by Natthinee Khot-asa Jones and Hardy Jones
When I started kindergarten, Father bought me a new school uniform: a navy-blue skirt and a white dress shirt. All of the girls in my school wore this uniform and all of the girls had the same haircut: short bangs in the front and a bowl-cut on the sides and back. Also, the boys had the same haircut—a crewcut—and uniform: brown short pants and a white dress shirt.
The female teachers had an official uniform that they wore on certain days such as when they had parent conferences or a government leader visited. But on regular days they wore their own clothes, usually a skirt with a split in the front or the back. I was impressed with how beautiful the teachers’ skirts were and wondered if I could ever dress like them.
One day after school, I didn’t change out of my school uniform and played with my best friend Na. We played in our homemade playhouse under a tamarind tree. Na asked me: “Do you want to have a beautiful skirt like our teachers with a split?”
Na’s question reignited my dream to dress beautifully.
I immediately told her: “Yes, I want to have a dress like our teachers.”
“I can make a split for you.” Na said and took me to her house.
She went inside the house and returned with small black scissors that her mother used to cut her hair.
I was excited to have a split in my skirt; it would make me feel beautiful and grown up.
“Would you like to have the split in the front or the back?” Na asked and smiled.
“May I have one in the front and one in the back, please?”
Na bent down and used the scissors to slowly cut the bottom of my skirt. “How about two inches?”
“Good. I like it.”
“Do you still want to have one in the back?” Na asked.
“Definitely!” I turned around.
“Beautiful. This looks like our teacher’s skirt,” Na proudly proclaimed.
I was happy with what Na did for me. We played a few more hours, and then I went home to see Father.
When I entered the house, Father immediately looked at my school uniform.
“Come here, baby girl.”
I stood in front of him and smiled.
“What happened to your skirt?” Father asked and bent down to inspect my skirt.
“I wanted my skirt to have a split like the teacher’s skirt. So Na helped me. Isn’t it beautiful, Father?”
“Na cut it for you or you cut it yourself?” Father’s tone was harsh.
“Why are you so angry at me?”
“Just answer my question. Did you cut your skirt or did your friend cut it?”
“Na cut my skirt.”
My answer saddened Father’s eyes. He looked down and took a deep breath. I wasn’t sure if he was disappointed because my skirt had a split or if he was disappointed because I allowed another person to cut my skirt.
Father straightened up and looked in my eyes.
“Your school uniform should never be cut like the teacher’s skirt. You are not a teacher or an adult. You can’t wear a skirt with a split. This is not right.”
I realized that I had done something stupid again and made Father sad. I lowered my head and was afraid to look him in the face.
“I’m so sorry, Father.”
“Your skirt is cut. How can you wear it to school? No student in your school has a skirt split like a teacher, and you should not cut your skirt for any reason.”
I didn’t answer but kept my head bowed. I felt so guilty.
“Did Na cut her skirt too?” Father asked.
“She cut mine only,” I said quietly.
Father’s face turned red and his tone grew harsher.
“Your friend tricked you, don’t you know? A few weeks ago she tricked you to eat her boogers, and today she tricked you to cut your school uniform. You should know what’s right and what’s wrong!”
I could tell that Father wanted badly to spank me, but he knew that I was naïve enough to be tricked.
Whatever happened to me, good or bad, Father always blamed himself. He never spanked me but only talked loudly to me when I did something wrong. Father knew that he didn’t have time to raise me like families with two parents did their children. Father tried his best to work and support all of us and teach us to grow and become good people.
Father went to the market and bought me a new skirt. He asked my oldest sister to patch up an old dress for me to wear around the house. I didn’t get to play with Na for a few days, and when I did ask Father if I could play with Na, he told me: “Don’t let your friend trick you. Do you understand?”
“Yes. I will protect myself.”
Those were Father’s final words about Na and her tricky ways.
Later, when I was thirteen-years old and in my first year of junior high school, Na was in her second year at the same school. After her father passed away, she quit school and worked full-time with her family, taking care of her family’s water buffaloes. One weekend I went to take care of my family’s water buffaloes on the south side of the village and saw Na.
“Do you like school?” Na asked.
“It’s ok. Not too bad.”
“If you don’t like school, why don’t you quit like me? It’s more fun to take care of water buffaloes than to go to school.”
I thought about her advice. It sounded good for a person who didn’t like school, but for a student like me who loved school (after my rough start, I became fluent in Thai, made many friends, and enjoyed learning), it didn’t sound good.
“No,” I said. “Taking care of our water buffaloes is fun on the weekend, but I want to get an education so I can have a good job. I don’t know how to work in the rice fields like my brothers and sisters. Education will help me get a good job.”
Even though I went to the rice fields with my family, my job was to cook delicious food for them and take care of the water buffaloes, a job Father and my siblings didn’t like. That’s why Father assigned this job to me along with cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These might be hard chores for other adolescent girls, but for me they were the best jobs ever.
“Silly, girl,” Na said. “A junior high school diploma won’t help you get a good job. You need to get a college degree.”
“Well, first I have to finish junior high school, graduate high school, and later go to college,” I said.
“I don’t think you can do it. You don’t have any money. Poor country girls like you and me, we will never get degrees. Sometimes you need to accept who you are,” Na said.
“I accept that I am a country girl and that I am poor, but it is free to dream, and I dream to have a college degree. Don’t you have a dream?”
“Nope, I don’t dream of anything. Just live day to day.”
