There are diamonds inside
Although the Leonid meteor shower is not a rare occurrence, it is rare that I will be awake to see it. The news has been reporting that the meteor shower is coming, that a certain province up north is preparing: the villagers will run and chase after the meteors in hopes of catching one and discovering a diamond inside.
It’s not even possible, I tell my mother. It’s just dust, tiny specks of rock; they burn up, they never reach us.
But I’ve heard there are diamonds inside, she says.
For her, I want this to be true. Instead of acquiescing to her hopes, however, I staunchly file this understanding of meteors she has acquired into other such scientific falsities that she, with only two years of schooling, developed through her own observations and held on to. She once believed that when it rained, it meant it was raining all over the whole world. When she moved to Texas, she was so worried about the crops in Thailand and the people’s ability to get water. Since it hardly rained in Texas, she assumed there was drought in Thailand, too. She also once believed that lightning shot out of stars, until she saw lightning shoot from a cloud when she was on an airplane; she jolted me awake to show me: Look—the lightning is shooting out from the clouds! I always thought they came from stars. It made me sad to know that she had to erase a more beautiful view of the world for a plainer, more mundane one.
Even though I find my mother’s takes on science to be ethereal and lovely, I had to reinforce the fact that her theory about diamonds in meteors is wrong. After all, I had once been a physics major with a keen interest and high proficiency in astrophysics. I understood that shooting stars are simply bits of rock and dust that burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
There are no diamonds, I reassert. They’re just rocks and dust, and they hardly ever make it here to Earth, because they burn up up there. That’s the flash.
She seems disappointed, but still somewhat hopeful. But what if, she says.
I want this to be true, for her. I do. But my knowledge tells me otherwise. I claim my books and learning. I claim the Western way of the world. At least in this instance.
The meteor shower will peak around three in the morning. Who will be up to see it? my mother asks. We will, I say. Oh, yes, she says, realizing that she and I—jetlagged and wide-eyed in the early hours—will be the only two villagers in the province of Wang Nam Kheo who are up and alert enough to see the stars falling.
I douse myself in mosquito repellent, because the mosquitoes are abundant and the dengue is bad and particularly lethal this year. Honestly, I am speaking a bit too knowingly; I had never heard of dengue before this trip, but there it is on the news each airing. People are dying. So I spray the repellent in my hair, over my neck, in the crevices of my ears. Normally, I would forgo anything this toxic, but the news about the dengue is grave, and, although it would be romantic in a certain light, I would hate to die trying to see the stars falling.
I have put on jeans, a long-sleeved shirt. My mother follows suit. We grab our coffee and head to the back porch and strain our necks in order to look right above us, where the Leonids are supposed to show themselves. If they are showing themselves, we are having a difficult time seeing them. The sky-rushing coconut trees and bamboo clutches sweep the scenery and make it difficult to see much of anything. I tell my mother I will go to the front yard to see if there is a better view.
Two spots in the universe flicker bright and then pass away, and then a trailing star child releases its grip before sizzling and sinking into the dark again. It is a curious moment, that moment when a star releases itself from the dark; it appears to be struggling, attempting to unclutch itself from a trapeze web or crabbing net or mess of tangled hair. Then it goes soft and quick until it’s there no more.
I tell my mother to come to the front, that I’ve seen three shooting stars. She says she saw a few in the back while I was gone. I do not know if we saw the same meteors. We stare at the sky again for some time more, but the sky refuses us. After ten minutes, our necks aching, we give up and go inside to watch more television and wait for the world to catch up to us.
On the news, a little girl has gone missing. She was on a train, and then she wasn’t on the train.
The act of making me appear again
At the district office, my mother feels lucky—the woman she spoke to last year still works there. My mother approaches her with all my papers in hand to finalize the act of making me appear again.
I hadn’t existed in thirty-nine years, and now that I am here in person, this representative can resurrect the dead. I had only to go in person, the representative told my mother a year ago. So here I was. But there’s a problem. I haven’t existed in over thirty-nine years. The trail has been broken. Evidence and explanations are needed to account for those years. Why was I left behind? My mother explains it all again and reminds the woman that she had been through this all before with her last year and that the woman said that I simply had to come in person and that merely showing myself would right the past and make me a person again. The woman seems to remember speaking to my mother a year ago, and is realizing that I have made the trip, am there, and that, regardless of what the system says, she will somehow have to make me a real person again.
My age trips everything up. They want to know why I hadn’t taken care of this issue before. See-seep-gow. See-seep-gow. I keep that rhythm under my tongue to quickly spit it out again. Thirty-nine. Thirty-nine. It confuses them. Why now? Why not before? Thirty-nine. It confuses me. How do I explain to them that it happens so quickly that you don’t even know it’s happening?
She was left behind in Johor, my mother explains again.
In the waiting area, there’s a tv, and a popular Thai serial drama is on. It’s about a girl who refuses to be part of her upper-class family. The girl runs away, becomes a beggar, lives on the streets. She has cut her hair close to her scalp. She wants to be a nonbeing.
A black cloud I had to part
I had been to Johor before, when I was fresh out of high school. Johor is the province my family is from, where our blood runs and our ancestors walk the sandy paths. It is affixed to our legal Thai last name. My mother had warned me to wear my Buddha charm, because these very ancestors would have to feel me and make me their own again. She had spent the night before praying so that these ancestors would merely look but not touch.
Johor was a black cloud I had to part.
My mother did not want to go back to Johor, but Ba Ope was dying.
In the morning, my mother gave me a fake diamond ring to wear, a necklace and bracelet of Thai gold, and she told me what outfit to wear, a business-casual affair with sandal pumps. She told me to use one of her good handbags. It was a look completely incongruous with the poor provinces of rural Thailand. I was eighteen and rebellious, but I went along with her requests.
Ba Ope was dying, and my mother wanted her to see me before she died. Ba Ope knew me as a baby. She knew me as a baby, and she carried me and cared for me while my mother navigated the world of trying to complete the necessary paperwork to come to America. So many offices, so many forms. Ba Ope helped my mother go from office to office. Ba Ope was dying now, and my mother wanted her to see me.
When my mother was a girl in Johor, another girl used to chase her with knives and tell her dog to bite her. My mother, on her way to market to sell wares, was chased by a dog and knives. My mother, who had no father, was teased for not having a father and chased by dogs and knives. The girl who tormented her was Ba Ope’s daughter. So we weren’t going just to see Ba Ope, we were also going to show Ba Ope’s daughter just how far my mother had come.
Where I’ve been left behind
Is she married? Does she have children? Does she speak Thai?—These are the questions often asked of me, questions my mother refuses to answer. Why don’t you just ask her? she’ll quip in reply. So they ask me, and I answer, dutifully, in Thai. I am married; I have two children, a boy and a girl; I speak Thai, but a little and very poorly. I don’t want them to expect too much from me, but the inability to speak unimpeded leaves them thinking that I also don’t comprehend much, a serious mistake, because my comprehension is serious and deep, going beyond the mere words. I can read the customs, the body language, the looks.
So when the customers at my aunt’s noodle hut ask about me and why I’ve been going to the district office and my aunt says I’m stuck in Johor and they nod, it is the way they nod that leaves me to believe that there is something flawed with me and where I have come from and where I’ve been left behind. . . .