At a roadside café on Nimmanhaemin Road in Chiang Mai, I peered over at my 74-year-old father. He was perched on a wobbly bar stool with his back to the thoroughfare, which was lined with hipster-friendly coffee shops, buzzy galleries and restaurants, and stalls stocked with everything from souvenirs to fashion-forward apparel and handmade accessories. As pedestrians bustled by, and Dad sipped potent Thai iced coffee from a straw, I saw his lips curve into a satisfied smirk.
At 35 years old, I’d seen my father smile in the past. But the expression was a rarity. That day, he seemed relaxed, despite having spent the early afternoon power walking with me, my mom, and my cousin along the crowded streets of northern Thailand’s largest city in sweat-inducing heat.
The 10-day vacation in Thailand I took with my parents last December was something I had wanted to do ever since they retired after nearly four decades of operating our family’s gas station. Because it was the first time in more than 25 years that Dad traveled back to his homeland, the trip seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the country through his eyes. They had planned a 1-month trip to Thailand, and I had decided to meet them for the last 10 days. But getting Dad there wasn’t easy. Because of his anxiety about the travel time, he had been putting this trip off for decades. Even after the plane tickets were booked, he argued repeatedly that he’d never survive the more than 27-hour journey to Bangkok from Denver, Colorado, where my parents immigrated to in the 1980s.
But Mama—who was adamant about returning to her native Bangkok to see family and sightsee around the country—insisted. “You’ll love it. We’ll have fun,” she said to him. And she was right. That smile I saw at the café was not the only one I saw during our trip. Various renditions of that amused expression appeared regularly on Dad’s face during his vacation.
In Thailand, Dad traded watching CNN and the Game Show Network in his pajamas for 12 hours a day (a habit he developed in retirement) for activities I never imagined he’d partake in. After my parent’s arrival in Bangkok, I began receiving photos via text message of their adventures: pictures of them nestled shoulder-to-shoulder in an open-air tuk-tuk on a busy street, posed in front of a towering gilded statue of Buddhist monk Luang Pu Thuat in Nakhon Ratchasima, and gathered around a spread of Peking duck with my aunties.
While each image captured a different experience, they all featured my parents grinning ear to ear, a sight that was foreign to me. Like many immigrant parents, they had spent most of their time on US soil working to support me and my older brother. We grew up within the walls of the gas station and didn’t see Mama and Dad much otherwise, particularly as we got older. The only destination I remember visiting with my parents is Las Vegas, where we road tripped a few times when I was growing up and also celebrated their retirement in 2018. But the buffets and casinos Mama and Dad loved in Sin City didn’t spark as much joy as the markets, malls, and temples of Thailand.
As I got ready to join them on the last leg of their trip, every smiling vacation photo I received of Dad increased my interest in his state of mind. I wondered: “Why does he seem so happy? Who is this man?”
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Just a few hours after my plane landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport, my questions were answered. As my parents and I strolled the strip of food stalls located below our hotel in the Sukhumvit district of central Bangkok, in search of a late-night snack, I was surprised to see Dad stray from our group to order dishes from vendors—fragrant moo yang (skewers of charcoal-roasted pork) with sticky rice and som tum (shredded green papaya dressed with lime, fish sauce, garlic, chiles, and other aromatics)—on his own. He even ducked into a 7-Eleven to buy beer. In Colorado, Dad never sought out food beyond what Mama stocked in the fridge. In fact, at home he rarely left the house anymore, except to run errands with Mama or have family dinners at restaurants when my brother was in town. He also never seemed particularly excited about anything that went into his stomach (though he always had a healthy appetite and ate what was served). But on the hectic, congested streets of the city he left for America nearly 50 years ago, he seemed both more excited and more comfortable—in fact, he seemed like he belonged.
Over the next week, Dad and I shared experiences I never thought we’d have—especially since I had all but given up my dream of visiting Thailand with him after years of watching him avoid booking tickets. We hustled behind Mama through some of the thickest crowds I’d ever seen on Yaowarat Road, the main street in Bangkok’s Chinatown, to buy items to furnish our Buddhist altars for the upcoming Chinese New Year. We devoured plastic bags full of freshly sliced papaya and pineapple and plates of mango sticky rice drizzled with coconut milk. We ventured about 90 minutes outside Thailand’s capital to Dad’s birthplace and familial home in Phra Pradaeng, where he showed me and Mama his old grade school and my late grandfather’s cremation site.
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The way Dad reminisced about the things he used to eat, see, and do in Thailand—elements of his life that had never been disclosed to me prior to the trip—made me realize how much he missed the comforts of his native country. While he left for America by choice, his feelings of longing for his roots and the familiar (what is sometimes referred to as cultural bereavement) were nonetheless still strong.
On my fourth day in Thailand, as we drove along the roads of Chiang Mai in my uncle’s SUV, I heard Dad giggling about something. When I told him I’d never heard him laugh like that, he replied, “It’s because I’m in Thailand.” Dad was happy to be home—a place he previously didn’t think he wanted to return to.
Back in the suburbs of Denver at my parents’ house a few months later, I still hear the TV blaring Family Feud or the news, and Dad still greets me clad in his pjs. But now, in addition to chatting about the weather or current events, we reminisce fondly about our trip together—particularly when Mama cooks the same dishes we feasted on abroad. During those exchanges, I find hope in seeing glimmers of Dad’s satisfied smirks, a reminder that we need to plan another vacation to the Land of Smiles.