By Natthinee Khot-asa Jones and Hardy Jones
As a teacher’s assistant in Oklahoma, the teacher I worked with had taught for five years in South Korea. She told me stories of the culture shock she faced there, especially when her female teenage students talked to her about the changes in their bodies. I told my teacher: I have a story for you from my childhood in Thailand.
After the rice harvest, the other crops were ready to plant. This year I was eight and Father only grew hemp, cassava, and peanuts. He finished planting before anyone else in the village because he could afford to pay field-hands. Due to this, on weekends I didn’t have to work at the farm anymore; and I didn’t have to take care of our water buffalo herd, because Father found someone to do that chore.
Every weekend I played around the house with my friends while Father and my sisters ran our store in front of the house. In the mornings, my best friends and I sang and danced. Our group loved to sing and dance, and to make costumes we would get banana leaves. We made small cuts in the leaves so they’d look like hair, and we had an instant wig. After we had our new hair, we made skirts from the large leaves, wrapping them around our waists. For make-up, we used baby powder and rubbed moss-rose petals to blush our cheeks.
The girls were ready to dance.
The boys in our group were the band. They made drums from coconut shells, stainless-steel buckets, and worn our cooking pots. The boys drummed and the girls danced. We thought we were just like the bands and dancers on TV.
Sometimes a girl and a boy would sing a duet. Most of the time we sang I-Saan Kiew (Green I-Saan), which is a song about the King’s project to have everyone in the I-Saan region grow more trees. The I-saan area was in a drought due to deforestation, and the Thai Prime Minister helped with the King’s Green project. Later a famous singer made this song and it was popular for many years. We could sing this song every day and never tire of it.
After dancing and singing, we had lunch; sometimes in my house and sometimes in a friend’s house.
For Father and my sisters, today was the same as every other day: they worked hard in the store. The aunts who lived around us visited Aunt Kean’s house. In Thai culture an aunt can be a woman or a man. A female aunt is called Naa. Most of our Naa loved to hang out together and chat.
For lunch, our aunts made somtum (spicy papaya salad). My friends and I enjoyed the food. Afterwards, we helped clean the dishes, washed our hands, and sat under the balcony and listened to the aunts talking.
While we listened to our aunts, the bus stopped in front our house and Naa Parn got off. She had gone to the market in Khukhan. Both of her hands carried full plastic bags. She walked to us and gave us a snack (khanom).
Naa Parn had bought many things from the market, and she bragged about the quality and low prices. I sat next to Tum, my best friend, and listened. From one of the bags, Naa Parn pulled out a pink bra with a small flower between the cups.
Naa Parn was the youngest of my mother’s sisters. She was in her early 30s and had two children. That year she and her husband made a large profit from their rice.
“What did you buy besides the bra?” Naa Piw asked, another of my mother’s sisters.
“Many things. But the best thing I like is the pink bra. It’s a Gulasatree brand too.” She showed all of us her pink bra. Gulasatree’s was a famous brand for the people in my village.
Naa Kean examined the bra and checked the back side. She touched the material and pulled it to test its strength.
“This is a very good bra. How much did you pay for it?”
Naa Parn smiled and winked. “Only 39 Baht.”
“That’s a good deal but I don’t like the lace. It would make me itch,” Naa Kean said.
“I don’t have any problem wearing it,” Naa Parn said.
I looked at the pink bra in Naa Parn’s hands. It was so beautiful. I wished I could wear a bra like my aunts.
“Naa Parn, may I see your pink bra, please?”
Naa Parn smiled before handing it to me. “Little girl, you are too young to know about a bra.”
I didn’t care what Naa Parn said. I just enjoyed looking at and holding the cute pink bra. I wish I could have one. When I handed it back to Naa Parn, I said, “It is so beautiful. I want to wear a bra.”
All my aunts looked at me and laughed. “Did I hear you correctly?”
“Yes. I want to wear a bra,” I said.
“You are too small, like a little chick, to wear a bra.” Naa Parn answered with a joke and an idiom. All the adults laughed but I didn’t understand why my aunts laughed.
“Naa Parn,” I asked, “what can I do to make my breasts bigger? If I have breasts like you, Father will buy me a beautiful bra like yours.”
My aunts laughed again and looked at each other.
