Megan Cindric, 129 YinD
For those of you who don’t know, “yaii” is the Thai word for grandma, but to say the two are the same is to massively oversimplify it. When I say the word “grandma,” it most likely conjures up an image of a sweet old lady in a felt hat, maybe she’s knitting in a rocking chair, maybe she’s baking cookies, wearing slippers, quiet, quaint, composed. This is nothing like a yaii. Yaiis are warm and welcoming, but they’re also strong and assertive, and they have a power that’s all their own.
I feel like I can’t give you an accurate picture of what a yaii is like without providing some cultural context. For starters, families here are structured very differently than back in the states. In Thailand, family is a much stronger bond, and there is an obligation to take care of one’s parents as they get older and are unable to do so on their own. There aren’t things like retirement homes out here, so usually the older generation lives with the younger, sharing either a household or a compound together. Over the past couple decades, there’s been a dramatic shift in family dynamics in rural villages as the younger generation moves out to the cities to find better work. While their “home” is still in the village, the majority of their time is spent away from here in Bangkok or other cities where there are better job opportunities for them. This has caused a major demographic shift, and now the majority of the village is made up of young children and the older grandparents who are raising them. The parents of these kids usually visit over holidays or longer weekends, but for the most part it is the grandparents taking care of the children. While I have occasionally seen older men helping to raise the kids, the responsibility primarily falls on the yaiis. Women in their 60’s or 70’s taking care of the younger generation already sounds like a daunting task, but that’s not even the half of it.
In my village, there isn’t really a concept of retiring for most people. While the government provides a small stipend for older citizens, it’s hardly enough to live off of, and though the middle generation is working to make money in the cities, the vast majority of the yaiis are still working year-round as well. That means that on top of raising the children, most of these women are also tending to rice fields or weaving sticky rice baskets to sell. Anyone who has ever worked a day in the rice field can tell you it’s hard work, even for us younger folks. It’s hot, it’s humid, you’re hunched over for hours on end, and all of the work is done by hand. We struggle through a couple hours of working in the fields while these women are getting up at the crack of dawn day after day to do that same difficult task. Many of the older women are permanently hunched over from spending so much time working the fields, their backs shaped from the long, hard days of work. Now, on top of all of this the yaiis are also keeping the households up and running. This means getting up early to make sticky rice, making sure the kids get up and ready, doing the dishes, washing the laundry, speeding off to the market on their motorcycles and constantly sweeping against the onslaught of dust and insects. From dawn till dusk, the yaiis are always doing something to support their family and their community. Yaiis are the epitome of hard working women, but they are also masters of “sabaii” – walking around in nothing but a bra and a pasin wrap skirt, napping practically anywhere, and always finding something to crack a smile about. For all of the work they put in, the yaiis in my community are still the sweetest, silliest, most welcoming and supportive group of women I’ve ever found.
The yaiis were the first people in my village to make me really feel welcome. It was the Songkran festival last year, and we were at a party in my community filled with food, music, and plenty of dancing. I’d only been at my site for a month and still felt extremely overwhelmed with everything. I wasn’t quite sure what I was expected to do, so I sat off to the side while trying to take it all in. Without warning my host yaii yelled “MALAI! MA DEN!” (Malai, come dance!), grabbed me by the arm, and propelled me into a crowd of older women in floral shirts at the front of the stage. At first I was mortified, but the women were so welcoming and friendly I forgot all of my insecurities, and before long I was cracking them up with my horrible attempts at Thai dance moves. Even though I had never met them, they were still so warm and inviting, and made me feel like I was a part of the group. When we finally took a break from dancing, they invited me to sit with them and were eager to ask me questions about what I thought of Thailand, bring me all sorts of Thai foods, and even crack a few jokes as I struggled to handle how spicy everything was. There was a sort of calm confidence about them – they were wise, but also wily. Time had not hardened their spirits, and they still felt full of life and energy. There was no awkwardness when I was around them, and they were open and sincere with me from the get-go. Suddenly I didn’t feel like an outsider – I felt like I had a family.
From that moment on any time there was a community event or ceremony, I always sought out my group of yaiis. They made me feel welcome and at ease even if I was in a new and unfamiliar situation. The yaiis taught me how to properly make merit, how to light incense at a funeral, and how to let loose at a wedding party. I felt like I could be myself around them, and even if I made mistakes they’d laugh it off and kindly correct me. Even after nineteen months here, they are still the people I feel closest to at my site. Any time I’m passing by, whether I’m out on a run or heading to the city, they’re always eager to shout hello and ask where I’m headed. They have given me a deep sense of community in a world that is not my own, and I truly feel that they consider me part of my family. The yaiis in my village have completely changed my definition of a strong woman, and shown me that you can be tough and hard-working while still being caring and compassionate, no matter what age you are. I’ve realized beyond a doubt that I would never have made it this far without their kindness and support, and I know that after I leave, whenever I think about my home here, I’ll always think of my yaiis.