Deliciously Poor: Isan and Acadiana
In 2001, I visited Thailand and felt magic in the air. Humidity, hospitality, and spicy food: this Cajun boy was right at home.
A year later I married Natthinee Khot-asa and became part of Thailand, but not the land of pristine beach resorts or raucous Bangkok nightlife. Natthinee is from Si Sa Ket Province, in northeast Thailand, and that region is called Isan (EE-san), which can be translated as “the land of Shiva,” illustrating the influence the Khmer Empire and its Hinduism had in the area before Buddhism became the dominant religion and modern national boundaries were drawn.
Natthinee’s first language is Khmer, and her father’s family is ethnically Khmer. Growing up, she spoke Khmer in the house, learned Thai in school, and Laotian from a classmate. Demonstrating how language is connected to social status and self-image, as a child, when Natthinee and her friends wanted to pretend to be movie stars, they pretended in Thai. “To speak Thai,” Natthinee told me, “was to be high-class.” In Louisiana, my mother’s first language was Cajun French. She refused to teach the language to me because she grew up in the 1940s, when the government attempted to eradicate the language; when caught by a teacher speaking French, Mom was made to write lines: I will not speak French on school property. Mom, like many of other Cajun parents, feared that if her children spoke French, then employment opportunities would be limited. English for Mom, like Thai for Natthinee, represented status.
Republished in Jambalaya Magazine & Clothing