird” Air) which was a big hit with the girls. The planes are painted like birds, which they thought was pretty cool.

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We stayed at a resort right on the beach, giving us a spectacular sunset view every evening.

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The resort is small – only about 50 rooms – and quite out of the way. While this limited the ease of travel elsewhere in the province, the two pools and the beach provided enough attractions.

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We did sneak out one day for an elephant ride – here, my sister and youngest niece pet a baby elephant – and a visit to a spectacular crystal clear natural spring in which you can swim.

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While out, we had a chance to stop in the main town for authentic southern Thai food – Hat Yai style fried chicken, a steamed fish mousse, and “Chinese style” rice noodles with curry sauce and fermented vegetables. I’m glad that everyone gave the food a try and for the most part, seemed to like it. Well, the fried chicken at least.

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Every day at sunset we were on the beach. Here, recreating some picture from a childhood, I give my sister a push on a swing.

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One of my nieces also provided the gymnastic antics to create this beautiful picture.

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Our last full day there, we hired a long-tail boat to take us to a pair of islands about 10 kilometers off the coast. The nieces weren’t too happy about the boat ride but the rest of us enjoyed the experience.

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One nearly-deserted island had an interesting isthmus that largely disappeared at high tide but provided a comfortable spot to enjoy the breeze and take in the views of the steep limestone cliffs.

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At a second island, we cruised into a lagoon in the middle of the island that is only accessible during high tide. The water was less than three feet deep and the cliffs surrounded the lagoon on all sides except for a narrow opening to the sea.

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Finally, we docked at the other side of the same island (called Koh Hong) where there is a large protected beach. It is part of a national park on employees keep a careful eye on visitors to ensure there is no littering. While the waters were a bit cloudy because of the monsoon season, we did a little snorkeling near the large rock and were able to see quite a few schools of fish.

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All in all, I think it was a very enjoyable four days for everyone and a good final experience for Thailand. I’m glad we saved the beach for the end of the trip.

 

Visiting Family

A fourteen hour layover in Seattle was my first stop in the United States. Arriving about 9:30 in the morning, I took the convenient light rail into downtown and conducted my most important business: drawing a money order and then mailing it, and my inch-thick Thailand visa application, to the Thai consulate. After a long wait, a surprisingly helpful postal employee walked me through the steps of buying the money order, properly addressing the express mail envelopes, and then packing everything correctly.

2013-08-02 -1After a browse around the Pike Place Public Market and lunch at a cute French restaurant nearby, I visited the Seattle Art Museum to see “Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion“. This exhibit, which runs through Labor Day weekend, has more than 100 dresses from Japanese designers such as Issey Miyake, Kenzo Takada, and Rei Kawakubo. These designers revolutionized the way we think of fashion. I only wish Tawn could have attended the exhibit, which he would have found fascinating.

2013-08-08 03In the afternoon, I went to my aunt and uncle’s house and spent time with them and my cousins. Their daughter is about a year old and I last saw her in March at my grandparents’ 75th wedding anniversary, so it was nice to see how much she has grown since then. My uncle prepared some excellent wild salmon on the grill, so I was well-fed.

P1270235My red eye flight departed Seattle about midnight, heading east to a rainy Cleveland. A two-hour connection allowed me time for breakfast and a shoe shine before I caught my flight into Kansas City.

2013-08-08 04The next several days in Kansas City were spent visiting family members, attending football (soccer) games and gymnastics lessons, and the like. Four and a half days was enough time to see everyone, catch up, and then move one before wearing out my welcome. Unfortunately, no time for a side trip to Omaha or Quincy, though.

 

Happy Birthday to My Mother

Yesterday was my mother’s birthday, so this morning (because of the time zone difference) Tawn and I called her. As my parents age, I realize that they will not be around forever. This, combined with listening to the drama-filled stories of friends about their families, makes me appreciate what good parents I have.

While not perfect, they have been supportive and encouraging throughout my life. When I was a child, they set regular routines and clear expectations of behavior. While punishments were not harsh or unreasonable, breaking the rules has predictable consequences. Raised in the American Midwest before starting a family in California, my parents instilled typically conservative, Midwestern values that they summed up with time-worn sayings: If something is worth doing, it is worth doing right. A penny saved is a penny earned. Waste not, want not.