That was the last day I talked to Na in our village. I didn’t see her for more than two years. I found out that she went to work at a plastic factory with her oldest brother in Prapadeang, a city near Bangkok. After I graduated from junior high school, I too worked in Bangkok, and even ended up working with Na at the plastic factory. I was only 15 years old: too young to get a good job. Our time at this factory was fun but it held no future.
Our job was to cut the plastic into smaller sizes to be shipped. We worked 12 hours per day, 5 days per week. We were paid 100 Baht per day (about $3.15 per day) and if we worked on Sunday, we were paid double. The job’s only benefits were that it provided you with a room that included utilities—electricity and water. We bought our own food. Early on, I liked the job, but when I thought about my future, I knew this job was not good. I needed to work where they provided benefits like healthcare, life insurance, and a retirement.
Today we hear a lot about the exploitation of child labor, and that was what this job did to Na, me, and thousands of other Thai teenagers. As time went on, I kept telling Na that I didn’t want to work weekends. Instead, on the weekends I wanted to go to school to get an off-campus high school diploma (GED). Na didn’t like my idea. She repeated constantly how much she hated school.
I only worked with Na one year and then I got a job with an American company (Seagate Thailand). This company was good; they provided great benefits and were ranked as a top 50 company to work for in Thailand. An important element at Seagate Thailand was that they would assist you with your education. When an employee took GED classes, the company paid for a teacher to come to our company and conduct classes. I earned my high school diploma in less than two years.
After I graduated, Father passed away. I resigned my job and went to a Business college in southern Thailand for two years, receiving my Associate’s degree in Accounting. After graduation, I returned to Bangkok to work with a Japanese company. I had a good job with great benefits, and I appreciated how education helped me move up economically and professionally.
One weekend, my sister wanted Na to join us in her Bangkok apartment to cook and hangout. I was happy to see Na again. She worked in a different factory and earned a set salary with no overtime or benefits. I tried to convince Na to go back to school, but she wouldn’t listen. Same old Na: live day to day.
After lunch, Na and I agreed that we would take turns pulling each other’s under-arm hair—we never shaved our armpits like farang (Western) women. I pulled her under-arm hair first, and when I lay down for her to pull mine, she said, “I’m tired. I don’t feel good.”
“Are you ok? Or you just don’t want to do your turn?”
“I just don’t feel good. I’ll do it for you later.”
Same old Na: tricky ways.
Although she tricked me, as a friend I forgave her; but I would never let her trick me again.
After that day, I didn’t see Na for more than five years. I considered Na my friend, but I categorized her as only my childhood friend. As adults, she didn’t seem like a friend; I couldn’t trust her with all of my heart. I just hope she does not treat others the way she treated me.
Tricky ways create bad karma.
Natthinee Khot-asa Jones is a memoirist, novelist, and short story writer publishing in Thai and English. She is a country girl from the Thai side of the Thai-Cambodian border who grew up speaking Cambodian, Thai, and Laotian. In 2001, she graduated from Sophon Business School in Thailand, and later attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Auburn University, and the University of New Orleans. Her English publications include the memoirs Wal-Mart Girl, When I Was a Child, A True Story of Child Labor. She is the co-author of the story collection Coconuts and Crawfish, and the novel International Love Supreme. Please check out her books at https://www.amazon.com/Natthinee-Jones/e/B089G9GH8R/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_ebooks_1.
In addition to being a writer, Natthinee is a photographer, and one of her photos was used for the cover image of the “Family Secrets” (Issue #44) Sugar Mule Online Magazine. In 2006-2007, she was a Laotian translator and interpreter for Louisiana’s Folklife “New Populations Project.” For this project, her husband Hardy Jones received a research grant to write about Songkran, the Buddhist New Year’s celebration in the Laotian community of Lanxang outside of Lafayette, Louisiana. The essay and photographs from their research are on the Louisiana Folklife website. Natthinee loves cooking Thai and Cajun food, and in 2006 her Phad-Thai recipe was featured in the Wal-Mart Family Cookbook. Organic gardening is her newest passion, building on her childhood experiences on her family’s farm in Thailand. Her website is www.natthineeandhardy.com. She is the co-founder and the Webmaster of the online journal Cybersoleil (www.cybersoleiljournal.com).
Hardy Jones is a Creole/Cajun educator and author in New Orleans. He is a two-time Pushcart Nominee, the author of the novels Every Bitter Thing, International Love Supreme, the memoirs People of the Good God, Resurrection of Childhood, and the story collection Coconuts and Crawfish. He is the co-author of the memoirs Wal-Mart Girl, When I was a Child,and A True Story of Child Labor. Please check out his books at this link https://www.amazon.com/Hardy-Jones/e/B00494EAS6/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_ebooks_2. His creative nonfiction won two grants. His stories were anthologized in the 2009 Dogzplot Flash Fiction Anthology, The Best of Clapboard House Literary Journal, Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South, and Summer Shorts II. He is the co-founder and Executive Editor of the online journal Cybersoleil (www.cybersoleiljournal.com). Hardy holds a Ph, D. in American Literature from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis, and a M.A.T. in Secondary English Education from the University of New Orleans. He taught in universities for 18 years and is a certified teacher. His website is www.hardyjoneswriting.com and he is on Twitter @HardyJonesWrite. Hardy splits his time between New Orleans, Louisiana and Si Sa Ket Province Thailand.