Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Wongwang Family: A Hidden Jewel

Sunset in Ban Pong Ho San

Once upon a time in a little village called Ban Pong Ho San there lived a family called the Wongwang family. This family was not small, indeed there were many different members: aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, grandchildren, and great grand children. Pisak, an inspiring artist was among them. He had moved away to Bangkok when he was young as many young Thais do to seek work. In the big city he found more than work, he met Au-sa, from Isan, a northeast province of Thailand, and also a young artist. The two fell in love and decided to move back to Ban Pong Ho San take care of Pisak's elderly parents and start a family of their own.

The village bridge in Ban Pong Ho San

Pisak had taught himself English as a young adult watching movies in English over and over again until he could understand them. He read books, looked at videos and TV on the internet, hungry for anything in English to improve his skills. When their first child, Nara, was born in 2008, Pisak decided to put in practice what he had read in a book, Parenting in Two Languages. He was determined to give his child a better life than he had and wanted to teach him English. And so Pisak decided to do as the book suggested, he would speak to Nara in English and expose his child to as much English as possible and the rest of his family would speak to him in Thai. Would this really work? He wasn't certain, but he had to try, it was the only opportunity for his son, Narah, to learn English.

The Wongwang family enjoying dinner

You see their village is so small that several years ago, the primary school that served the students closed down. Their is a one-room-school house in the village in place of the larger primary school but Au-sa and Pisak opted to homeschool their children, one of about 2,000 families in Thailand who also choose this type of education. Both Pisak and Au-sa are involved in Narah's education. They rely heavily on the internet for videos and website with English content. When Narah is five his baby sister Myda, is born and they also speak to her in English and Thai. Not having the opportunity to speak with natives, they aren't sure what sort of language proficiency their children really have, they are just eager to expose them to as much English as possible.

This Dad has a lot of love (and knowledge) to give

How did I stumble upon this family in a tiny village that isn't even on the map? Again, it is my faithful warmshowers network of hospitality for cyclists. Au-sa was eager to have “phalang” visit and come to her village from a cultural exchange point-of-view. A friend of her's mentioned warmshowers and not being a cyclist herself, although they frequently ride bikes around the village, she signed her family up, on January 2, 2015 to be precise. I ready their profile a couple of weeks later as I was traveling through the area. It read: “No smoke, no pets, peace full place Kakaiarts ceramic at garden, we have painting thai arts.” I chuckled! I should compile a list of the funny warmshower profiles I have read in non-English countries. Sometimes they scare me so, I wouldn't even think of contacting them, but then there are profiles like this, where I stop and reason. This is a new user, perhaps very proud of their house and eager to show foreigners a traditional Thai lifestyle, with limited English. Just because they can't speak perfect English doesn't mean I should disregard them as warmshowers hosts, afterall, their house was en route, and would make for a nice stopover.

I decide to write and I'm surprised when they respond. We work out the details via email, and they come pick me up in the city of Lampang, because they are unable to give me specific directions to their house. I can't help but form a mental image of what they are like; perhaps a very wealthy thai art collector. Maybe the husband cycles while the wife goes shopping? My mind is drifting and envisioning their house and decorations when I'm greeted by Au-Sa who waves from a pick-up. We were suppose to meet at the 7-eleven across from the bus station at 4pm. It is now 4:20, wouldn't you know there are two 7-elevens within 200 meters of each other at the bus station, but not visible from one to the other? Only in Thailand. He husband gets out of the truck and we load my bicycle in the back of the truck with buckets of paint and construction working gear. I speak slowly and use simple sentences and basic vocabulary, but their English is much better than portrayed in the WS profile, I'm shocked.

Narah playing Mindcraft, he's addicted!

We are off to pick up their son, and a baby daughter at home awaits. They inform me their son speaks English too. It is rare to meet a Thai adult who speaks English rather fluently, so I can't imagine a child. Narah is shy at first, but active. We pick him up from an after school learning center where he occasional goes while his parents run errands in town. We all pile in the pick-up truck and start driving home. I'm conversing with Pisak and Au-sa while Narah is in the back seat with me playing a video game on a tablet. I try to stay focused on my conversation with the couple, but I can't help but listen to Narah, who is narrating the entire video game in English using such natural English, you'd think I was sitting next to a little American boy. I listen intently, I can't believe what I'm witnessing. I comment out loud that I'm blown away by his English and his parents start to explain to me the way they have brought up their two children.