There were times when this conservative approach to life chaffed. When I wanted a particular new toy or didn’t have the popular brand of jeans and was reduced to wearing Toughskins, I didn’t appreciate their thrift. But when it came time for college and they paid for the tuition so I didn’t have to take on student debt, I saw the wisdom of their ways.

To this day, my parents lend supportive ears. When I face challenging times, they listen, nod with understanding, and wait to be asked for their opinions. Even when invited, their opinions are conservative, rarely intruding very far across the “you should do” line. Instead, they acknowledge that life can be tough at times and then generally encourage me to tough it out.

One thing I most appreciate about my parents is that our family is free of any psychological games. As I listen to other people talk about their families, I can see behaviors and actions that could keep a psychologist in business for decades. My parents raised us without using guilt or goading, without projecting their own aspirations on their children, and without seeing us as competition for their spouse’s affections. Drama was something reserved for the television and our viewing of that was tightly restricted.

Perhaps such a life, like the rolling fields of Kansas, is a bit boring by some accounts. But it also provided a steady, stable environment in which to grow and – another of my parents’ sayings – to reach my full, God-given potential.

Jenn and Kevin Visit Bangkok

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When Tawn and I flew back from the United States to Bangkok in June, my sister Jenn and brother-in-law Kevin made the trip with us. It was an adventure as they have traveled very little outside the United States and never before to Asia. Thankfully, I was able to book seats on our same outbound flight and even arranged for seat assignments across the aisle from us. 

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Jenn and Kevin were an adventurous pair, willingly trying new foods and having new experiences. Here, we venture out for a typical Thai breakfast of curries and stir-fries served with rice. 

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We spent one morning seeing another side of Bangkok, going to Hualamphong railway station and boarding the intercity train for a trip to the suburbs.

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Train cars in Thailand are antiques – most at least three decades old – and the third-class cars have no air conditioning. Definitely a different experience for visitors from the American midwest!

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One morning, they took the Skytrain to Lumphini Park, the closest thing Bangkok has to a central park. I met them there in the late morning and then we walked to a nearby Isaan style restaurant famous for its fried chicken. In the above picture, the Dusit Thani hotel is the one on the left with the spire. It was the first high-rise building in Bangkok.

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Another morning, we visited Wat Saket, also known as the Golden Mount. A steep, artificial hill and the highest terrain in the city, Golden Mount offers a nice view and also a nice breeze – much appreciated on a hot Bangkok day!

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View from the top of Golden Mount, looking southwest. In the distance you can see the roofs of the Grand Palace.

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Across the canal from Wat Saket is Wat Ratchanaddaram. The most famous building on the temple grounds is Loha Prasat, commonly referred to as the Metal Palace. This is a unique building, built in a pyramid shape with 37 spires (signifying the 37 virtues towards enlightenment) and modeled on two other similar buildings, one in India and another in Sri Lanka. Loha Prasat is the last of the three in existence and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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The structure has recently undergone a full renovation and informative displays fill the hallways.

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The symmetrical layout allows for refreshing cross-ventilation and also a sense of surprise as you turn corners and see the architectural features of the structure framed in interesting ways.

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Loha Prasat has made its way onto my “must see in Bangkok” list, a list which I really need to update as I’m frequently asked for it.  

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We made our requisite trip to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, where Jenn and Kevin hunted for gifts for friends and family members with Tawn’s assistance.  

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We also visited one of Bangkok’s newest attractions, a nighttime market on the banks of the Chao Phraya River called Asiatique. Essentially a replacement for the now-closed Lumphini Night Bazaar, Asiatique is reached by free shuttle boats and has a range of restaurants and shopping. The space, a series of converted warehouses, is fun to visit although I was not particularly impressed by the goods for sale. That said, I’m not a shopper so my view may be biased.

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Near the end of the trip, we went for drinks around sunset at the top of the Centara Grand Hotel at Central World. Bangkok has no shortage of rooftop restaurants and bars (a large increase from the two or three that existed when I moved here) and the Centara offers one of the best views, being centrally located. This also makes it onto my “must see” list.

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We made a side trip to Chachoengsao Province to visit Wat Sothonwararamworaviharn, also known as Wat Hong. This beautiful temple is located on the banks of the Bang Pakong River and is the oldest temple in the province.  

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Tawn, who was born in the year of the rabbit, poses with an appropriate statue at the temple. 

