By Kelli Mutchler
One spoon slid furtively into the bowl of rice. Its plastic handle poked over the rim like the tail of a gecko, improperly hiding in the most obvious space.
It was the sole spoon on the table. Seven other bowls lined up behind it, but only mine held a Western utensil. Students ate with the flat bottomed Chinese-style soup spoons, while Taw La Paw — called theramu, or teacher, in respect for her advanced years — simply used her hands.
“Here, teacher.” Shal Gay, mistaking my look of reluctance for confusion, pointed at the cutlery in front of me.
“Thebwe,” I thanked Shal Gay. “It’s okay. I will eat like you.” Smiling, I dramatically looked around at every other setting, picked up the spoon and set it gingerly on the table top. Shal Gay laughed and dug it back into the rice.
“For you,” she insisted.
Though closer in age to my 20-something students, I was also a theramu. The new English volunteer, an American guest at the mercy of Karenni hospitality. No matter how many times I showed gratitude and put the spoon back, it would reappear the following day. Another pile of food, another round silver head buried with embarrassment underneath.
Wanting to please, my eating habits soon morphed into a mix of cultural efforts. I’d shovel rice with my bare right hand and chase it with a spoonful of mashed lentils from my left.
Sometimes, I wondered if even the Asian soup spoons were a polite gesture. In the months between the previous volunteer and my current placement, had everyone just used their fingers?
The eleven young intern students, eight staff members and our house mother, Taw La Paw, were all ethnic refugees from Myanmar. Throughout recent decades, hundreds of thousands of civilians had fled the civil strife of Karenni State for the relative safety inside neighboring Thailand. A displaced minority group within their own country, they were welcomed in Mae Hong Son province with an illegal status and few of the rights guaranteed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Theramu Taw La Paw had lived in nearby Camp #2 for over 20 years. Most of my students walked over the border as children, bringing with them vague memories of fear, poverty and violence.
To leave the camps without permission was to risk arrest or an expensive fine. But these brave women believed education was more important than the rules of Thai immigration, both students and staff discreetly residing in our secret schoolhouse.
Three daily meals were a subtle reflection of this situation. As devout Christians, the women bowed heads and prayed before each first bite. No one was allowed to go hungry, but leftovers were an insult to their precarious living situation.
We’d once spent an entire afternoon explaining the differences between torture and tutor — a subtle lesson that unnecessary supplies, like spoons, were a pointless concern among camp residents.
And pickiness was an unmentionable sin, entirely absent in their appreciative dining.
“What is your favorite food?” I once asked in class. After collecting a handful of similar answers — all “rice” — I discovered that favorite flavors were also foreign to their palates. After all, how can you choose a favorite when eating isn’t a privilege, but a gift?
Thus I learned to like the feel of those warm, white granules in my palm, the unpretentious movements from bowl to mouth. It reminded me of endurance, the dependency of our daily food on donations and ingenuity.
Every few weeks, an international aid organization dropped off a stack of dried grain in canvas bags. The broken stumps were the lowest grade of product, left over for these temporary refugees.
Without this staple, we all would have starved. Rice was breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Depending on the season, sweet and sour mangoes, pineapple, and an assortment of unnamed edible leaves and stems grew in the backyard. If money was available, one of the staff purchased chicken from the market. The other ingredients we scavenged: bamboo shoots, little frogs, small birds, anything edible. Even, to my Anglo-Saxon surprise, monkey.
After that meal, I quit asking which type of “jungle beast” was gracing my tongue. By the second month, my taste buds had also adapted to the profuse amounts of chili mixed into each meal.
But the spoon? It showed a prestige I didn’t ask for. Immersed in this rural environment, it symbolized a gulf between Karenni history and Kelli history, which I could never convince them to ignore completely.
* * *
To say life centered around the thick, wooden dining table is an overstatement. Karenni women are short and thin, not voracious eaters. But someone was always chopping or grinding in the open-air kitchen, or nibbling on fried papaya strings over a business discussion.
“We eat very quickly, no time to talk,” Mi Nyo once explained. It wasn’t even that the women lingered after feeding, but rather that the table represented a universal and neutral piece of furniture between the office and classroom. For a lose family of women who closely understood physical pain, exodus and personal loss, it was a temporary safe haven.
My girls finished homework there; Beh Meh’s one-eyed dog napped under its surface; Theramu Taw La Paw shucked breadfruit on the benches; and, over a weekend, someone could always be found hunched over its surface watching Korean films with Burmese subtitles.
Sturdy and immovable, that table was probably the most dependable aspect of life inside the house. We might all be deported tomorrow, but come breakfast, another round of rice would appear on the table, with just one spoon bobbing along.
* * *
I lived with these Karenni women, their fermented tofu and sunflower seed treats, for a mere three months. But in that time, I came to respect food more than I ever had before. Each meat and vegetable transformed from a supplement into the feature of my day, the vital flavors of my existence.
The spoon, of course, I still find annoying. But now, its gleaming silver shape taunts me from the table at home. In a crowd of three other utensils — belonging to Mother, Father, Brother — it should shine with belonging. Instead, it appears silly. Extravagant. What’s wrong with using our palms?
Karenni food doesn’t taste as good in South Dakota either. Only cold weather fruits, like apples, grow here, and bamboo only comes in cans.
“That’s a lot of rice,” Mom subtly hints whenever I pile up the white sticky stuff in her bowl.
And nothing can ever be too spicy, ahey tickee. Midwesterners aren’t comfortable with those riotous seasonings.
One day, when no one is around, I’ll fry up beans with garlic and chili, maybe find some wild game for extra nutrition. I’ll leave the spoon in the drawer, dig my hand into the warm rice, and once again taste the freedom of hard-won survival.
Kelli’s parents lament the fact that their desk-working, mortgage-paying daughter was traded at birth for the perpetually moving, always broke girl who now writes home… Unwilling to settle down in small town USA, Kelli would rather live out of a backpack than a closet. And so she continues searching for fresh stories, smiling faces, spicy foods and reasons to celebrate. Opportunities for long-term work and travel are encouraged on her blog.