It frustrates me sometimes when I have to answer the most frequently asked question when I’m traveling: “Where are you from?” The faces changed almost daily, I had heard impressive answers like San Francisco, New York, Berlin, Sydney, Tokyo, and London. “Whoa!” I was an absolute wide-eyed traveler and upon hearing those names making me cringe. As I’ve never been proud of my own backgrounds, my answer was occasionally altered or amended based on the recent apartment contract I signed, “Bangkok” a B-grade answer I’ve always say. But then they asked, “Originally?” I tended to pause before I would answered “Koh Samui.” Even with its high prestige status as one of the most popular tourist spots in Thailand—most of the people I met were unable to comprehend where I came from and then I mentioned the Full Moon Party and everyone’s reaction was like “Holy shit!” As if the party itself identifies the island more than the geographical, and a place that sounded like a D was an A. “That’s a damn good place to be from!”
Only when I’m traveling in my own country that people ask me different question. They would drop the question like “Where are you from?” since my origin country was written all over my face, every so often the conversation began with my educational background. “What are you study?” is what most people ask when I’m traveling in Thailand. If my story was more impressive than the success of their children they would give me an inauthentic compliment and if they felt like their children were more successful then me, there will be an interminably boasting.
The last time this happened I was on the train to the Death Railway in Kanchanaburi with Audrey. After the devastating second meeting in Hua Hin between Audrey and I—she had left me and spent two weeks in northern Thailand and another two weeks in Vietnam before she returned to Bangkok and buzzed me up to see if I was still happy to let her stay in my apartment. When I asked about her impression of the country she only said, “It is lousy with beers, you know.” You know is the effective end-of-discussion word she’d probably picked up from the wayfarer backpackers or, who knows, the locals. I was being more realistic about the third meeting so I inclined to the prospect of us being that couple you’ve seen in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset/Before Sunrise movies. Because I’m not American to begin with, I let the romantic idea fleet as the old locomotive engine blew a faintly prolonged whistle that sounded like a regretfully distant outcry from the past.
Packed in the small compartment were four people, Audrey and I shared the same bench that was super small, a quiet European guy seated next to an old Thai woman on the opposite side. Thailand inherited the train from the Japanese after the WWII. It was designed to fit Asian than European. If you’ve ever experience a train ride in Thailand you’ll see that the legroom was mysteriously disappeared when you fit four Westerners in a compartment. As unwelcome as it was, there’s always a group of middle age German tourists on the Thai train—first class, second class, or third class you name it as if they had no clues. They were always the loudest; they spoke in the loud beefy voice that the listeners would need a shield to protect their face from saliva. This train was no air-conditioning all multinational passengers have to suffer the heat during the dry season that was unbearable even for me, I felt my sweat running down my crotches as a woman wearing a mismatch yellow shirt with the words “Bike For Dad” and the velvet pants made of cheap corduroy patrolling the train carriages selling mouth masks in her plastic basket.
I wished she would sell that little portable electronic fan to help me with all the sweat, anything more useful than the mouth masks was welcome. I didn’t know the use of them since there’s no epidemic breakout, I just gave her an apologetic smile instead of saying no. The old woman sitting opposite me bought the one with John Pasche’s famous Tongue and Lip printed on it for herself.
Seeing me boarding the train with a Western girl who was quickly resume to her nap as soon as we settled in, the old lady looked at me and then, at Audrey. The woman was probably in her seventies, she gave me the freaky smirk which presented the wrinkles on the square of her deeply tanned face that looked like a topographic map of a destructive mountain you would see on Google Earth. Everything about her materialized the inevitable that time does to a human face. Her appearance seemed like it was prompted by her advance age rather than the work of a stylist—the matching feature with her grey bob and her big black-rim librarian spectacles that looked as if it has been passed on for generations. “Beautiful girlfriend.” This was the first thing she said and she said it in English. “You don’t have to speak English.” I told the woman in Thai.
“Oh you Thai!” she spoke in Thai with a slightly tone of surprise. “I knew it. I thought you were but when I saw your girlfriend I have second thought. I hardly see Thai man with Western girl so I assumed you might not be Thai. Maybe Chinese, Japanese.”
