Nursing our baby at 2:30 a.m., I hear a loudspeaker broadcast a message in Thai. I hear or think I hear the words maa leo, “[subject] has come,” which I associate with how nurses in a Bangkok delivery room urged me to push, and the way a nursery worker greets our preschooler at church on Sundays. Since the broadcast probably warns of advancing floodwater, however, my guess is it is not being received as a cheery “Hey, here she is!”
The broadcast comes at a time of sandbagging, wall-bricking, and earth-moving as Bangkok braces for floodwaters from the north. My husband and I have bought basic provisions, checked news sites and Google flood maps, and canceled a visit from relatives just in case. Mothers on a playgroup email list I joined are forwarding safety advisories. My husband’s school is closed, two days before a scheduled mid-term break, and then closed again for a full week after the break by a Ministry of Education directive. Bangkok goes on a five-day business holiday, with officials telling residents to leave if they can. Throughout this time, my family sees zero flooding and experiences no interruptions of power, Internet/phone, or water. Yet our near-empty housing complex and some nagging what-ifs lead us to elevate the front end of our car and spend a week-plus in Japan, where we can check in with much-missed loved ones and guarantee food, water, and safety for our daughters.
(Pause: Fleece and down jackets, close-toed shoes, full-length slacks, local apples, sweet mikan oranges — first tastes of Japan in autumn in years for me and my husband, whose job keeps us from his country during the North American fall term. We pull socks on our baby for the first time in her life; watch the preschooler ritually cleanse a family grave, pouring water over the headstone with a dipper, for the first time in hers. We see a sushi chef hold a long, low bow after we leave his restaurant, until sometime after we round a corner. For all I know, he is holding it now.)
Then we are back. School reopens amid continued flooding with several bus routes closed. From the night we arrive we host a boarder; we learn the next morning that a favorite grocer is closed; two days later we switch to bottled water per a Japanese embassy notice. The multi-purpose room where our daughter attends music class has temporary bedding stacked inside it one week, and an inflatable ocean raft the next. The crisis ebbs and begins to slip from global headlines, yet we continue to learn for weeks of acquaintances whose homes are flooded or hemmed in by flooding. The waters do not vanish but change, from mobile menace to a near-stationary sea that displaces thousands. We resume “normal” life amid altered traffic patterns and vestigial sandbags, aware that minutes away are victims stripped of their homes, jobs, and former lives. Maa leo and for a good while.
This experience of flood forces my husband and me to face unpalatable realities of our life as expats. First, we act even in times of crisis on thin information. Our ability to “monitor local media,” as U.S. embassy alerts advise, is low. As the floodwater approached Bangkok, we could observe how other people took precautions, by stowing cars on upper floors of the parking garage at a mall, for example, or buying up batteries, eggs, and diapers at the supermarket. We could observe when our local DHL servicepoint, juice stand, and pizza place closed due to company risk management, and when U.S. embassy staff in our area got the option to board downtown (the area remained dry). We could observe such reactions to the water but not predict its movement, or assess related risks such as power outages or closed roads. There were no easy-to-process alerts in familiar language with clear expiration dates. As we left for Japan, we stood at Suvarnabhumi airport watching a TV newscast, understanding only the images: Prime Minister Yingluck holding back tears, people walk-swimming through shoulder-high water, highways gridlocked. Which highways? Water where? That uncertainty made us part of the “Bangkok flood rush” described the next day on screens in Tokyo’s Narita Express train bound in from the airport. Those screens, we could read.
A corollary of our expat illiteracy has been our limited ability to help out. Besides the impracticality of exposing our children to flood zones (and flood-promoted sickness, from conjunctivitis to dengue fever), our linguistic and cultural learning curve makes us clumsy with delicate matters, able to phone a flood victim but understand only her “I’m OK,” or transfer money that the recipient possibly could not receive due to out-of-service ATMs. Offers of amenities to our boarder sometimes confer a crushing sense of obligation. I feel, at those times, like the Little Miss character in Little Miss Helpful Green House, who in one story paints her neighbor’s house green on learning he wants a greenhouse. “Helpful Little Miss Helpful!” the book gushes.
But maybe the hardest reality to face is our own privilege: the fact that we are not in the drink, and that separates us from those who are. We have donated shoes and clothing and cashed in credit card points for charity; attended a relief breakfast; rearranged our apartment, finally hanging up the pink octopus costume to move a night table to shift some bookshelves to reposition the crib to make room for a TV set for our boarder. I have served a full Thanksgiving dinner so as to share food as a form of cultural exchange, not pride-wounding handout — disaster in Thailand prompting the first use of a potato masher inherited from my Kansas grandmother. Yet these efforts can seem negligible, even laughable, considering: our home did not become a foul-smelling cave lapped by chest-high water and slime, which we fled with belongings packed in a basin and detergent box that tipped when we lost our footing. Our home is not still unlivable some six weeks later as this column posts. And if it were, we could leave.
It all begs the question, do we really belong here, in the sense that we add rather than subtract? In a land that we struggle to navigate, can we expect to “live in the house by the side of the road and be a friend to man,” as urged in a cross-stitch my grandmother finished in fourth grade, which hangs in our living room? I know that my mission is not to debate this question, but to act and make the answer yes, for ourselves and the children. Our family comes from two countries, after all; we cannot just “go home.” This is our home.
This month’s column was originally scheduled to address the theme of “pursuing faith abroad.” I have realized while writing the above that, in a certain way, it does.