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After two weeks, I think Jenn and Kevin were ready to head back to Kansas City. Hopefully, they will return next year with their two daughters and my parents in tow!

 

Spending Time with the Family

Of course the biggest reason for heading to the US was to visit family.  My two nieces are growing up quickly and it won’t be too many years before they decide they’d rather play with their friends than hang out with their uncle.  Thankfully, that point has not been reached, yet.  I’m also fortunate to have two of my grandparents still going strong in their 90s, giving me two additional reasons to make a visit.

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I tried to fit in several different activities with the girls, sometimes with both of them and sometimes just one-on-one.  I’ve observed that their behavior is a lot better when they are separated.  When they are together, the level of antagonizing skyrockets.  Here we made some Christmas cookies.  I prepared the dough, refrigerating it, then they helped roll it out and cut out the individual cookies.

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After the cookies were baked and cooled (“Are they cool yet?” every three minutes for a half-hour) we were able to ice them.  The only food coloring at the house was a set of neon colors, which produced pastels very suitable for Easter eggs but not quite spot-on for Christmas.  Nonetheless, they happily iced away, adding prodigious layers of sprinkles on top.

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Emily seemed to be busy much of the time while I was in town, what with her two soccer leagues and a basketball league, too.  Thus, I ended up with more photos of Ava than I did of Emily.  On the left, Ava and her mother talk while at my grandparents’ Sunday School’s Christmas luncheon.  On the right, Ava (with Emily hidden on the sofa behind her) watches TV and drinks some hot chocolate I made for her.  Something about this picture makes her look very adult to me.

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As an added bonus, my uncle Dick flew into town while I was there, with his eldest daughter, my cousin Alex, and her first son, Tommy.  Here, Tommy, Dick, and my grandmother enjoy a pancake breakfast with Santa at my nieces’ school.  Tommy, who is going on two, had a blast playing with his older cousins.

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Here’s the visit with Santa.  Alex had to join the picture as there was no way Tommy was going to sit on Santa’s knee by himself.  Tommy held it together just long enough for a few pictures, then left his two cousins to bend Santa’s ear with their wish list.

Whether because I’m getting older or just because I’ve lived out of the country for a half-dozen years now, I find that I feel the family ties tugging more strongly at my heart.  While I don’t know that I want to move back to the US, I certainly wish I could spend more time there and, by extension, more time with my family.

 

A Visit to the United States

Today I start tracing the reverse of the course I traveled twelve days ago, heading from Kansas City, where many of my relatives live, back to the west coast, then on to Taipei where I connect back to Bangkok.  It has been an exciting and busy twelve days.  While I initially thought I would have a lot of free time on my hands, in reality I find myself not having blogged since the day of my departure and with a list of friends I have not had time to visit.

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My grandparents with my cousin’s son and my two nieces.

Most of the time was spent with family.  My two nieces are here in Kansas City.  They are now 5 and 8 and as they mature a bit (especially the older one), spending time with them is more interesting because we can do and discuss a wider range of things.

We had time to bake Christmas cookies.  I was a “mystery reader” at their school, going to talk to their classes about life in Thailand.  I cooked several meals and had the extended family over.

I had to spend a few days working.  Anytime I’m in the US, my boss can’t resist the urge to meet me!  That’s actually a good thing as it reinforces that I provide value to the organization and am worth a special trip.

I also had the opportunity to meet a Xangan – Ruth Ann – who lives near Kansas City – and her husband Pat.  They lived in Thailand for a few years in the late 1960s and Pat is fluent in the language.  They are a wonderful couple and full of great stories about their experiences.

Anyhow, my resolution upon my return is to re-engage with Xanga.  There are lots of things I do that I document (photographs) but never take the time to write.  And there are a lot of online friends whose blogs I have not been following faithfully.

 

Visiting my Thai Relatives

One of the biggest highlights of our vacation was spending time with Tawn’s relatives.  Some time ago, I wrote about the complicated relationship I have with Tawn’s father.  While he has acknowledged that I exist and we met on two occasions before I moved to Thailand, he doesn’t want to confront that aspect of who Tawn is.  This is, broadly speaking, a typical “Asian father” sort of mindset. 

Because of that, we have had no interaction in the nearly six years that I’ve lived here.  Tawn’s mother is very welcoming but around here, the man rules the roost, so I only rarely manage to see Tawn’s mother or any other relative.  This has left me feeling a sense of disconnection from Tawn’s side of the family, a stark contrast to the very close relationship Tawn has with my family.

