Our last hours in Bangkok were difficult in that tourist sort of way. We’d come out of the pedestrian Vientiane to the commuter Bangkok which was hard enough, but we’d also climbed classes to the degree that food rules were changed without anyone telling us: at the seafood restaurant our Bangkok hosts took us to, we ate po, almost pure seafood—mussels, and small clams in the raw, boiled tiger prawns in spicy tam yam, steamed tiger prawns, grilled tiger prawns, and only crab fried rice when we queried, “Is there rice coming?” Then, next day we placed ourselves in a compact car in traffic, doubly claustrophobic, in order to reach the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. We walked the ornate compound for hours under the duress of humidity and looming diarrhea as we waited for the pure seafood diet to run its course, filing in shoeless and cameraless to see the Emerald Buddha high up on the opulent wall. “They took it from Laos long time ago,” my mother-in-law whispers. “Why they not give it back? That why Thailand have problem…” Then, to eat, we put ourselves back in traffic to get to the MBK shopping center, where just finding a spot in the parking garage took an hour and heightened claustrophobia to nigh unbearable. MBK is eight floors of madness, and on floor six is the ultimate food court, busy and tight and brightly lit like the aura of a migraine, with every sort of Asian food laid out in piles.
After this most modern of oriental bazaars, we showered and lounged at a private residence in preparation for our flight, trying to anticipate the portal that we would be entering, to lessen the disjointedness. But driving out to Suvarnabhumi Airport under mammoth billboards whose sheer size was a kind of violence to the senses completely counteracted our attempts at domesticizing the experience.
***We left Bangkok at 11:30 p.m., Saturday, June 16, and landed at Narita, Japan, at 7:25 local time, Sunday June 17, losing only two hours to actual time travel, several more to the red eye itself. It had been up to me to figure out what to do with our time in Tokyo, and so I had plotted the train route and sites: the Meiji Shrine and Harajuku district, where trendy locals dressed up in character dress on Sundays, whatever that meant. As I lugged a sleepy child through the airport to the train station, one of them spotted an advertisement: this was Father’s Day. Their gift to me, I told them, was dragging along with me on a quick excursion to Tokyo.
We carried only four minor pieces of luggage: a half-full wheeled carry on, a computer bag, a small duffel bag that mae Keo never parted with the whole trip, and her purse. We felt we were traveling light and so didn’t even look into stowing a few more of these pieces at the airport but went directly to the train station to buy a ticket that would take us to Harajuku.Everyone slept on the train, the bitter kind of deprived sleep that has you drooling massively the one minute and determined to stay awake the next, suddenly nodding again, trying to lay your head comfortably on the hard window behind you, deeply desirous of abandoning yourself once and for all to sprawled-out sleep but unable entirely to do it. In this way we sped past neatly planted rice paddies, small houses efficiently tucked together along clean lanes, and, increasingly as we approached Tokyo proper, gray concrete high rises with blocked balconies, all softened by fog that was tending toward rain. We had no umbrellas among us.
We tumbled out of the Harajuku station in disarray, gathered our wits as we let the locals who knew where they were going mass up the sheltered stairs ahead of us, and then followed. The Meiji shrine was behind the station, set back in a forested park, the asphalt path overhung by a tremendous canopy of trees that were especially verdant in the wet morning. It would have been a nice walk, minus the jet lag, minus the few implements we lugged—the computer strap grinding its way into my neck, the wheeled carry on unresponsive to the asphalt path—minus the fact that the minimalism of the arch marking the entrance to the shrine seemed needlessly constrained considering the gaudy ornateness of the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha.About halfway to our destination, mae Keo, not clear as to where we were going, and, at that point, not really interested, halted with the two carry-ons in semi-protest.
Still, the majority of our party made it to the shrine, a compound of huge timbers and clean lines and lifted corners, a seeming temple to a wood god grown up in the mist of the forest. But we were spent, too, had little time for really exploring or reading or getting into the mood. In one corner we saw supplicants give their offerings—heard them rather: a small clap, tossed coins that plunked hard on the wood altar, a small bow, and two more small claps, all very neat and tidy, the Japanese doing it without regard for lookers-on, the tourists turning with a self-satisfied smugness. We passed on.
The banzai that resided along the wall of the compound drew our attention, partly because they were being declaimed in the King’s English by some version of a westerner. He loudly expounded how the life and death elements wound around a two-hundred-and-fifty year-old tree in a way that any halfwit could have seen; still, for his authority and language, the tourist crowd loved him. We’d finally relinquished control of the camera to our fifth grade daughter, and it was the banzai that most fascinated her, as if she were stealing an image of each of them, taking the smallest fraction of their extended lives for study later.