“Well, Nat, listen carefully. I’m going to tell you the secret to getting big breasts.” As Naa Parn spoke, she tried to keep her face normal, but I could see something dancing in her eyes.
“What can I do? Please tell me your secret.”
Naa Parn pretended to whisper in my ear, but everyone heard her. “Get the red ants to bite your nipples. Then you will have big breasts like me. I guarantee.”
I paid attention to what she told me and heard my other aunts laughing. I was happy to hear the secret from Naa Parn. I didn’t care that my other aunts laughed. I was ready to get red ants to bite my nipples.
“This is true, Naa Parn?” I asked.
“Yes, this is the truth. If you don’t believe me, you can ask your other aunts. All of us have big breasts because the red ants bit our nipples.” Naa Parn looked at the other aunts. “Aren’t I right?”
Naa Piw quickly answered. “Yes. She is right. Don’t you see all of us have big breasts?” She laughed.
“I believe you,” I said. “I want to have big breasts like you. I want to wear a beautiful bra. I will get red ants to bite my nipples.”
I jumped to my feet and was about to run to the mango tree next to the fence by our house.
“Hold on, Nat. Let me tell you one thing. The normal red ants don’t work well. Make sure you get the fire ants.”
I stopped, looked at Naa Parn, and saw my other aunts’ laughing so hard their eyes watered.
“Fire ants?” I repeated.
“Yes, fire ants.”
“Where can I find those ants, Naa Parn? What do they look like? Do you think the mango tree will have those kinds of ants?”
“Yes, that mango tree will have them for sure. Look for the ones that have dark spots on their butts. Make sure you get that one because they will have super power and your breasts will grow quickly.”
“I will make sure and find those.” I determined in mind to succeed at finding those types of ants and to succeed at having large breasts.
Naa Parn continued with her advice: “When you climb the mango tree, make sure you find the right branch to sit on. Then get the fire ants to bite your nipples and pee on your nipples. That will make your breasts grow even faster and bigger.”
“Will it hurt when the fire ants bite my nipples?” I asked.
Naa Parn wiped her tears away and still laughed. “If you want to have big breasts, you can’t be afraid of a little pain. Don’t you want to wear the bra?”
“Yes, I do. I won’t be afraid of a little pain.”
I was excited to go climb the mango tree and find fire ants.
“Tum, come find fire ants with me. We can both wear bras.”
Tum walked with me to the big mango tree. She was my best friend and third cousin. Like me, she was the youngest child in her family; we were very close. Tum followed me everywhere and did what I did. She was my shadow.
“Before climbing the tree,” Tum said, “can we make some sweet and salty chili paste? So we can eat it with mangoes while the red ants bite our nipples.”
We went to my house, made sweet and salty chili paste, then returned to the mango tree while all our aunts still sat at Naa Kean’s house watching us.
I loved climbing trees. I wasn’t afraid of heights and enjoyed hanging like a monkey on limbs. I was proud that at eight years old I could climb to the top of the mango tree. I wanted to be the best at everything, but Tum was better than me at climbing trees. She was a super monkey; her body was small and she was able to jump quickly to small branches.
I didn’t like jumping to different branches. I liked sitting on a branch and giving her directions. Tum was a good girl and did what I told her.
When we arrived at the mango tree, we looked to the top of it to find an ant nest. We took off our shirts and started climbing the trunk. Tum followed me to the top of the tree, and we saw many mangos to eat.
After we found strong branches, we sat down and picked mangoes. We sat together and smiled. One hand held the branch and the other hand held a mango. I hung the sweet and salty chili paste on a small branch close to us, so we could easily dip our mangoes.
We sat and ate. The mangoes were fresh, sweet, and crunchy. Tum pointed to the top of the branch.
“Look over there,” she said. “That is the biggest ant nest. I think it might have red ants for sure.”
“Yes, I think you are correct. I want to have it.”
Tum climbed to the red ant nest and poked it with a stick. Immediately, hundreds of red ants ran out. Tum and I quickly looked for the ones with dark spots on their butts.
Tum grabbed an ant. “Let’s get two ants for each of us and climb back down to the limb we were on. I can’t sit here with the other ants climbing on me,” Tum said.
I grabbed two fire ants and climbed down to the limb where we had been earlier. Tum followed and sat next to me.
