Have you been in an SUV before? When I was little, my family had a Volvo SUV before we sold and replaced it with a new Mercedes. I was always delighted when our family went on long trips with that car. My mother used to put blankets and pillows in the back where my brother and I sat, slept and snuggled as our parents drove. Looking back, I find it curious how my brother and I were able to cram in and still found comfort in such a tiny space.
On our way back from one of those trips, it started to rain and, like any other place in the world, the traffic started to get worse. We were headed back to Bangkok, our hometown, after a business trip in Pattaya, a beach city in Thailand, where my parents regularly held their company’s conference. My parents were arguing in the front seats.
“That fucking slut!” screamed my mother.
Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop.
“She was just showing her face around, showing everyone that she slept with you. What a whore!”
The rain outside started to pour heavily. Pitter-patter, patter, pitter-patter. I could hear the noise of the windshield wipers beating sheets of water off the glass.
“Why did you protect her? Why did you PROTECT her?” cried my mother. Big drops off tears slowly made their ways down her cheeks.
My mother was referring to an event from the same afternoon about a woman that my father slept with. She was not the first but, instead, one of many women that my father had sexual affairs with throughout his married life. This woman was our family’s business acquaintance. During the conference, she and my father flirted openly. My mother saw it. With jealousy and exasperation, she strode over to that woman and was about to slap her i front of a crowd before a few people, including my aunt and my father, rushed to step in between them and stopped my mother.
I pieced the story together from the afternoon bit by bit as the fight on the car escalated. As I lay on top of the blankets next to my brother, who was crying, I began to cry as well. Tears streamed down like big drops of rain on the car windows. I became numb with shock at the hideous words that my parents were calling each other and, in my mother’s case, the other woman. Wiping my tears away, I looked outside and saw a pick-up truck packed with immigrant workers on their way into the city. A woman, likely a construction worker by the look of her sun-scorched skin, smiled at me. Maybe, she saw that I had been crying.
II. Law of Karma
I always asked my mother why she chose to stay with my father. She was miserable. Even though I was too small to understand what a divorce was, I was big enough to know that the source of her misery was the broken marriage. I wanted her to leave my father so badly. Her reasons against getting a divorce were that my brother and I were too young and getting a divorce could ruin our family business.
My mother was also a devout Buddhist who obsessively believed in the Law of Karma. Religion became her refuge. One day when I came back from school, I saw my brother sitting on the porch outside of our house. As I approached him, the summer breezy air of Bangkok suddenly felt dark and heavy. His face was solemn, his eyes swollen. Without exchanging a word with him, I came to the bitter understanding that today saw yet another fight between our parents. I rushed to enter the house and saw my mother lying on the couch. Half of her face was covered with a wet white cloth – for a quick moment I thought she was dead. However, her body was shaking hard. She was alive, and crying. This time, the fight reached a physical level – my mother got a cut on her forehead. Was it from my father’s blow or did he throw something at her? I wondered. He was nowhere to be seen.
The day after the incident, my mother invited Luang Loong Tawan, a long-time family monk, to our house. In Thailand, monks only come to your house for a housewarming ceremony or a visit to a person on his deathbed. The absence of our father, who would not return home for days, and the broken state of my mother set the tone of the house for the latter type of visit.
Luang Loong Tawan approached me after having a long conversation with my mother.
“Arinya aoei, let me ask you a question na look na: If you got bitten by an ant and another person got bitten by a dog, which one would hurt more?” asked Luang Loong.
I thought the question was easy.
“Well, a dog bite would definitely hurt more ka,”, I quickly answered.
“Exactly, my dear,” said Luang Loong
“You are so fortunate. Can’t you see how better off you are compared to other people?”
He paused, took a deep breath, and looked around our house. It was a large house on the suburb of Bangkok. His eyes lingered on the swimming pool outside of our house before finding their way back to me.
“Your family has beautiful cars, a beautiful house, and your dad is a hardworking man. Some other families don’t even have enough to eat.”
“This is karma, Arinya aoei. Your mother cheated in her previous lives. She is to repay for her punishment. First, she was born a woman. And now, she’s going through this.”
“You need to learn to forgive na look na. Without your father, you wouldn’t even be in this world.”