Before I could tell her that Audrey wasn’t my girlfriend she took the advantage of her seniority to singlehandedly seal her fault presumption that we were a couple. Deaf to the reality is how some people living in Thailand chose to live.
Behind me was a crying little girl who has a mother who should win the bad mom awards on her poor parenting, the mother was also yelling. The adult threaten to throw the girl off the moving train if she doesn’t stop crying. “Stop crying! Stop crying!” That only made the girl cried even louder like they were the terrible twos and the silence among train’s passengers was growing exponentially according to their volume.
Audrey opened her eyes to the sound of the argument, she asked me what’s going on back there and then asked for water. The old woman saw it as an opportunity to talk to Audrey. It began with a compliment. “You are very beautiful.” Audrey was drinking the water from the bottle and almost choked when she heard the compliment.
“Where are you from?” the old woman asked.
“I’m from France.”
“Oh! J’adore la France!”
The Thai woman speaks French. I didn’t expect her to be able to communicate beyond the Basic English but the woman and Audrey were engaging in a small talk that sounded like a string of survival French expressions for a while. I felt completely left out so I pulled out a book about the Death Railway written by Eric Lomax and continue reading from where I left off. I was hoping to get the atmosphere back in the year and a brief history about WWII while traveling on the exact same railways. The old lady pulled out a scrap piece of paper from her plastic bags—her belongings—that she placed them on the floor by the aisle. She tapped her finger on my bare knee. I startled a little and looked up from the softback at her.
“It’s time for learning!” the old lady announced.
Audrey who was having the conversation with the old woman now looked confused, she rolled her eyes at me—a code for, ‘I have no idea what this fucking old hag is on about.’
“What is it you say when you want to know where the toilet is?” the woman asked. I saw her pen stationed at the recycle paper she used as a language-learning tool. Audrey was trying her hardest to be kind and supportive. She answered everything the old lady wanted to know about French language. The lady wrote it down on the paper and then she taught me the meaning of each word and how to pronounce them.
“So la toilette is what you mean toilet.” The old woman didn’t care about her conversationers and continued on as if she was talking to herself, repeating French vocabulary while I was nodding silently and Audrey was responding to whatever questions she had, but then came the worst part, “Now, repeat after me.”
The European guy seated next to her turned his head back like he was looking for a blank compartment or an unoccupied bench so he could move and enjoy the rail in peace. For me, I was clutching the copy of The Railway Man so tightly and even lift it up to my chest to let her know that I wasn’t in the mood for French lesson.
“Why aren’t you focus?” The woman asked. I explained that I don’t think the train carriage with the reek smell of peed is a comfortable learning environment.
“Ah, I see. You think you’re too good to listen to a poor old woman like me, don’t you?” She pouted like a young girl not getting what she wants. She folded the paper as Audrey made her excuse to get back to sleep and I couldn’t be so grateful for it. I resume my reading as the train rattling along. “I know your type.” She continued. “I’ll tell you. I speak more than one language. I speak Thai, English, French and German too. Actually my German is better than French. But Lord knows how long I haven’t speak German. How many language do you speak?”
“Two,” I said.
“No, smart-ass.” Her voice grew louder. “In this fucking stinky world you only speak one language. Do you think your Thai could be any uses outside of this country? Absolutely no!”
She had a good point but I wasn’t in the mood for a lecture.
“What do you think I do for a living?”
“Yes, I am retired. But can you guess what did I do before?”
Maybe it was because of that spectacles and the bob that made me say, “I don’t know. A teacher?”
The woman shot me a look. It’s one of those moments when I know for sure that I can read other people’s mind. She seemed to think, ‘I’m fucking know that you’re going to say I’m a teacher.’
“So, were you?” I asked again. Teacher is one of the less respected professions in Thailand—it’s kind of insulting to assume that someone is a teacher when they’re not.
“That is almost correct.” She said. “People always assumed that I was a teacher.” I wonder what people she referred to. How many people have been asked this question already? I couldn’t think she could be anything other than a teacher. The old woman was searching for something in her purse; a withered small drawstring that once was white is now brownish. She took out her bank account and showed me the first page. If the profession sounded unimportant to you—the title before your name is the pillar of who you are in Thai culture. If you’re not the heir from the Royal Family blood line; you have to be in the army or become a doctor to get the prestigious title before you real name. The woman fit the latter category; she was a doctor and has the “Dr.” before her name on her bank account. She looked at me, seeing that I was still unconvinced and looked doubtful. She then took out her Thai citizen card and her employee ID card—at the highest regard and the busiest hospital in Thailand—to show me that she was once someone important.
