I don’t come from a family that made yearly vacation plans. Our getaways were a shaded picnic in Bear Mountain State Park or a scenic drive to Lake George. The one vacation that felt like a legitimate one was when all four of us boarded a plane to Disneyland.
The fact that we did it even once makes it more special than had we flown to Disneyland five times. To this day it’s one of my most poignant childhood memories. Nonetheless my experience in family vacations is minimal. So when I invited my mother to join me in Thailand, I wasn’t sure how well (or unwell) things would turn out. Would the trip reveal an unexpected travel compatibility or the most painful headache of the year?
Something about traveling increases your self-awareness and makes you intraspective. I don’t know if the trip was particularly transformative for my mother, but for myself being with her long ways from home shifted my perception of her. I witnessed her express curiosity, awe, and even some prejudices. Our shared travel experience was nothing like we had in the past.
We shared a hostel room and took selfies in bed.
We trekked in the wilderness to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary where we hand-fed the rescued elephants bananas, scrubbed them in a mud bath, and guided them into the stream.
We became culinary students for a day at the May Kaidee Restaurant and Cooking School where we cooked Thai dishes from pad thai to mango sticky rice.
We gorged on local exotic fruits at the Fruit Buffet inside the Baiyoke Sky Hotel一the tallest building in Bangkok.
We fell at the pleasurable mercy of the traditional Thai massage.
We waded through the pristine waters of Koh Samui soaking our bodies in the blue-green hue.
We clinked our drink glasses over our savory vegan meals at the Vikasa Life Cafe that overlooked the coast.
I will never forget when we raced against time in Bangkok traffic to catch our night train for our last leg of the trip to Koh Samui. We had flown back from Chiang Mai in the morning and spent the day idly passing time. After a late lunch we headed to the Japanese hot springs that was highly recommended by a friend. The next few hours of self-care were as indulgent as sinking your teeth into warm, dark fudge. As we submerged our bodies into the open-air bathtubs, we fell into deep relaxation where all our travel fatigue evaporated into air. After all the soaking, steaming, and lathering, we came out refreshed and ready to leave for the train station.
We had just ordered sushi to-go when I looked out the window and caught notice of the rain. Thailand was experiencing the tail end of the rainy season. My mother urged me to go and request for a taxi at the front desk but I was told such service was unavailable. So we carried our bags in the rain that turned into a gentle drizzle. But that small fortunate didn’t last long. In both directions of the street cars seemed to be crawling on the asphalt. We had come out when the rush hour was about to take form. We managed to find a lone taxi in a sea of vehicles. In the sparse words of English that I tried to string together, the driver said that it would take over an hour to get to the train station. Shit. I hoped my mother didn’t catch that because I knew it would upset her. I hoped that my staying calm would rub off on her. I visualized the sandy, tropical beach that we would soon lay on, but my mother chipped away at it with her growing anxiety. “We should have left early. We never should have ordered the food. Imagine if we actually ate the food inside. We never should have spent all that time idly walking around. Didn’t I tell you to go to the front desk earlier?”
I tried to communicate with the driver but my words were impenetrable. What was clear to him was the urgency of our situation because he asked, “How much?” I didn’t understand his question but my mother, swift as an arrow, understood immediately. “He wants to know how much we’ll pay him to get to the station as fast as we want him to,” she laughed in disbelief at the driver’s audacity. Unable to contain herself she started shouting at the driver. Then I couldn’t take it anymore so I opened the door, shoved 150 baht into the driver’s hand, and told my mother to get out of the vehicle. And so there we were standing on an unnamed street with our bags in tow, my mother still fuming. We had 50 minutes left before our train would take off from the platform of Hua Lampong Station. Our last resort was to take the motorbike taxis, a common mode of transportation for single passengers. We came upon a motorbike driver and I uttered, “Hua Lampong” to which he repeated back astonished, “Hua Lampong?” as if it would take a miracle to get there.
“Please,” I pleaded with my hands together.
He called over a female motorbike driver who zigzaged towards us from across the street. I watched the two drivers exchange words rapidly in their mother tongue that I so wished I could understand. Then they stopped and the female driver named a price. We agreed with haste and hopped on two separate motorbikes to take us for the wildest mother-daughter ride of the year.
For the next 45 minutes, my mother clinging to the female rider and I behind the male driver, swerved through cars, vans, tuk tuks, and trucks in the smallest nooks and crannies possible for a motorbike to pass through. We sped through the dizzying traffic that was its own theater production of blaring lights and roaring sounds. The city was alive, chaotic, and yet harmonious. The most stupendous sight was when we came to a red light on a major intersection. Ten or so other motorbikes joined spreading across the lanes. I could feel the vibration of the engines that were close to each other. I also felt a kind of tranquility as we all waited patiently for that light change. I caught my mother’s eye and we smiled at each other. Her face was full of exhilaration and exuberance–a look I hadn’t ever seen. And just as the light turned green, I saw her take off with the wind in her hair and a nervous laughter that only I heard.
Thanks to our speedy drivers we arrived at the station literally three minutes before departure time. Only when we climbed aboard the car and sat in our assigned seats did we catch our breath. Still feeling the rush from the motorbike ride, my mother said it best to sum it all up: “I feel like we just shot a movie.” Then our movie-star selves took out our to-go-sushi-got-mushed for dinner.
The most powerful moment I shared with my mother was at lunch at Reform Kafe in Chiang Mai. Our conversation turned to her coming-to-America story that I heard in detail for the very first time. I was familiar with the general outline but only then and there did I learn about other key facts. Like how she came to America in her late-twenties in 1981. Or how she took a risk to build a life across the globe by leaving behind her parents, five brothers and sisters, and home country. I learned that my mom had worked at her uncle’s fish market in New York, cleaned rooms in her aunt’s motel in Seattle, waited at a Korean restaurant back in New York, enrolled in a cosmetology school and became a licensed stylist, worked at a hair salon on Lexington Avenue, and managed a grocery store in Queens–all done without taking an English class!
Her hustle continued when my brother and I were born. There were times my brother and I stayed at my mother’s workplace. I remember sitting by her feet as she was clipping, shaping, and painting nails of her customers. Then I thought of how we moved and she ran her own salon for the next decade. At 30 years old I now fully grasp her undeterred courage, tireless work ethic, and an unbreakable spirit to weather challenges and move forth.
This trip happened for a reason. It brought out a rekindling of our relationship that was made possible by a sweet escape from home–away from the routine, familiar, and expected. It was because of our time traveling together that I learned of new surprises about my mother. In Thailand I didn’t see the woman who would come home tired from work, cook dinner, and drag her feet to bed. I saw someone who in good spirits trudged through the elephant jungle, ate exotic delicacy, and braved a ride on a speeding motorbike–a woman of adventure, independence, and hope just like the woman that came to America back in 1981.
So the next time you book a vacation, invite Mom. She’s not who you think she is.
Also by Vivian: Vegan Korean Patbingsu With DIY Fruit Syrup
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Photo: Vivian Lee