Her full name is Ratchanee.
But she assured me calling her “La” would do just fine. She walked with a confident posture as she led me up through the foothills of her native village of Mae Lid Luang. Noting things along the way she thought I might be interested in, she pointed out piglets that scurried across our path, chickens that clawed at the ground, and tired eyed tethered buffalo. These things, while certainly adding to the atmosphere weren’t what was catching my eye. It was the village itself, the tiered bamboo huts, the misty jungle peaks, the way Mae Lid Luang seemed locked in a bubble far away from the rest of the world.
La is Karen, one of the six major hill tribe groups that comprise Thailand’s ethnic makeup. The Karen speak a different language, wear different clothing, and have a culture entirely separate from the Thais we know bustling about urban Bangkok. Mae Lid Luang was the tiniest of villages nestled in the mountainous jungles of Western Thailand. When I questioned La towards the village’s population she told me there were only around sixty households that made up Mae Lid Luang. La’s parents lived there, her grandparents lived there, generations of animal husbandry and rice farming kept the people of Mae Lid Luang content and isolated from much of the rest of Thailand.
At 22 years old, La had already seen and done much more than many of her relations in Mae Lid Luang. She spent much of her time away from her village, studying at university and working with foreign students. Teaching them about Thai and Karen culture and practicing her English.
She pointed out ahead of us to a distant crest.
“That’s my family’s rice.” she said, squinting up at the hilltop.
I felt silly, clambering up the muddy slope, minding my footing in my expensive hiking boots only to have La gracefully trot up behind me, clad in a $3 pair of flip flops.
With jet black hair, a round face, and tan complexion, she was the perfect representative for the Karen of Mae Lid Luang. To me, La was calm, quiet, and stoic. She carried out conversation with me through what seemed like calculated thought and humble wording. This was all guised by the limits of language, though. The more I got to know La, the more I got to know her real personality. She jostled and teased with the other villagers, shouting and laughing to them as we climbed upwards. When I had some of her conversation translated for me I learned that La was witty. She was sarcastic. She was sassy. She was someone I wanted to be friends with.
What’s more, La and I had a shared sense of worldly curiosity. Earlier in the summer as we stood next to each other, passing bucket after bucket of sand, used for concrete mixing as we helped with construction at a local Thai school, La turned to me, swinging a bucket towards my arms.
“Do you speak any languages?” she asked, as I took the weight of the sand from her shoulders.
“I speak Mongolian.” I answered, swinging the bucket on to the next person in line.
As I turned back towards La I was met with a raised eyebrow and blank stare. Suddenly, as if having processed what I said she burst out with a small laugh. “Justin, teach me Mongolian!”
“Hurdlach!” I said with mock seriousness, looking down at the dangling bucket in her hands. Faster!
Ever since, when we’d cross paths throughout our summer she would greet me with a stern “Hurdlach! Hurdlach!” quickly followed by uncontrollable laughter.
As we ascended higher to the top of Mae Lid Luang, La and I kept pace with each other.
“When was the last time you were home?” I asked her.
She thought hard for a moment and let out a small laugh, “I don’t remember, many months ago.”
“Well you must be happy to be back.” I added, keeping the conversation going.
La just shrugged, “I like school.” she said. “My village is boring, sometimes.”
What she said stuck with me as we reached the top. There on the summit of our hilltop grew La’s family’s rice. In neat little rows it blanketed the mountainside, grassy stalks waved and trembled in the breeze, the green blades sensitive to each tickle of wind. La’s mother was already there, crouched in one of the endless rows, her hands buried in the rich earth. The view from the top was incredible. The misty rainclouds churned and roiled around the mountains. The murky water of the lower rice patties stood out as perfect rectangles from our high perch.
How could this place be boring? I thought as I knelt and buried my hands in the dirt, helping La’s family by pulling invasive weeds from the hillside crop. It occurred to me that maybe La and I were even more similar than I had thought.
After I returned from Mongolia over a year ago, my home in suburban New Jersey had taken on a new image. I felt like Mongolia had truly opened up my eyes and heart to the world, New Jersey seemed to be holding me back from taking more in. I felt sufficated. I yearned to explore more. To learn more. To seek out places like Thai mountainsides. Places like Mae Lid Luang.
What if Mae Lid Luang was La’s New Jersey? I wondered.
I let these thoughts tumble around in my mind as the sodden clouds finally relinquished a light drizzle. I knelt and pulled weeds until the air smelled like rain and my hands were stained with earth.
“What’s your favorite color?” La asked, appearing next to me as we walked back down the path from the mountain, the afternoon weeding finished.
“Hmmm.” I thought for a second. “Green, I think.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I shrugged, “There are a lot of green things in nature so I get to see it a lot.”
She seemed satisfied with this answer.
“My turn.” I said, “What is your favorite animal?”
Without hesitation she brought two fingers up to her forehead, sticking them straight out, forming mock horns.
“Buffalo!” she said with a laugh.
I laughed at her performance. “How come?” I asked.
In Thailand the buffalo is far from being seen as a revered animal. It is even a common insult to call someone a buffalo as a jab towards their intelligence. La’s choice for a favorite animal intrigued me.
She thought for a moment. “I think because my village has many buffalo.” She spoke matter-of-factly. “So, the water buffalo is my favorite.”
The reasoning behind her words struck me like a hammer blow. So much so that I fell out of step, stopping for a moment to consider it all. You don’t have to be in love with the place you come from. It can be boring, it can be suffocating, you can relish when you leave and dread when you go back but no matter what its still a part of you. It shaped you, nurtured you, and engrained itself into the person you’ve become. As simple as having water buffalo as your favorite animal, even if you don’t realize it, your heart has a piece of where you come from in it. Recognize it and appreciate it.
I wanted to thank La, who unknowingly just instilled a major life lesson upon me. I couldn’t even begin to explain, Karen, Thai, or English aside. Before I could say a thing, La turned around to see me stopped in the road, a puzzled look on her face. Slowly her lips formed a smile.
“Hurdlach!” she shouted with a laugh.
I laughed and ran forward to catch up. We descended down the dirt path. The village at our front and the mountains at our back.
So, here’s to La.
Here’s to Mae Lid Luang
Here’s to the place you call home.