“I taught medical students as a side.” She told me. “I have seen a lot of shits, tears, and heartbreaks. I removed testicles, I taught my students how to do it.”
“What field of doctor were you? I meant why do you have to, eh, do that?”
“Cancer, you idiot!” She scorned. “Ever heard of testicular cancer? Google it. It will hit you someday. Once retired. I thought I don’t have to do that kind of shit no more. But no, sometimes I dream about removing other people testicle. That’s fine. I can get used to it. But my sister got herself in insane debt I just had to transfer her the money. Can you guess how much did I just sent to my bloody sister?”
I blinked—stunned after being told by an old woman to Google something—as she flipped pages of her bank account. They contained seven figures on her saving. She came to the stop on the last updated page and pointed at the amount she just transfer. The sum of the money transferred was 7 million baht. And what she has left on her account was still ridiculously high it made me wonder why she was taking this train.
“My younger sister is a complete idiot who doesn’t do shit in her life. I have to pay for her children’s tuitions. Sold the lands we inherited just to have enough to cover her medication bills and the fucking trip to Europe with her bloody worthless husband, bloody bucket list she says.” Her voice rose but then came to a sigh. “After all, you can’t say no to your family, don’t you? When the idiot you grew up with has stage four breast cancer and wants to see the world for at least once in her life but can’t afford. You can’t just say no. It’s all in the blood.”
“What about you? What are you going to do with the money you have?”
She chuckled. “Are you telling me to spend all the money I have before I die so I could be like my sister?”
A beat. It wasn’t meant for her to interpret that way. I was just asking because it was the first time I genuinely interest in having a conversation with this woman. One goes on a train and dressed like a bum, who would have thought she would have a six figures on her saving account. Once she revealed who she really was, her impressive medical background and proved that my previous assumption based on her appearance was absolutely wrong. I have to admit her trick worked on me.
“Well, Que Sera Sera. I don’t have the bucket list. I’m old enough to know happiness is not something you buy or how much money you have or how many places you have been. Doesn’t matter. All these things fleet. Do you know the song? I wager that you do.”
This is one of the English language songs most Thai people know. Que Sera Sera is the song about a woman letting go of her worries and just let it be. Years ago there was a life insurance company used this song sung by disability kids on their TV commercial. The result? It was phenomenally success.
“I studied in a catholic school. They taught me how to sing this song.” She gazed her eyes at Audrey who was asleep. “They taught me to sing in French actually but I can’t remember the lyrics. I’ll ask your girlfriend when she wake up.”
“I think we have enough French lesson for today.” I told her. “Besides we are pretty tired because we have to get up early to catch this train.
“Ah—I see. A protective boyfriend!” She shot me the I-have-seen-it-all look. “It’s all like this in the beginning…”
“No, it’s not that.” I explained. “We are just tired.”
“You have a French girlfriend goddamn! Don’t waste the opportunity to learn something from her.” The woman then extended her hand to wake Audrey. “You have to teach him French. You promise me you will teach him French okay?” Then the language switched into Thai. “And you, tell her that she has to complete her education.”
I felt as if I was being lectured by an old vexing librarian over overdue library books. Things went quiet for a while, the crying baby was now sleeping on her mother’s laps. I resumed the reading, but because I have longer legs, I can feel my bare knees occasionally touching the old woman. Seeing that I have no further interest in having a conversation with her. The woman hatched another plan.
“I can’t sit very long, because my hip is in pain.” She stood up and made her way to the compartment where the group of the middle age German tourists still chatting very lively. The European guy seemed to be more relaxed with her absence. I finally have a chance to fully enjoy this part of the Thai railway I had never been before without any more interruption between me and the train ride and the book.