“Let’s get the fire ants to bite our nipples and then we can eat later,” I said.
“You go first, Tum. I want to know if it hurts.”
“No way! I want us to try it at the same time.”
I tried to make the fire ant bite my nipple but it refused. I put its mouth on my nipple and told him, “Go ahead. Bite it.”
The fire ant’s little legs didn’t like it at all. He kicked my finger and fought, but finally bit my nipple.
It hurt my heart and my brain; I screamed and laughed simultaneously.
“How do you feel, Tum?”
“I hurt too.” Her face was pained but she smiled from the tickling sensation.
“Make sure it bites both sides. So our breasts will be balanced,” I said.
The fire ants peed on my nipples. “It burns!”
“That is good. You will have big breasts soon,” Tum said.
We let the fire ants bite our nipples for almost an hour before we let them return to their nest. We lay on the branch in pain but were so happy that soon we would have big breasts and new bras. Talking about it increased our pleasure.
Father called me from the house, saying come take a bath. We quickly climbed out of the tree and put on our shirts.
“When we see each other again, Tum, we will have giant breasts!”
“Yes!” Tum ran to her house near the river.
I ran smiling to Father. I still hurt and my nipples burned, but I didn’t complain. I waited to see my breasts grow. So excited!
I took off my clothes quickly and Father poured water over my head. When he got the soap to wash me, he stopped and looked at my breasts.
“Why is your chest red and swollen?” Father asked.
“I let the fire ants to bite my nipples.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Naa Parn told me if the fire ants bite my nipples, then I will have big breasts like her. And then you will have to buy me a beautiful bra.”
Father’s eyes dropped. He didn’t look at my face, he didn’t ask any more questions, and he finished bathing me, rubbing the sponge softly because he knew I hurt. When he rinsed me off, he held my shoulders tightly and looked me in the eyes.
“Promise me, baby girl, you will never let the fire ants bite your nipples. This is not good for you. The fire ant bites will never make your breasts grow. Don’t ever play like this again.”
I realized having the fire ants bite my nipples was a bad idea. I was sad seeing Father unhappy with me. I felt guilty for hurting him.
“I promise, Father. I’m sorry.”
“You are too young to understand what’s going on in this world. If you don’t know anything, come ask me, and I will explain it to you. I am your father, so don’t be afraid that I’m going to be angry at you. I want you to remember one thing: don’t believe what other people tell you until you find out the truth. I love you and I don’t want any bad things happening to you.”
“I love you too, Father.”
“If your nipples get infected, the doctor might have to cut them off. If you don’t have nipples, in the future how are you going to feed your baby?”
I felt so bad. I knew Father loved me. He didn’t want anything bad happening to me. I loved when Father was direct with me. He was strong and had a kind heart. I love him and am proud to be his daughter.
After we talked, Father dried me. “Put on baby powder and then go help your sister in the store.”
I sat in front of our store and helped my sister sale groceries, but when I saw Father walk to Naa Kean’s house, I followed him and stood behind the wall of Naa Kean’s house eavesdropping.
“I want all of you to stop teasing my daughter. She is just a child. She doesn’t have a mother to teach her what is right and what is wrong. All of you are her aunties, and you all should teach her good things. I’m so disappointed with you and what you did to my daughter today. I want all of you to stop and never do like that again.”
Father’s voice was strong. My aunts sat quietly with lowered eyes. They apologized in soft voices.
“I forgive you but I don’t think my daughter is going to forget what you did to her today.”
I ran and followed Father to the house.
“Do not go play anywhere,” Father said. “You stay home and help your sister work in the store. I’m going to go do my work.”
Of course, Father was right. I never forgot what happened that day. My excitement to be a woman and have womanly things made me believe anything. But my aunts were guilty too: using my naiveté to entertain themselves. Had their aunts tricked them when they were children? If so, did the aunts think it was their duty to trick to me? Pass on the “tradition?”
Father was correct: if I had a mother, my aunts could not have tricked me. I pitied Father. He did not know about the life of a girl. There were certain things that he could not prepare me for because he didn’t know they were coming.
I never forgot the day the fire ants bit my nipples. From that day forward, I knew I would need to be aware. The world can be a tricky place, and our students will have experienced this is many culturally related ways that we as foreign teachers may find shocking.
This story comes from the memoir “When I was a Child“