Pi Sibud threatened my husband on our wedding day. Should he stray, she made it clear, there would be a painful consequence _ snip, went two of her fingers in a scissoring motion. Even though she speaks such an alien dialect of kam muang, peppered with higgledy-piggledy phrases that defy our most ardent efforts to decipher, we always understand her meaning. When my father enjoys a beer too many at lunch, he often finds his whisky bottle confiscated come evening. When my mother fusses over me too strenuously, Pi Sibud gives her a tongue wagging. And many a time when I would rush out of the door _ late for work _ she would stand in my way, arms crossed, eyebrows furrowed, and send me back upstairs with a furiously wagging finger, to dress more appropriately. She cooks, she cleans, she knows where everything is in our house, she grumbles, she bosses and bullies and always she protects us. If someone comes to the house asking for help, whether it is to buy fertiliser for this year’s garlic crop, to fix an old wheelchair or to pay for a funeral, Pi Sibud does due diligence, making sure that we are not being scammed and that the money is indeed going to a worthy cause (though she sees nothing wrong about raiding our piggy bank for movie tickets towards the end of the month, though she always graciously leaves us a note).
Pi Sibud is from Phrao; her village tiny and so very traditional. She is uneducated and by many standards quite poor, yet is always dressed at the height of Lanna elegance, accented by a blooming flower tucked behind her ear. When I ask her what she thinks about politics, she snorts. Loudly. When I ask what she wants in life, she scowls and threatens to leave if I refuse to produce a baby for her. When I buy her a gift she scolds me for wasting my money.
This month Pi Sibud is heart broken. At 50, she has just become an orphan and she has been crying her heart out daily, sobbing into my father’s breakfast omelette, hiccupping into my mother’s shortbread and collapsing into despair on my bed. It makes me realise how much I have taken her for granted and how she has always been there for our family, often defusing our feuds, and most importantly making us laugh every single day. She is my maid and mother, my father’s cook and watchdog, my mother’s housekeeper and confidant and my husband’s friend and guardian. I’ve been thinking about her a lot of late and wondering what luck brought her into our lives twenty years ago.
With Chiang Mai becoming increasingly multinational and cosmopolitan, one sometimes forgets the essence of the people of Lanna. My childhood was filled with characters such as Pi Sibud: our neighbour in Vieng Kalong who would take a songtaew he could ill afford to bring us our crop of avocados each year, Bua Geow in Mae Tang whose family annually hauled us a couple of sacks of baby new potatoes while entreating us to take the bigger ones, Fatty in Mae Hia who used to pop by nearly every week to find something to fix in the house, and abandoned Orapin who, wheelchair bound, spends hours embroidering pillow cases for our birthdays. Sure, we had helped them in the past, but what they did went beyond gratitude, they simply considered us a part of the family. Such is Pi Sibud. She is a Lanna woman who has faced more than her share of hardships yet is the absolute essence of why people love the north of Thailand. She is generous of spirit, she is rigid with integrity, she is a mother to all and she is infused with goodwill and humour.
There are Pi Sibuds everywhere in the north, and I just wanted to honour them this month, especially our Pi Sibud, our family member.
Citylife this month:
James Austin Farrell explores the intriguing virtual community of online forums in his article Me, Myself and I, and takes a look at the very real dangers of surviving in a tropical jungle. Jessica Ni Leighleis writes a piece about Burma, but through the eyes of foreign volunteers who risk their lives to help the people of this repressed country. Alasdair Forbes gives us 12 ideas to enjoy the sea which surrounds Phuket _ a great escape during these balmy days, and I feature the research of Alex Putnam who’s been looking at the root cause of the current pollution, spoken to the villagers who burn forests and is trying to figure out why they do it.