It was the year Thailand faced the worst drought crisis in twenty year. I was living in Bangkok and reading news from the Bangkok Post which I always think they were being too dramatic and most headlines are engineered to catch eyeballs on the internet. Not until I saw the reality of the crisis with my own eyes and when my H&M White Stretch was soaking wet with sweat. Looking out the train window I couldn’t believe my eyes. With all the dust flew in as the train passing the dried landscape, and suddenly the mouth cover seemed like a very good idea. I look at the woman—she seemed to enjoy having a conversation with a group of people who is closer to their death beds just like her. With them she doesn’t need to show her balance of the saving account to prove her own worth.
Shortly, she came back and saw me reading the book. Even if I was into the book, it’s impossible to ignore this woman activity. She then searched for something in her tragic plastic belongings, and checked to see if I stole something from her. She fetched a copy of a Dharma book titled in Thai that translated to “Buddha is The Only God.”
“What the hell are you reading?” She asked.
I showed her the cover, but the woman took it from my hands to examine it closer.
“The Railway Man.” She read the title. “I’m done with war stories shit. This is why I only read about religion at the moment. Imagine if everyone shares the same faith and stop being greedy, you’re probably wouldn’t be reading this book right now.”
She returned the copy to me. I can agree with her about greed. But faith and religion can be the reasons men go to war when we try to make everyone share the same faith.
The western man sat quietly but I knew he has been listening to our conversation whenever we speak English since the beginning.
“What about you mister quiet man?” The old woman nudged the guy. If I were him I would pretend not to speak English and only speak Norwegian or something very few people know. But it’s hard to guess how much this woman is capable of. Maybe she can speak every European language available so there’s no easy way to escape.
“Where are you from?”
“I am from Denmark.”
“Oh, Denmark! The happiest country in the world! That’s lovely! How does it feel to be from the happiest country in the world?”
“It’s… okay.” He said self-consciously. “I never really know that our country is the happiest in the world.”
“It’s so funny, don’t you think.” The woman spoke to me in Thai. “When someone from the happiest country in the world comes here to see what the hardness and sadness is like.” As the train rattling along I checked the watch and thought, ‘Oh God, two more hours of this!’ I couldn’t be more grateful that Audrey kept her eyes closed for the rest of the trip.
As we were approaching the Death Railway, a retired train officer informed the passenger about its history but my ears were deaf to it because I thought I knew everything about the dark history of it the same way I often ignored when flight attendants demonstrate how to use the life vast and the oxygen mask.
Before the woman disembarked she said this to us, “I wish you two a prosperous life.” Then she stepped out the train, her belongings in both hands. I wished our paths would never cross again. Audrey and I left the train and promised each other not talk about this old lady, but, of course, it was all we talked about over the course of our short weekend holiday.
We went straight from the train station to our resort. Audrey and I fought over the French version of Que Sera Sera since she never heard of it and strongly sure there was none. YouTube helped me won the argument. Listening to it in English—it made me feel for the old woman on the train. The girl in Que Sera Sera is such a poor little girl. She has an ignorance mother who answered the important life question with this very answer. And then she married a man who said the same thing when she asked him about the future. Eventually when she has children of her own, she then answer to her children’s important life question with the same quote she inherited from the past: Que Sera Sera.
The upbringings and what being passed on through the blood line qualified a person on a certain level. It’s now make sense the way she showed her saving account to me. It’s her only way she could get me into having conversation with her. The way I nodded like one of her obedient medical students. It was the thing she did that can connect her to the glorious past.
The woman was born in the year of the attack at the Pearl Harbor in 1941. She has lived to see eleven coup d’états in Thailand and that’s how she learn to let things happen and fleet I guess. To hell with 7 million baht and let the dying sister has the time of her life before the reality of death hit her. I wish I could be like the old woman one day.
Instead of trying to out-smart the unforeseeable future I could just rely on the Doris Day song as well and stop worry about the relationship between Audrey and I or the day I would have my own testicles removed. The song was playing repeatedly from my iPhone when I was relaxing in the bathtub. “For Christ’s sake stop listening to it already!” Shouted by Audrey from the bedroom. But I don’t like being told what to do so I turned the volume up and just let it continue to play. I muted the outside world and lose myself to the soothing feelings the infinite loop the two minutes song provided. Whatever will be, will be… except the balky stubbornness melded in my blood that is permanently here to stay.
Sam Nathapong is a writer and contributor for Pearson’s blog living in Bangkok. Follow him on Twitter @