2007 by Kamela Jordan
The first step in making fried locusts is catching them. Kari and I used to go after school with Dance and her sister Mouse to where the eucalyptus and teak grew in thick stands behind the school. There in the shade the air vibrated with the shrill drone of locusts singing in the tree branches. All you need to catch them is a long bamboo pole, a plastic bag, and a rubber band.
Plastic bags and rubber bands lay everywhere, snagged on fence posts, camouflaged in the dust. If we couldn’t find a suitable bamboo pole, sometimes we’d go down to the paddies and dig for snails, or raid the back yard for limes to peel and eat with salt. When the mangos swelled in expectation of April rains, we picked them green and sliced them paper thin, swilling them in fish sauce and palm sugar with a sprinkling of red pepper. The sweet, sour, and salty slices slid down our throats leaving a fiery trail in their wake.
On days when it was too sultry and still to work up the energy to stalk locusts, we’d sit in the creek behind the house and drag a fine net through the mud, bringing up squirming masses of tadpoles and scrambling crabs. If Mom was too hot to work on language lessons, we could persuade her to mix up a bowl of salty batter and fry the crabs in hot oil. We ate them whole, crunching the shells between our teeth.
Thai school didn’t get out until four o’clock in the afternoon, and sometimes Dance and Mouse had to carry water after school, or help chop banana stalks for the pig feed. If it got to be too late to hunt an afternoon snack before dinner, we satisfied ourselves with making pretend food, picking the pungent weeds that grew behind the back fence and squeezing them in a bowl of water. When we set the slick, green liquid in the sun, it turned to bitter jelly.
Kari and I only went to Thai school half days. In the morning we put on our uniforms—white shirts with round collars, pleated blue skirts, and shiny black Mary Janes—and lined up with the other kids from Elephant Field in front of the flagpole. After singing the national anthem and holding out our hands for nail inspection, we studied reading and writing, copying row after row of the curling alphabet, forty-four consonants and nearly as many vowels.
After lunch the classes weren’t quite as academic. There was naptime, and then weeding the school flower gardens, and maybe a little math. So in the afternoons, Kari and I stayed home and Mom taught us in English—more reading and writing, history, math, science. It wasn’t nearly as much fun being in a class of one, but on the other hand, you didn’t have to worry about the bamboo switch, or about being made to sing the Star Spangled Banner in front of the whole class if you were late. Plus I could understand everything that was being said.
When I first started Thai preschool at the YWCA in Bangkok, I didn’t understand a word. I ran away to Kari’s classroom and hid under her desk, and one day when the teacher dragged me wailing back down the hall, I leaned over and bit her hand. After that I was allowed—or perhaps requested—to stay home for a month, and when I went back, I had learned enough Thai from the maid that I was content to stay in my own classroom.
After a year, we moved to the wilds of the northern mountains, where the communist insurgency simmered in the hills and helicopters rattled overhead ferrying soldiers and guns to the invisible fight. When we awoke the first morning to find the entire neighborhood crowded in our yard, chattering nervously as they waited for a glimpse of the white foreigners, I was stricken to find that the dialect was so different as to be completely unintelligible.
I sulked and stormed when Dad took me down to the school to register, but when I was sent sniffling into the classroom, I discovered to my utter relief that school went on in the same Central Thai dialect that I had learned in Bangkok. After a while, the local dialect started slipping off my tongue unbidden at recess and after school. I still didn’t know all the words in my reader, but I knew enough to get by, and the words I didn’t know, I could learn to spell.
And learn to spell I did, for each misspelled word resulted in a stinging lick across the palms with a bamboo switch, or with a ruler if a poor speller had tossed the switch out the window while the teacher was out of the room. You were given a chance to correct your mistakes, and then if they were still misspelled, the penalty rose to two lashes for each word. The treacherous alphabet sported five letters for the kh sound, four for the s, five for the t, and innumerable sneaky silent letters trailing off the ends of words, so rare was the day when someone didn’t go home from school lined with angry red stripes.
With a quick memory and a high motivation to avoid pain, I was rarely switched, though sometimes the teacher called me up to the front anyway, pretending to add up my errors, just for the suspense of it. All in all, half days weren’t a bad trade off.
Kari and I finished our English homework long before Thai school let out, and we read Nancy Drew books or dressed our dolls while the chorus of afternoon recitations floated to us across the creek. Multiplication tables were chanted in singsong unison, with a high-pitched counterpoint of alphabet drifting up from the younger grades. K is for kai, O chicken, my chicken. Kh is for khai, the egg in its nest. Kh is for khuad, this bottle of mine.
