In case you were wondering, “yaai” means “grandmother” in Thai language. As part of our Adopt and Elder program we take care of many elders in Issan, Thailand, and there is one special woman in particular whose name is technically “Yaai Bunhom” but we affectionately call her “Yaai”. Yaai is 105 years old and still in great health! She lives out in the village with her son and sometimes her daughter. Her son struggles with alcohol abuse and her daughter is often in and out of the Buengkan hospital for various health related issues, mental health being one of them. We visit Yaai at least twice a month, sometimes more, to check in on her.
We usually bring food such as rice, cooking oil, eggs, and fruits or vegetables to try and ensure that she has nutritious foods for her and her health. In the past we have helped her and her kids create a garden so they could be more self-sustainable; this garden worked great! Recently we have brought the community together to go and clean her house for her, which also gave us the opportunity to have a look around and make sure she has everything she needs and it is all in working order. We usually go with a member of our partner Lokgatat, who is Thai and can communicate for us through translation.
More often than not, when we farang (foreigners) go alone, we simply go with food and sit down together to just…be. Yaai is our Thai grandma. When we walk into the yard her face lights up as she holds our her arms for us to come closer. She hugs us close and whispers into our ears, “luuk sao, luuk sao” (my daughter, my daughter). That is one of the few words and phrases I understand. She cannot speak English and we, for the most part, cannot speak Thai. The language barrier does not stop nonverbal communication however, and companionship comes in more forms than simply words. We sit close to each other, holding hands, or her resting her hand on our legs, and we usually sit in silence or end up laughing while trying to mime something or speak the most broken Tinglish (Thai/English) you have ever heard! I love going to visit her, there is a peace about her that is infectious, you can’t help but to feel at ease around her. This incredible woman has lived over a hundred years on this planet. Where has she been? What has she seen? What has she experienced? How has the world changed? What advice can she give us?There are so many questions! We are attempting to collect oral history from the elders we encounter, and thus the endeavor has begun! We asked our followers via twitter, instagram, and facebook if you had any questions to ask a centenarian. We tried to get all of those questions answered as best as we could.
We really did. However, while her mind is still quite sharp she tends to forget where on the timeline of her life things happened. For example, if I asked her to tell me about the 60’s, she might not be able to answer. Personal interviews are difficult enough to conduct within our own demographics, imagine trying to navigate your way through one with someone whose generation, language, culture and values are so drastically different from your own! It’s a slower process than we would have imagined, and apologies for saying a full interview would be coming soon! The interview process is a labyrinth of correct phrasing, translating, understanding of cultural nuances, reading emotional responses, and improvisation. It’s a really fun puzzle, but one that will take some time. Our first conversation together was more of a warm up; we gather a wide sweep of information on a variety of topics and haven’t yet delved deeper into any particular subject. At the end of it all I think we will have a series of posts each focusing in on a particular theme or part of her life.
Before being able to sit down and speak with her, we knew very little about her. For all we knew, she was born and raised in Buengkan and she has two children. It’s true when Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”. That sentiment is acutely applicable to our case as well. As it turns out, Yaai was not born in Buengkan. She was born roughly 460 kilometers away in Ubon Ratchatani. While we aren’t sure if her mother was around or not, we do know she had one older sister. The family moved around a lot growing up, and when asked what her favorite thing about Ubon was as a child she said she couldn’t quite remember it. When she turned 15 years old she was married off to an older man in his mid 30’s. She was not happy and ran away, but her father talked her into coming back because her husband had paid a large dowry for her hand and he was unable to pay him back. Despite not loving him, she told us she was lucky to be with him. “In the past,” she told us, “women were not independent and gave their life to their husband. I was lucky because my husband was a good man. He took care of the work and money, I never had to worry about that.” Her husband was a performer and they would travel the country together, he performing while she played her instrument. They moved to Buengkan when she was about 50 years old because business was good and money was easy to come by. Today the journey takes about 6-7 hours by car on developed road; back then people traveled by cow and wagon, and that same journey took 12 days. DAYS.
She once asked me if I was single, and when I told her yes she replied, “Good! It’s better, you have the freedom to do what you want.” I think, if we were in the same generation and met as young women, we would be great friends! She seems like a resolute, strong willed woman. She told us her favorite years were her late teens to twenties, when she was traveling around and playing her instrument. She also said starting her own family was a great moment in her life She had her first child when we was about 20 years old. Come to find out she had a total of eight children! Four of them have sadly died already, two of them live in other cities in Thailand, and her other two live with her in Buengkan.
Many people, ourselves included, have wanted to know the answer to the million dollar question: what is the secret to a long life? The trick, according to Yaai, is simple. “Eat fish. Plenty of vegetables. A bit of fruit. And try not to worry about things too much.” It is probably important to note that, apart from fish, she does not eat meat. *sigh* We didn’t ask her about alcohol, I think mostly because we probably already know the answer and we don’t want to hear it! ? While diet is important, I think the real secret lies in trying to live life worry free. She admits that her life has not been easy, and sometimes she cries when she is alone and she thinks of her children who have died, but she always remembers through hard times like those, “Just be patient and everything will be ok. You will get through this.”
We could have sat and talked to Yaai all day, but she is 105 years old after all, and she tires much quicker than us! While we think talking about her children made her sad, she told us she really enjoyed talking to us about her life. We will definitely be back soon for another round of learning and laughing together!!
If YOU have any questions you would like to ask a centenarian, please leave them in the comments! Alternatively, you can shoot us an email or follow us on twitter, facebook, or instagram. Ask your questions with the hashtag #AskAnElder