Megan McNelis, 131 TESS
*Trigger warning: body-negative language quoted*
They don’t say, “I love you” very much out here. I’ve heard it, but the usual words are gin kaao yang? “Have you eaten rice yet?” I’m sorry for further exhausting what I realize is a common analogy, but not only is it unavoidable, it helps you make poignant sense of the perplexed and pitying looks from your friends, neighbors, and coworkers when you tell them that you are someone who doesn’t eat rice.
Their startled expressions smooth over as they say, more to themselves than to you, “Ah…you’re afraid of getting fat.” They say it to themselves, not to you. To them, this explanation is more easily digested than the simple fact that you just don’t want rice. You’re not afraid of getting fat. But you’re afraid of something. Back home, you got yourself into the habit of never eating your fill.
This village is small, rural, and humble. The history is embedded in the language. They don’t ask tam araai gap kaao out here. They ask daai araai. A single syllable changes “What did you make?” to something closer to “What could you get?” Morning glory. Mouse-ear mushrooms. Mang mao insects. What was growing in your garden? What morsels did you happen to find along the road? In the trees? Peeking up through the decaying foliage on the forest floor?
Contrary to what’s implied, you don’t have to look very hard here. It’s abundant. Back there, you thought you needed delicacies; difficult to find, rarely filling, and usually borne of some long-ago famine. You convinced yourself it was delicious; that it was enough; that it was worth the effort. You ignored the voice that said this isn’t good for me. I’m not enjoying this.
But in Thailand, you’re offered food from as early as 5:30 in the morning until well after dark. Food you often don’t really want to eat. You smile and accept it, terrified of hurting someone, your gut is bloated with mixed emotions. Grateful as you are for the show of affection, you really just wanted to make your own. You wanted to decide for yourself what nourishment means. You didn’t want them to waste their time, their resources, and their effort on you. When you’re sure nobody will see you, you give it to the cats.
The sound of your fork scraping the last remaining grains from the plate stirs your memory, you cooked for him daily, excited to try the delicious-looking thing you found online that day, hoping it would elicit more than a mumble. Two and a half hours later, you oiled your cast iron skillet to Dark Souls sound effects from the next room. You were often thanked, but rarely were you fed.
You’re getting better at cooking for one, now. You look forward to coming home and digging through the vegetables in your fridge, singing Helplessly Hoping and putting something special together, just for you. But as you wedge the dull knife through a 4-day-old carrot, the phone rings for the eighth time that day — gin kaao yaang? And once again, an insistent dinner invitation puts you at odds with your efforts to perform self-compassion. How many times have your vegetables already spoiled?
Your frustration crescendos as you hang up the phone, alone in your kitchen, and a small but anguished cry squeezes itself out from deep under your rib cage at the realization that you cannot dictate the ways in which people choose to love you. And after all, didn’t you used to do the same thing? Wasn’t it the exact same way you tried so hopelessly to show your feelings?
It’s hard to learn two things at once. It’s hard to learn to cook for yourself when everyone wants to feed you. It’s easy to feel overstuffed when you’ve been starving. But you will learn to take what you can get, and you will never forget to tell them “Thank you. It’s delicious.” It’s the same thing you always wanted to hear.