The small two lane roads lined with palm trees reminded of the Rio Grande Valley of my youth and Pa Suti’s extra cautious driving style was oddly similar to that of my Grandpa Seitz’s. Instead of farms dotted with citrus trees, the landscape was smothered with groves of rubber trees. We drove past truck upon truck filled with day laborers that strangely resembled the migrant workers who have longed served as the true foundation for the Valley’s economy. I asked Pa Suti where they were headed and he simply stated “rubber”. I later discovered that the small town known as Yan Ta Kaow was primarily made up of hard working, impoverished rubber harvesters who slave away on plantations for $1 to $2 a day.
Upon arrival in to town, Pa Suti slowly brought the truck to a halt and said “okay” pointing for me to open the door and get out. My slight hesitation prompted Mae Od to excitedly shout “Yan Ta Kaow Market!” The stares from the locals were immediate and obvious, but they held no sort of ill-will or mistrust. Rather, they were simply curious onlookers probably wondering how two farangs could get so lost that they would end up in Yan Ta Kaow. I remember as a child growing up that old women used to approach my sister and I in the supermarkets of Mission and McAllen to offer us a warm smile and a kind word in Spanish. I think they were blessings of some sort, but they may have simply been statements of welcome. These memories overcame me as I listened to small town Thai citizens murmur words about Mariana and I in an even stranger tongue. Some people were even brave enough to shout out what little English they knew, giggling while Mariana responded with a flawless “Sawasdee Ka” and a bow.
I soon found out that Pa Suti and Mae Od were extremely popular and they seemed to run into people they knew everywhere they went. As teachers in a small town, there was hardly anyone who hadn’t been touched in some positive way by the generosity of time and genuine concern that Mariana’s adopted parents provided for their students. Pa Suti never passed up a chance to sit and talk with people he ran into to offer sage words of advice or simply catch up. As the proud grandson of a valley doctor and a valley grocer, witnessing these sorts of continual socializing felt like coming home. In many ways, Pa Suti and Mae Od represented all that was good and wonderful about my grandparents. Additionally, Yan Ta Kaow could have easily been mistaken for Mission, McAllen, or any number of small towns located within the Rio Grande Valley. People from these towns are primarily blue collar, hard working individuals who hold men and women like my grandparents and adopted parents in a high regard. This could easily be because of their fairness or their generosity, but I personally believe that their respect existed because it was reciprocated. Every visit to Mission and McAllen was accompanied with social visits and invaluable lessons on how to treat people from all walks of life with gentle kindness and humility. Yan Ta Kaow was no different as I witnessed my adopted parents repeatedly speak to the “person” not the “occupation”. Social stratas do not exist for people like Pa Suti and Mae Od, nor did they play a role in the life of my grandparents. I must say that this is tremendously inspiring.