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Sunday Journal

Grandma don't allow no Elvis played 'round here

Published July 20, 2003

My cousin, a retiring boy of 12, led me to the pen behind the house where the pig was tied to a stake. The pig knew its fate as well as we did. As it hopelessly tried to burrow its way underneath the barbed wire, it let out a snort and a cry, which were harrowing in itself but nothing compared with when the man stuck its belly with a long metal shank.

The man and his friend tried to steady the pig as a third plugged the wound with long grass and mud, but the wound spouted blood with every heartbeat. They did this as quickly as they could, and I observed the work coolly, for after all, it had to be done. The pig was on the menu that evening, bought especially for the feast held in my mother's honor.

She had returned to her dusty village in central Thailand after 25 years in the states. This was the first time since then that she had seen her parents, brother and sister, who were children when they said goodbye, and this was also my introduction to them.

The feast was to be so grand that a DJ pulled up his pickup loaded with speakers and the whole morning announced that everyone was invited.

Women of the village, led by my grandmother (a serious woman in her 70s), cooked and chatted all day as the men tilled the fields and the children did what they always do: play in the streets. I tried to be useful, or at least keep out of the way. The preparations were thorough, indeed, for the Buddhist monks from the local wat were coming to bless the feast. It's not as solemn as it sounds, though, because the monks that I encountered were always jocular, especially because many of them came from the village and were near family.

At dusk, a procession of a dozen robed and tonsured monks entered my grandmother's house and sat on cushions laid over woven palm mats. The senior member, the abbot, was still wearing a pair of sunglasses that he had admired and requisitioned from my father earlier in the week.

Someone turned off the electric fans, and the heat shot up inside the concrete and tin house, where the downstairs rooms were filled with relatives and my mother's friends.

The monks began a chant, and all of us closed our eyes, kneeled forward and put our palms together in a namaste. Time dissolved as the chant branched into different harmonies, and the sound became so close and loud and absorbing that I nearly fell asleep.

When the blessing ended, the fans were turned on again, and the children, so dutiful and quiet during the ceremony, began to yell and laugh again. After the monks received their plates of minced pork, seasoned with chilies and rice, we began to eat, and naturally, out came bottles of soda, beer and rice whiskey.

During the supper, ancient women with teeth blackened by betel leaves tied thin strings around our wrists, rolling them up and down our forearms while repeating incantations that offered us good health. The monks finished their meal and departed for their wat for the night.

And so the party began. From the speaker towers came a program of synthesized Thai pop, one chanteuse after another singing of her love. A scrimmage line of dancers formed, the men and women swaying their hips in time and whirling their hands about their faces in a pattern that I couldn't understand. My father did his best, however, oscillating breezily to every song across the invisible line that divided us from the fairer sex.

The rice whiskey told me to slip the DJ a cassette that we all might be able to dance to, real-world music, some Elvis Presley. A pause and silence came over the sound system, and then He came on, and with the full force of my youth, I got down in the dirt and shot my hips out like a bullet to the cheer of the circling crowd. Some of the smaller kids followed my lead, and the song ended to universal laughter. We began an encore, but the music suddenly cut out.

Grandma had pulled the plug. Defending the family name, I suppose. She shuffled out into the street and grabbed my arm as if it were a little boy's ear and led me into the house, slamming the shutters behind us.

Some partygoers milled about as the music faded back on, but even the DJ knew that it was over.

Head buzzing, I shouldered up the stairs to my room where, on the landing, I saw a large cooking pot. It contained the head of the pig, split in two, its face sloe-eyed and thunderstruck.

- Brian Christian, a Florida native, is a travel writer and screenwriting consultant living in Los Angeles.

[Last modified July 17, 2003, 10:15:00]

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