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Tawn’s cousin and his family, me and Tawn, and my sister and her family.  When considered as a whole, I would call it “my family”.

One big exception to the gulf that keeps me away from my in-laws is Tawn’s aunt and uncle in Los Angeles.  Tawn’s aunt is his father’s older sister.  She and her husband moved to LA more than four decades ago and raised a family there, three boys who are around our ages, and now five grandchildren.  Since first visiting them almost a decade back, they have been very accepting, supporting us, welcoming us into their family, and advocating on our behalf.

Two of their three sons still live in Los Angeles.  I hadn’t seen them since that first visit but we stay in touch regularly through Facebook.  This vacation presented the perfect opportunity not only to see them and meet their children, but also to introduce their family to my family and bridge that disconnect I feel.

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We were able to meet with one cousin, Pete, and his wife and two girls Saturday afternoon at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.  (A mighty fine aquarium, I’ll add.)  The girls are roughly the same ages as my nieces (although Emily is a head taller than Jessie), so it provided them some new friends to meet and made it easier to break the ice.

Both Jessie and Sydney are very cute and outgoing.  After about a half-hour of walking through exhibits, Sydey tugged on my pants leg and asked if she could hold my hand.  Later on, Jessie stopped me and said, “Can I tell you something?  You’re really nice.”  I’m not sure what she expected, but am glad I made a good impression.

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Lots of interactive exhibits kept Sydney, Jessie, Ava, and Emily entertained and engaged.

After spending several hours together, we met up for dinner with the other cousin, Don, his wife and three children, and Tawn’s aunt and uncle.  Spread across a very large table – we ended up being 17 people! – I got to know Tawn’s cousins better, seemed to be the center of attention for their children, and for a few hours felt less disconnected to Tawn’s side of the family.

Unfortunately we didn’t take a picture as I’d love to show you that lovely group.  But picture or no, it was still a wonderful opportunity to get together and, for me, helped a bit to bridge the gap that I feel.  I know many married couples don’t have close relationships with their in-laws.  Ultimately, though, I’d like to have as close a relationship with Tawn’s family as he has with mine.

 

Vacation in a Beach House

For our vacation with my sister, brother-in-law, and nieces, we opted to rent a three-bedroom house in Hermosa Beach, just two blocks from the Pacific Ocean.  Not only did this work out quite reasonably financially – roughly $400 a night – but it gave us a lot more room than a hotel would have, plus the ability to easily cook our own food and do our own laundry.

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Tawn leads a junior yoga class, which was surprisingly effective at helping the girls calm down, focus, and not get into squabbles with each other.  Maybe we should sign them up for daily classes?

Actually, we didn’t rent one house, but two.  The initial house was booked for our final three nights but the property manager had another similar house just three blocks away, so we moved into that one.  I have to really credit this lady, she was super friendly and very helpful.  If you are ever looking to rent a vacation home in Los Angeles, I’d be happy to recommend either of her two properties.  (This is the first house, a 3br/3 ba and this is the second house, a 3 br/1ba.)

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We did a little less cooking at home than I had anticipated, but we did eat at least breakfast at home each day, allowing for some cost savings.  As soon as we moved in I made a big (2 pound) batch of pizza dough and kept it in the refrigerator for use in a couple of meals.  Who doesn’t like pizza?  Here’s the girls shape their own pizzas.

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And there’s the finished but not-yet-cooked product, ready to go into the oven.  Their dough ended up kind of triangle shaped, huh?

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And of course there was room for everybody to pitch in with cleaning up and loading the dishwasher.

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Once you do that, we can bundle up (it was chilly by the beach in the evenings) and head to Pinkberry for some dessert.

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The second house we were in had TVs in each room, something I wouldn’t approve of at home but certainly fine for a vacation home.  That provided everyone with the opportunity to lounge in bed in the morning and watch cartoons.  As you can tell from this picture, we had already gone to Disneyland and everybody (including Tawn) had their stuffed animal.

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A view of Tawn walking along the Strand, the 22-mile class 1 paved pedestrian/skater/bicycle path that stretches along pretty much all of Los Angeles County’s western coast from Pacific Palisades to Torrance.  This grey overcast was a fixture of our vacation, at least when we were near the beach.