Mae Dang

Nick D’Addio, 131 TESS

She was the first person to greet me when I arrived at site. She beat my host mother out to the car. Even in the dimness of the late evening, she was brilliant, bedecked in yellow and beaming. In the Land of Smiles, hers has always been the widest, the sweetest and most unalloyed. I did not know it at the time, but over the next weeks and months, this smile and the lovely woman who bears it would make this place my home.

Her name is Pickun Thaenprayuth but I call her Mae Dang (Momma Red). And if you met her, you would immediately know why — she has this beautiful, red hair. Anyways, let me tell you about my Thai mom.

Firstly, she makes a mean suuk makrueah (boiled and mashed eggplant) and geeng nomai (bamboo shoot curry). She brings me crickets she catches on her own in her rice fields. She makes purple riceberry every day and brings it for the teachers at school — she tells me it’s good for my health, so I eat it. She has two sons, San-wo and Dteng-mo, and between them, six grandchildren, although it is apparent to me that she is a primary mother figure of so many more lucky people. She lives alone in a well-kept house across from the school, a fitting station for the champion and (unofficial but unfailing) guardian of our community. Mae Dang graciously commands attention and respect everywhere she goes — in such a way that evidences years of diligence and commitment that would make such a lofty seat in the village hierarchy well deserved. Even the pu-yai bahn yields to her word. She teaches Thai language and Pratom 3 at our school, Ban Nong Khaen Community School. She is the head of the HR Department, but transcends the duties of the job, being sure to give each employee the time of day outside of school business. She has coached volleyball, fruit carving, flower arrangement, and traditional dance. Oh, and I forgot, she is the Master of Ceremonies for everything — graduations, holiday celebrations, Teacher’s Day, Children’s Day, all of it. She epitomizes grace and leaves all feeling welcome and easy.

In the past few years, she taught herself English by watching YouTube videos so that she could bring a second language into her homeroom classes — a true testament to the way she has given herself to her students. Now, she has formally added English teaching (as my counterpart) to her impressive repertoire of skills and catalog of responsibilities. However, she simply would not view her school involvements this way. She does all of this because she takes a personal stake in ensuring the upward trajectory of all of her students. When the news came that one of our students, Uey, would advance to the Isaan competition for handwriting, we happened to be teaching English together. Mae Dang squeezed that little girl and they jumped up and down and screamed and cried. I’ve never seen pride and joy permeate a classroom like it did then. I have been privileged to witness this rare strain of compassion she shows — her love fills these kids up.

Like I said earlier, Mae Dang is my Thai mom. Here are a few moments when my Thai mom made me feel like the luckiest kid in the entire rice paddy.

I was feverish, fatigued, and miserable with myalgia. I had some anxiety about an initial trip to the hospital, so I did not ask to be taken. It was maybe the third day of these symptoms and my host mother was breaking in my room every hour of the day to force-feed me soup and scrub me down in a cold cloth. I was grateful, but overwhelmed. Mae Dang caught word I was not feeling well. She came to my house and gave me no choice. We are going to the hospital, she says earnestly in English, please come get in my car. Others were okay with me waiting another day — she wasn’t. This seems like a simple gesture. But to me, it was neither simple nor mere sweetness. It was an unthinking maternal response, the knee-jerk of an affectionate caretaker. She calmly and swiftly took my wellbeing into her own hands. She recognized that maybe in my third week at site I did not have the confidence or Thai language to fully advocate for myself. I never asked for that. She just knew I needed it.

In the days before Reconnect, I went to Koh Chang for a retirement party with my school. I would leave the party people and go straight to Pathum Thani from Koh Chang. As I sent my parting wais to the teachers and Paw Aw and stepped towards the approaching van to Pathum Thani, Mae Dang followed me a few steps and grabbed my arm. When I turned around, I was surprised to see she had tears in her eyes. She was choking them back as she said in English, Take good care of yourself. I’ll miss you. Come home safely. I love you. To spare the onlooking teachers some reciprocal farang tears, I let a quick I love you too, Mae Dang from my lips and jumped in the van. Hugging my bag in my lap and now trying to hold back the wells in my own eyes, I realized something —that this woman had long since committed to making sure I was always taken care of, safe, happy, and loved. This was one of the first times when I thought to myself it is going to be really hard to leave her in a few years. It felt intense to have this thought so early on in my service. I just never expected to be valued the way Mae Dang has valued me since the moment I arrived at site.

It was February. I had heard a few teachers talking about going to a place called Prathat Nadun for an annual festival. At this point in service, I was challenging myself to let people know when I wanted to visit places and go on bpai tiaos with them. I asserted myself into a conversation about the festival, expressing farang curiosity about what all the hype was. Being the radically sweet person she is, Mae Dang sensed that I wanted to check it out and invited me to go with her after school that day. The school day ended and Mae Dang went home before I could make plans with her. I think maybe this has happened to a lot of us while living in Thailand; we make plans with friends and HCNs and, for one reason or another (the language barrier and people not always taking us seriously), the opportunity passes and we end up not going. But this time, I wanted to go. And I wanted to go with Mae Dang. I messaged her and she told me she would pick me up soon. She came and we drove the 30 minutes to a beautiful stupa called Prathat Nadun in Maha Sarakham province — the house of the holy relics of Lord Buddha. We made merit together, completing three laps around the grand pagoda before lighting offering candles and praying. I learned that Prathat Nadun was kind of a big deal, a destination of Buddhist pilgrimages in Thailand. It was crowded, awesome, and unequivocally sacrosanct. This was an important trip. As we began walking back to the car, Mae Dang stopped me and told me she had something for me. She pulled out a crisp 60-baht bill and explained that this was a rare commemorative banknote that the government made to celebrate the 60th anniversary of His Majesty King Rama IX’s accession to the throne. She continued on, saying that this is the last of three 60-baht notes she owned. (I told you earlier, Mae Dang has two sons — San-wo and Dteng-mo). As she handed me the bill she said, There are three bills. One for each of my sons.

A line from one of my favorite Isaan pop songs goes like this…

Hak jao laii, hak jao laii, dai yin baw?

(I love you so much, I love you so much, do you hear me?)

Sometimes I feel like Mae Dang might never know how much I really love and appreciate her. As the year anniversary of my arrival at site approaches, I am more and more acutely aware of the ever-dwindling time I have to make sure she really hears me when I say it.

I love you, Mae Dang.

Read more of Nick’s previous articles and contributions.

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