Myda, her name suits her well!

We arrive home and I meet little Myda. When asked how to pronounce her name, they told me to think of the “My Darling”, and truncate the word at Da. She is 2 years old and 4 months, she speaks clear English and answers all her dad's questions and talks to everyone in English, she even has a British accent that can be heard ever so slightly, especially when she calls for her “Mummy”. I'm speechless. Yes, I'm an educator and work with a lot of multi-lingual children, but they speak multiple languages because their parents have different mother tongues. They are also typically from elite families and have a wealth of resources and opportunities for their children. I've never witnessed bilingual children from parents who aren't native English speakers, not to mention who live in a small village in a third world developing country with few resources, including a spotty internet connection. Unbelievable!

Everyone is there to help, always.  It's an incredible family
Myda is so easily entertained and enjoys everyone's company

In Thailand, as witnessed in several other southeast Asian countries, they take the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child” literally. Pisak has 2 other siblings in the village and their families as well as other extended family and all participate in their children's education and upbringing. One of Pisak's sisters was the English teacher at the village primary school before it closed and she also talks with the kids solely in English. Another one of Pisak's sister was a music teacher and sings songs with them frequently in English, even though her conversational English is limited. During my time with them, I see Myda spend time with a number of different relatives in all sorts of activities. Although it is hard to get Narah unglued from the internet and Mindcraft, when he isn't playing video games or watching youtube videos in English on Mindcraft strategy, he is in his Aunt's garden, drawing, playing by the river or paddling their boat in the river, or helping out the family with the ceramic factory.

Paddling a boat is a challenge with a language barrier and without facial contact!  Little did I know we weren't going anywhere, just collecting weeds for their pet rabbits

Pisak working on one of his paintings for the inside of a local temple

Yes, that is another coincidence. Pisak's family is incredibly artistic and so is Au-sa. Pisak is a freelance artist, he remodels old temples, is commissioned to make decorative paintings for their interiors, really, he is a “jack-of-all-trades”. He has a studio set-up at their house, which is also the corner store in the village. He works all day on the various projects he has taken on during the day, and at night, he paints trying to finish up the piece he has been commissioned to do recently. But he also finds time to be with his kids, teach them, and play with them. I stayed with his sister's family, the house across the street from theirs. Ampa, his older sister is a live wire and a creative soul as well. In fact, I'd say she's the Thai version of me, almost double my age. No sooner did I arrive, she gestured if she could try my bike, and off she set. Very few people dare to ride my bike, but she didn't hesitate for a minute. Au-sa told me to hop on her bike and follow her, and so I did, leading me to their property where they have both an organic farm, access to the river with a dock and boat, and a small ceramic factory.

Ampa has two hired workers helping with production

In the background you can see the pieces ready to go into the kiln

I was in heaven! Ceramics is my passion, and something I have been longing to get back into after my trip. Although they don' have potter wheels, they had plenty of slip cast dishes, and on day three I found myself decorating mugs and platters getting ready for the firing that would take place that evening. It was like a dream come true for me, my soul was dying for some sort of creative outlet and this was it!

I was so happy painting ceramics, Ampa caught me humming!

