Echoes of Asia

Every so often subtle memories of my travels through Asia crop up.

Like this morning, when I walked by a small grove of bamboo trees, nestled among towering trunks of grey, bare-branched trees. Hardier than their neighbors, no doubt, since I recall that the bamboo leaves had remained intact and vibrant green even as wintry winds were blasting snow upon chlorophylled-laced stems.

Each time I saunter past that spot, I wonder what force of nature planted them so far from home; an errant seed? An illegally imported bamboo-bulb? That thought that also transports me right back to a beach in Vietnam or the Burmese countryside, where bamboo is an abundant native species. A world away, they make perfect sense; but here, their presence – unmarked, by the side of a suburban road – is baffling.

A few days ago, while standing in line at a checkout counter, the clerk’s name tag caught my eye. Her name was Lumpun – uncommon in this hemisphere. After I paid for my purchase, I asked if her name was of Thai origin. Indeed, it is and I couldn’t resist the urge to start up a conversation. I discovered that Lumpun is originally from Ubon Ratchathani, in the eastern region of Thailand also known as Isan. Both she and her European husband are waiting to retire so they can return to their home in Isan. We exchanged stories about Thailand, and I recounted some of my memorable experiences in Isan. Before leaving the store, I turned and called out to her “sawadeeka!” – Thai for goodbye.

And what about the neighbors directly across the street, the Lee family, still such a mystery. A single dwelling inhabited by an indeterminate number of people is unusual by North American standards, but perfectly acceptable among Asian families. In Asia, a family unit might all live in a single room; thereby permitting cousins, grandparents and other extended relatives to be compressed into the rest of the home. A quick count of the cars parked in the driveway and on the street – usually 6 or 7 – is puzzling; it is entirely possible that a tribe of twenty is packed into that space.

Some habits die hard, in spite of living in a new culture: there’s endless horking, horking, spitting and more horking. Loud voices. And then, the other day, a sight not seen since Asia: one of the men exited the front door, wearing the customary pair of flip-flops, pulled his t-shirt up so that it lay atop his rotund stomach, and leaving the shirt rolled up for all to see, standing with legs parted wide, he leaned back and proceeded to pat his monstrously big belly.

Ok, so perhaps they are not the most genteel civilization on earth. But then again, having witnessed the good together with the bad, I’ll still vouch for Asian culture, the warmth of their people and the beauty of their landscapes anytime.

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