Ying

This is a story of how the Universe conspired with a seventeen year old Thai girl and gave an old man a renewed sense of purpose.

Ying

You can watch a YouTube companion video to this story too.

In 2016, I landed in Bangkok with two big suitcases and a small backpack containing nearly all of my worldly possessions. I had become quite proficient living life as a wandering minimalist. I am not poor, quite the opposite, I have pension income, savings and a stock portfolio adequate for a middle class lifestyle, even in my hometown New York City. My minimalist lifestyle was a choice. A fun and interesting life living in exotic Asian cultures had been mine since 2010. I had lived in Singapore, The Philippines and Vietnam. As I arrived in Bangkok I assumed Thailand would become just another check mark on my list of adventures.

Thailand’s low cost of living gave me an opportunity to live in a way beyond what I could afford in places such as New York. I rented a four story townhouse near the center of town. The purpose of single, minimalist me renting such a large place was to have my own yoga studio. My plan was to have a small living space in the house, and a yoga studio where I could practice with friends.

If you do not like surprises, do not taunt the Universe. Open a window of possibility and something unexpected just might fly in.

A very cheerful and pretty Thai lady, Bua Khao, began practicing yoga with me. Bua Khao (White Lotus Blossom in English) worked in a hotel nearby. She worked very hard for not much money. Yoga reduces stress and Bua Khao experienced that benefit quickly, becoming an ideal practicioner. Bua Khao and I entered into a business agreement where we could open the studio to the public. The small enterprise was good for Bua Khao. She moved her family into the house and could earn more money with yoga than with her demanding and time intensive job at the hotel. I got to have a small yoga studio with a manager to take care of the big house and studio. It was a big win for us both.

Bua Khao

Bua Khao’s daughter Ying was thirteen when she moved into the yoga house. Sullen and distrustful, Ying kept to herself; I rarely saw her. I know divorce stories have two sides. And I only knew one side. But Ying had not seen her father in three years and he clearly made no attempt to contact her. I had compassion for Ying, but I stayed out of it.

Four years later in March 2020 I had a dilemma. I perceived myself to still be a wandering minimalist. The big yoga house had filled up with furniture and fixtures, people and life: yoga folks, Bua Khao’s large family, and friends of the kids coming and going. But I still had an escape plan in the back of my mind where I could get out of town with what I came in with quickly, if I needed to.

Bua Khao and I had become friends for sure. And her kids, now living in a stable household, had become happy and self confident young people. The sullenness was long gone. Ying was now more like her smiling, gregarious mom. But I still saw Bua Khao as a business partner. I had grown fond of her kids for sure, but still viewed them as just that, her kids. Suddenly, a fast spreading disease, widely feared to be lethal to a man my age, had everybody’s attention. The United States Secretary of State announced that US citizens living abroad should return to the states, or be prepared to shelter in place.

I have family in the states, two married daughters and four grandchildren. I miss them. I normally visit twice a year. With Secretary Pompeo’s warning resonating in my mind, I began to wonder if it was time for me to go back to my home country. I played scenarios out in my mind thinking of what my life would be like with The US being my home base once again. It is not an unattractive vision for me. I am very grateful to have been born into a culture where my family and I have prospered. Having lived in Asia for a decade, I have seen first hand how fortunate I am. We Westerners are lucky.

If I abandoned Thailand, it would have had a devastaing impact on Bua Khao and her family. As the pandemic unfolded it was clear that economic hardship would befall many. However, I am among the more fortunate people of the world with more secure resorces. My daughters and their families in The States are in that same fortunate category as well. I decided the right thing to do was to stay in Thailand and help this family I had grown fond of weather the storm.

In addition to being a cheerful, hard working yoga practicioner and studio manager, I have been impressed with Bua Khao’s role as a mother. While attending to her chores and yoga practice, Bua Khao’s priority was clearly the well being of her children. Bua Khao is an exemplary mother.

I closed the yoga studio in March and converted the space into a studio apartment for me to live in during the lockdown. Bua Khao took charge of the house making sure her children and I were safe from the threat. While I was at first concerned teenage kids would be a problem going out and exposing themselves in their social groups, it turned out they were more cautious than I was. Everybody wanted to be sure I was kept safe and healthy.

The Thai people in general pulled together following the guidelines of health officials. And the results are good. My difficult choice of where to live during the pandemic turned out to be a good decision. Thailand is one of the least infected counties in the world. And I became a target of Bua Khao’s care and concern, the same care and concern that she directed at her family that so impressed me. I felt deeply cared for.

As the threat from disease abated here in Thailand and life’s routines largely returned to normal, my big yoga house became a place where Bua Khao’s large, extended family could gather. While about 85% of the Thai economy rebounded and life is normal for many, anyone who relied on tourism for a living is still in trouble. That is a lot of people in Thailand, including many in Bua Khao’s family, along with some of the kids’ friends. We welcome them often to the big yoga house. Food is inexpensive here. The least I can do is feed people. To me it feels like we are hosting lots of dinner parties, having fun and doing some good at the same time.

And then, the Universe let me know she was not done toying with me. “Want to be a wandering minimalist” asked some giggling goddess of mirth and mischief?

With a big fat grin, she then answered her own question: “I don’t think so”.

About six of Bua Khao’s family were excitedly chattering about something important. I speak rudimentary Thai, a few key phrases. But I could not comprehend what had the gaggle of Thai girls so engaged. Slowly as I drew the story out, they did not really get the significance of why I was so interested in the story. I can not even explain why I am so moved.

Ying’s paternal grandmother, her father’s mother, took care of Ying and her siblings back when Bua Khao was working ten hours a day in a hotel. They are all quite close, although I have never met the old girl. It turns out, grandma had just revealed she had been receiving a $1000.00 a month widow’s pension from her American husband killed in the Vietnam War in 1975. That’s a lot of money in Thailand. And grandma kept the income a secret. She also put most of the money in the bank. Now, feeling old, grandma is dividing the money up and passing it on to her grand children. It is quite a windfall for Bua Khao’s children. I am happy for them. But a widow’s pension?

Ying’s surname is Baker. I knew her paternal grandfather was an American. I never thought much about it. Now I’ve learned grandpa Baker was an American killed in the Vietnam War, an emotional benchmark for me and my generation.

Enlisted soldiers do not get widow’s pensions. And Joseph T Baker is not on any data bases of American soldiers killed in Vietnam. But grandma Baker has been getting checks from the US Treasury for forty-five years. I now have a mission: who was Joseph T. Baker?

What I know about Joseph T Baker is that he had a house in Bangkok and a house in Korat, Thailand. The US Air Force had a base in Korat that was known for clandestine missions. Grandma and Joseph met in Korat where grandma was a maid. Joseph would travel frequently between Korat and Bangkok, about a four hour drive, on a big Harley. Joseph also had guns, a rare thing here in Thailand. And he had a big, scary guard dog in his gated, Bangkok house. I will track down the details of the story of Joseph T. Baker. But for now, I am overcome by feelings of responsibility and concern for Joseph’s grand kids.

It is surprising to me, my feelings for Ying and her siblings. I now have an affinity and a sense of duty towards the grandchildren of an American warrior who died for his country. I can not explain my feelings. What seems apparent though, is a mischievous pantheon of tinkerers have tweaked the chaotic bifurcations of an amused Universe in a way that has unpacked my bags and made me part of a family. And I am oddly pleased about it.

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Former FDNY Lieutenant, 911 Veteran, Writer, Vlogger, living in Bangkok.

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Charlie Hub

Former FDNY Lieutenant, 911 Veteran, Writer, Vlogger, living in Bangkok.