It was Sommer, too, whom we sent after pictures of what I assume was a traditional wedding procession, the silky kimono, the red crimped umbrella, the bride’s white hood labeling this as significant enough to be considered traditional, though I have no standards by which to measure.
By the time we stumbled out of this Tokyo central park it was time for lunch, especially considering that breakfast had consisted of uneaten muffins harvested from the plane. Back at Harajuku station we crossed the street and followed the wide avenue down toward a shopping district, sidewalks swelling from busy to tight with people. We were looking for a sushi place but found only an Italian buffet, coffee shops, and basement restaurants with made-to-order menus. Also, halfway down the hill with tired children and their grandmother, we decided we didn’t want to go much farther for what appeared to be an Eden Prairie-esque shopping experience. We ended up settling for McDonalds, decided McDonalds-Tokyo was a cultural enough experience.
And it was. From efficiency—a bereted hostess guided us to the fastest ordering line and workers scrambled behind the counter to fill orders and impress their manager, whose striped shirt, visor, and headset established a clear hierarchy—to local culture offerings—okay, the teriyaki pork burger was not as impressive as beer in Germany, but it still was something—this was McDonalds redone in Japanese principles and therefore an interesting experience.
Still, after being sated by hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, we decided we’d had enough of Tokyo and began the hour-and-a-half train ride back to the airport. Looking out the train window, I saw down the streets into the heart of the Harajuku area, a strip of color pulsing with life. We had missed our trendy character dressers by a block.
After choosing—poorly—an airport sushi restaurant to fill our sushi lust, we boarded our 6:30 flight for our second consecutive red-eye. This is not the way to avoid the complications of time travel.
***We landed at 4:30 p.m., Sunday, July 17, an hour and a half earlier than we had left. This would be almost a thirty-six-hour Father’s Day.
The barfing was telling. Coming out of the time warp in Chicago was like the throw-up scene in Stand By Me. Sommer started it, hurling her airplane pizza on her second straight trans-Pacific flight, then Aidan joined her. Sy at least made it to the bathroom in customs before also tossing her stomach contents.Perhaps Micah should have also barfed.
We came home to a warm welcome. In addition to a friend picking us up, my mom and dad and sister and brother-in-law were there to surprise us at the airport. At home, we were greeted by sidewalk chalk, tag board poster, and paper drawings. Still, by the time we went to bed at 1:30 a.m., the clock finally running out on a long Father’s day, our house seemed cavernous and isolated. We put our boys to bed in their room, which, from our room, is down the stairs, through the family room, and back down the hall, basically directly under our room but seemingly miles away. Five minutes after we put them to bed, they both showed up in our room.“I don’t feel right,” Micah said. I knew what he meant. Their roomed seemed a trek, eons away, unnecessarily far. We have a king bed; I didn’t think twice about having them sleep with us. It was the right thing to do.
Of all of our kids, Micah is the most independent. Micah was the easiest to potty train, the quickest to take to a toddler bed in an admittedly dark basement bedroom. Micah likes his privacy. He sleeps in a bunk bed with his brother and would prefer to sleep alone in his own room, to have his own space. On our trip, though, we often found ourselves in hotel rooms with two single beds. After shipping Sommer off to Grandma or Auntie’s room, we’d pack the two boys in one single bed. The only time Micah didn’t complain about sleeping with someone was the night his mother slept with him, when his body was feverish and his mind uneasy.Perhaps the fear of death that we instilled in him that night also had something to do with his adjustment.
On the second night, with his brother Aidan in the midst of a sleep that started at 6:00 p.m. and would last until 2:00 a.m. when he would awaken to find himself alone and so seek out his brother, Micah also “ feel right” and asked to sleep with us. When Aidan did join us and the boys promptly began whispering, I banished them to the floor upstairs, on a sleeping bag, to insure that their mother could get enough sleep for work the next morning. Micah laid awake for hours, agonizing, feeling frightened and panicky, dying to come to our bedroom door to get comfort, to crawl in beside us.Agonizing. The next morning when I found this out, I felt terrible. I want nothing more, I decided, than to be able to comfort my children in the night.