I was only going to stay a night or two at most, but in the end, before going to bed, I asked if I could stay one more day. They were all thrilled to have me. Ampa and her girlfriends gave me cooking lessons. I learned how to make Pad Thai, and Som Tam (papaya salad) as well as my favorite sweet treat, Caw Lam (sticky rice with coconut milk and beans) stuffed in a bamboo shoot. I discovered that Au-sa had always dreamed about making western cakes and sweet breads, and bought a small over and electric mixer, but was intimidated to try a recipe. Narah, on the other hand wasn't. He'd mix up concoctions and experiment in the kitchen and the microwave with his mixtures with an incredible sense of curiosity, which is why he was delighted to partake in the baking demonstration. They took me to a baking store in Lampang and I was shocked to see all my faovrite ingredients, cocoa powder, yeast, baking powder, and every type of flour imaginable. They even had McCormick spices imported from the United States and I was able to get cinnamon. We baked consecutive nights so that Au-sa had the recipe down and could make it on her own. They were intrigued by the western sweets I saw each pan pass through the hands of anyone and everyone who entered their store, yet I couldn't keep my hands off the sweet sticky rice in bamboo shoots! I refuse to take responsibility for introducing Ban Pong Ho San to these sweet treats.

Making cinnamon rolls
I simply watched over as they made banana bread
Oh the food! It was ever so tasty and endless. I would wake up and there was a feast waiting for me on the table from noodles and pork soup to grilled catfish. It seemed like we had just finished breakfast when it was time for lunch! Ampa took my comment about loving Som Tam literally, and papaya salad appeared at every meal! I also participated in a Thai barbeque which involved going shopping for massive quantity of groceries at Makro, the European/Asian version of Costco, but this one obviously was “Thai style”. I participated in the grocery shopping and felt like my Warmshowers guests Raimon and Ma Joana when they visited me and stepped foot inside Costco for the first time. In Thailand, customers pick out the meat they want, collect the shrimp themselves, making westerners and their shopping habits of being served, seem so sterile and uneventful. After visiting so many local fresh markets, I wondered why anyone would go to Makro for food, but then again, globalization is a world phenomenon!
Buying seafood like this would not fly in the western world!

It was quite tedious to fill each shoot with sticky rice, and to think it sells for 60 cents a shoot!

Ampa stuffing the bamboo with sticky rice

Making Pad Thai, I wrote this recipe down for future reference, I will call it "Ampa's Pad Thai"

A typical Thai BBQ

Overwhelmed by all the delicious food!

My days in Ban Pong Ho San were action packed from visiting temples, sightseeing in Lampang, and tasting strawberries on a farm, a novelty in the area. It seemed every time I sat down in their store for a bit of a break, a neighbor from the village showed up, eager to talk with me and practice their English. Kim was ever so sweet and showed up in a football Barcelona jersey and ended up joining Au-sa and I baking, and on another occasion a young monk sat down and conversed a bit. Here I was always taken back by their presence on the streets in the morning, curious about their daily life and here was a 13 year-old monk in training seated in front of me, eager to know what I was doing in his village. I also met Ed, a friend of Au-sa and Pisak who ran a motorbike mechanic workshop and was famous in the area for his skills. He was an avid cyclist so on two different mornings he took me for a ride around on the most incredible peaceful back roads at sunrise. One morning I also went on a long ride on my own, craving a bit more of activity and some “me time”, not to mention I had to make room for all the food they were feeding me. There is an impressive network of roads around their village and the great metropolis area of Lampang and I road effortlessly for a 100 kilometers or so one morning with little to no traffic and plenty of scenery.

Sunrise outside of Ban Pong Ho San.  The red is from the field burning and fires in the area unfortuntaely

My loyal guide for two morning rides

We even had time to give offerings to the monk before riding

Let's just say, I felt right at home with Au-sa and Pisak's family. I could have stayed for weeks or a month with this gem of a family. It was almost eery just how much I had in common with them and shared similar values and perspectives on life, a family hundreds of thousands of kilometers from where I grew up. A family with a huge heart, making the most of all their resources, living a very simple yet fulfilling life in a tiny village in Northern Thailand. Again, my trip has showed me that things just happen for a reason, and some things are just meant to be and completely out of our control.

Simply adorable little kids

I had a hard time leaving their house after 4 nights and 5 delightful days. I gained an incredible amount of insight into the Thai culture and experienced plenty of daily life that felt so natural and welcoming. Something tells me I'll be back.......and I'm sure other Warmshowers guests will be through, we rewrote their profile to reflect who they really are!

Their corner shop and house in Ban Pong Ho San 

Leaving the village on the back roads

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