A sense of deep injustice stabbed at me instantly like a knife. It hurt me to listen to this man, a respected figure of our family, a disciple of the Buddha, preach that my mother was helplessly trapped by the Law of Karma, that my father’s wrongdoings against my mother were destined to happen. I had trusted that Luang Loong would comfort me with the holy words of the Buddha, to lighten the load of our family’s misery. Yet, I couldn’t believe that he used my innocent answer to prove his point that I should overlook my father’s adultery.
The biggest problem of this visit, however, was that my mother believed the monk.
She started to meditate and pray routinely. Every morning. Every night. She also went to meditation retreats, up in the mountains in the far northern areas of Thailand, twice a year.
“To calm my mind,” said she when I asked her about her new habit.
My mother believed that being born a woman was a form of bad karma because the female was an inferior gender in Buddhism. Women couldn’t become monks and, because of that, they couldn’t reach nirvana, the ultimate goal of Theravada Buddhism. Women also had to give birth, a painful experience. They also menstruated, a form of physical impurity. Being born a female was the result of her adulterous behaviors in past lives.
“I am meditating a lot so I can build up merits and be born a man in the next life. I want to get rid of my bad karma.”
III. From Bangkok to College Hill
I was very happy that my parents eventually got a divorce two years after I came to Brown. The end of my sophomore year at Brown was also the end of my parents’ twenty-six-year marriage. It was sad, but all the more uplifting. To be honest, I wish they had gotten the divorce a long time ago.
When I first got to Brown, I started to question my religious identity. I grew up a devout Buddhist. I also meditated and prayed, but for a different reason from my mother’s: I did so because meditating and praying calmed my mind. When I closed my eyes to meditate, I liked to imagine that I was sitting on top of a tall cliff overlooking the ocean. There was me and the ocean which stretched far and wide and touched the horizon. Enclosed in darkness, I felt secure and stable. At Brown, however, I have been too busy and rarely meditate anymore.
I also stopped praying. When I first got here, I was eager to explore the Department of Religious Studies. I took a class called the Great Contemplative Traditions of Asia where we studied different Asian religious traditions, including Theravada Buddhism, and the frameworks that scholars used in order to analyze religions and mystical experience. It was then that I started to look at the religious tradition of my home country through the lens of an outsider. Gradually, I started to become less and less believing of Buddhism. The prayer books that I carried with me from Thailand lay on my Keeney shelf untouched. I couldn’t make myself praise the Buddha anymore.
At Brown, a series of experiences and encounters made me a stronger and a more independent woman. I learned about equality and women’s rights. I learned to speak up in class and voiced my opinion, a phenomenon almost unheard of in the public schools that I went to in Thailand. My convictions got challenged by my friends over the meal at the Ratty. Sex, Power, God made me question my religious beliefs and figures of authority. I met people from a wide range of spectrums: believers, skeptics, agnostics, atheists, conservatives, liberals, socialists, feminists. At Brown, we pick our own identities.
I wanted to be a strong independent woman. And I am.
Towards the end of my sophomore year, I started getting calls from my father. He told me that my mother had been seeing another man. She wanted to get a divorce. For him, it was abominable for women to do it. I thought it was a double standard and funny. He was upset and couldn’t sleep.
My mother called me, as well. As the oldest daughter, I became her companion, her friend, her source of strength. I was her firm supporter in her decision. The distance from Bangkok to College Hill turned out to be a force that drew my mother and me closer to each other.
My family is my weakness and strength. Brown enhances my strength and helps me discover my weakness. It is true that much of your learning in college happens outside of classroom. At Brown, I do not only learn the academics, I also learn about life. Throughout my time on the College Hill, I fell in and out of relationships. I grew from a distrustful person to a trustful and believing one. I came to Brown as a girl, and now I am a woman.
When I am at Brown, I have many opportunities to look back at my home country and think about how far I have come. Publishing this piece is one of them. I become an adamant supporter for women everywhere, especially those in Thailand, to live their lives to their own expectations, not the society’s. For Thailand, it is not an easy task to do so, and it requires a collective movement of every Thai woman.
The movement starts today, one by one. It starts with me.
 Luang Loong literally means “monk uncle”
 Fictitious name
 Aoei is a particle emphasizing the name of the person that the speaker wants to address
 Na look na baby
 Ka an ending particle for politeness
Powerful and wonderfully written.
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