Being in Laos worked a revolution in my understanding of family. It should not necessarily have taken this. An iron law in our household is that children sleep in their own beds. We set this law long ago and have abided by it tremendously well over the years. Just before our trip, Sommer had a nightmare and came to our room, laid by us for a few minutes before getting uncomfortable and returning to her room. This was perhaps one of a handful of times that this has happened in her entire life, something I now regret: at 11, the times my daughter will want to cuddle with her parents at night are limited; this also signals to me that I’m old enough to regret things I’ve missed in their childhoods.As I said, it should not necessarily have taken a trip to Laos because I had my mother-in-law and her crazy way of parenting as a different model. “Why you not let them sleep with you?” Keo had asked Sy when each of the kids were babies, indignant that we were so cold as to place them in a crib in a room down the hall. We would look at each other knowingly, not exactly rolling our eyes about overly protective Lao parenting practices, but thinking that Keo as a single Lao mother could afford her children luxuries that we couldn’t as an American couple, an analogy, that, in hindsight makes absolutely no sense.
Even in American culture, there is a different model. Friends of ours just had their first baby. At 37, we didn’t know if this was ever coming, if there wasn’t some internal barrier preventing them from taking the leap into parenthood. In January, though, a beautiful baby girl joined their family. And by joined I mean joined—they mean joined: they are practicing attachment parenting, which means they don’t let their daughter “cry it out.” Rather, they trust that when she cries, it means something, that there’s some need that she has of them—to be fed, to be cleaned, to feel their presence—and they accept that that’s what they’re there for. Radical.A certain “logic,” of course, tells me of the downsides of this practice: the kid’s bound to call the shots, the kid will end up being needlessly attached in some way, the kid will be, in short, a brat. I recognize this logic; it’s a certain pragmatism that comes right out of my grandparents’ parenting style which also believed that children were primarily for labor and use value. It’s the logic that led my dad to a deep and abiding hatred of his own father. Given, I’m parenting my kids in a very different way than this logic, yet it’s back there still, strong and full of promises regarding what its hard-nosed pragmatism can do.
But after Laos, I have a whole other culture as exemplar, a whole other way of living in family and a brief experience of living that way. The close proximity we lived in—all laid out on mats in the same room, four people in two single beds, five people in a king and a single—brought all our orbits into that much closer proximity. The tight family structure of the Meksavanh family, with several planetary systems all intersecting around mae Sang’s sun made for an impressive constellation; the family we saw seated around a circular table at night, everyone from three generations with a place, was wonderfully symbolic.Which is to say, upon returning home to our big American house, it did feel like I was banishing two young sons to a basement dungeon to teach them some silly lesson about self-reliance, about the value of detached isolationism, about the importance of their own individual sphere and their own individual stuff. That’s what the American house sets up best of all: ownership and consumerism.
Still, we moved Micah back to the status quo, back to the way things were little by little. Night three the boys slept on the floor upstairs. Again in almost shaking anxiety, he asked me to lie with him and I did, until he was asleep, then again when he scared out of sleep an hour later and came to our room shaky and in tears. This continued for three nights before we moved them to their bedroom where it continued in the single bunks for several nights, me prepared by the single-bed sleeping in Laos for just such an arrangement. Now they sleep with the door open and hall light on, going to sleep while we watch TV.So we are almost back to the status quo—a status quo I now realize doesn’t exist, a status quo that now seems predicated on some terribly questionable principles, a status quo that is built into my large American house which is at least too large by half.
I’m almost sure that Micah, our most sensitive child, intuited something of this status quo somewhere along the way of our trip. Maybe it was when we all got wrapped up in the fear of the darkness in a foreign place, when the adults in his life blinked back tears as he lay wracked with fever and he determined to be brave for us—maybe death became a reality for him then in a way that changed everything. Maybe it was the closer proximity of the trip—the reality that a different model, a tighter, closer model could work and could feel so much more secure, so much more whole rather than fragmented, the unnecessary bitterness of independence so much more unpleasant than the sweetness of family. Maybe it was the time travel, the skipping across cultures that took place over the last day of the trip that made every culture seem made up and playing by its own rules, made everything including the silly vanity of an American house seem like an unnecessary barrier to the immediacy of family.Whatever the case, the pH balance of our family is changed because of Laos, because of time travel. While I’m certainly in a position during the summer to admire such a change without considering the rigors of keeping a schedule, and while my own position in life at age 36 with my children moving out of being little kids also affects things, our experience of “time travel” has made some cultural constructions appear to be exactly that—constructions. This sense of things, then, drives me back to wondering if there’s something else that’s “essential,” to wondering if family is what’s essential, something the very changes my children go through daily also throws into question. So now I’m back at religious injunctions about family, the command regarding family which doesn’t seem on the surface of it to be about attachment theory: “Honor your father and mother.”
Still, I’m glad to be at some bedrock, something that someone on another plane has said throughout time about family, something that can’t be so easily shifted as the hour of the day, the build of a house, the illusions of a culture.