Recitations meant Dance and Mouse would be home soon. A few other kids lived along our stony lane, but we didn’t often play with them. Pem was Kari and Dance’s age, but she stole our plastic Fisher Price telephone and picked lice out of her hair and dropped them into ours. Sert was a couple years older, and although he sometimes picked tart saton from the spreading tree in his yard and peeled them for us with a machete, he wasn’t interested in playing with little kids. We regarded Sert with a sense of awe, watching enviously as he scampered up the curving trunks of palm trees and tossed coconuts down to his mother for her curry, or shinnied down into the echoing darkness of the well to retrieve her dropped dipper.
Bear from across the street was our age, but didn’t care to play with girls; he preferred to go down to the school yard and kick a rattan ball over a net with the boys from the other side of the main road. We saw him only rarely when we carried our pink nets over to stalk butterflies in his mother’s flower garden. We could always find butterflies there, flitting over the riot of hot colored zinnias and gerbera daisies, scarlet pinflowers and golden buttonflowers, crimson hibiscus and pale pink nailflowers whose translucent petals you could lick and stick on your fingernails and pretend you were a fine city woman with places to go.
Dance and Mouse left us on our own when we hunted butterflies. You can’t eat butterflies. But mostly it was the four of us, wandering through each other’s front gates after four o’clock, or clambering over the bamboo fence and plunging through the sugar cane thicket to organize our hunting expeditions.
On Saturdays after our chores were done, we were allowed to ride our bikes down the long hill to the river that ran lazy and clear in the dry season and rushed by in a red-brown torrent when the monsoons fell. The sisters snickered behind their hands when we asked permission to go to the river. They did exactly as they pleased when the work was done, and if they came home late for supper, they simply ate on their own.
Down by the river, the metallic whine of the locusts filled the acacias with their raucous din on the shady banks. In the water, brilliant green algae clung to the rocks in strands as fine as cotton and streamed out in vivid swathes in the meandering current. Kari and I pulled off thick clumps of it and draped it over our heads, pretending we were mermaids with flowing green hair. Mouse and Dance laughed and told us we looked like the demon that slips into your window in the dark of the night and strangles you with his long tongue.
Clusters of kids from the town across the river gathered on the banks to watch the white girls play in the water. “Albino buffalo,” they shouted, and sang the familiar taunting song, “Foreigners have long noses, Negroes have flat noses.” Not that any of them had ever seen a Negro, probably not even in pictures, but even in the most isolated valley, every child knows the song.
When we tired of being mermaids, we squeezed our algae locks into sodden balls and filled Dance’s bicycle basket with them. Back at home, we would pick out the little pieces of sticks and leaves, and their mother would put the long green strands in the evening soup.
Small fish swam in the shallows of the river too, darting flashes of silver and brown, too quick for us to catch, even with a net, but Dance always brought her fishing basket, just in case. The basket was shaped like a vase, with a narrow neck and a wide mouth. The lid was fringed with stiff strips of rattan that pointed down into the neck of the basket like a funnel. Push your catch through the funnel, and it wouldn’t be able to jump back out again. A long piece of twine threaded through loops on the basket’s neck, so you could tie it to a bush at the water’s edge and set the basket in the shallows where the river could flow through and keep your fish alive.
We carried the basket to hunt locusts as well, using the twine to tie it around our waists. When the swarms settled thick in the trees so that the air rang with their noise, it didn’t take long to fill the small basket. They were easy prey, cocky and brash with their noisy songs that led you straight to their perch. It was easy to pick one out on a branch and sneak up behind him with your open bag tied to the end of a pole with a rubber band. You snapped the pole down over the branch, the locust flew up into the bag, and then he was yours to fish out and pop into the basket, where he buzzed loudly, a prisoner of war.
We thought little of the war that went on in the hills surrounding our unimportant little valley. The constant helicopters were just another raucous creature adding their noise to the din of the locusts. “If you don’t stop crying, giant monkeys will come down out of the helicopters and eat you,” the babysitter told my little sister. “Wave to the helicopter,” Dad told her when she ran to hide every time the clattering noise crescendoed overhead. “It’s bringing cookies to the nice soldiers who have to sleep in the jungle, far away from their mommies.” At night machine guns added their rat-a-tat rhythm to the clamor of crickets and the slow croak of frogs in the paddies.
We ate the frogs too, scooped them up with a net
and popped them down into the basket, tiny things that were best fried
whole with a crunchy skin of batter, like the crabs. But we didn’t have
to wait for Mom’s help to cook the locusts, which didn’t need a coating
of batter. We brought the buzzing basket home and pulled them out through
the funnel one at a time, snapping off their legs and wings and rinsing
them in well water. In Dance and Mouse’s kitchen, we knelt and blew life
into the embers that smoldered in the ash pile of the charcoal stove. It
only took a moment for the oil to sputter in the soot-blackened wok and
another moment for the locusts to hiss and pop in the heat. We sat on the
back steps and ate them in the waning afternoon heat. They tasted like
popcorn, crisp and salty and greasy, and a little like earth.
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