The Suan Doi Guest House in Chiang Mai is a tropical paradise inside the urban riot of Thailand’s second city. Its spirit houses – outside and inside the property – are grand affairs befitting the jungle courtyard inside. Enormous urns and vases dot the entrance and the paving-stone pathways. They’re filled with water and sometimes float flowers, and always sport mosquito-eating fish. Among the banana trees (with actual bananas – take that, California!), ferns and crazy 80’s hanging beads are caged mina birds. Their black bodies are almost invisible in the shadows. The little yellow crescents of their beaks seem to dance when they shift and leap.
Mina birds are a mimic species. As you stroll through the garden, amid the barking of the little water frogs, you are greeted by a host of human whistles (shave and a haircut, yoohoo whistles, simple tones), and the occasional deep baritone Thai greeting, “SaaaaaaaawatdeekaaaaaAA!”
Sitting in the “Vietnamese” restaurant, amid the fronds, you can do call and response with the birds. They’re not very good at improvisation, but several of them know each whistle and you can annoy other patrons interminably well. 🙂
Each bird knows several different whistles, and they seem to overlap, but not completely. Some of them speak English, some Thai, some Chinese greetings. Some of them have 3-4 note calls, others 2-note (a full-throated wolf-whistle being my personal favorite). They seem to work both at standing out and belonging.
Obviously, Thais and I have plenty of things in common. I am, however, at least a head if not chest, head and shoulders above the general population – especially in the rural north. As a Caucasian, I stand out anyway, Caucasians mostly being confined to the mote area of Chiang Mai (really, part of it’s called by Tuktuk drivers, “white town”).
The Thais are a modest people, and simultaneously uninhibited. Like middle school children, they are not afraid to stare open-faced. They will often jostle friends or family to join in the stare. So what the hell, as long as I’m being commented on, and stared at, why not put on my kilt! Now they laugh open-mouthed. At the bus station, I sat my heavy pack down, and turned back around to find 8 Thais turned around in their seats, silently staring at me. (Check out one of my pictures on Facebook.) Now, even in unabashed Western cultures, they’d turn back around. And the Thais are modest, right so… all 8 of them, from different economic backgrounds, city and country, north and south, all 8 of them just keep right on staring. It was hot and i couldnt take it anymore. I raise one hand and in my Walter Kronkite announcer voice, I say, “Greetings from far America, tiny humans!” Most of them turned back around.
That was my epiphany: I can wave back. From that moment, I realized it was a dialogue with no words. They would stare and laaaaaugh and point, and I would point back and wave and greet them in various bizarre ways jn English.
It can be good to stand out. Like the mina birds, you get attention, maybe you get some scraps from others. It’s good to belong. Share songs. Wave back.
You know what I’ve never heard in my hours of writing and breakfasting at the Suan Doi? Mina birds singing. I could have looked it up on Wikipedia, but I didn’t. Birds sing. Even the evil Macaw, Reggae, owned by my long-ago ex, Larry, had his own cranky “I am totally going to bite you again” songs. Not these plump black birds in cages.
I don’t know why they don’t sing. Are they like mockingbirds, do they not have a song of their own? They do seem to have one plaintive note they respond with when they seem frustrated with you trying, for example, to get them to whistle part of Hello, Dolly.
They’ve schooled themselves to listen, to respond, to give back what is given. Maybe they are waiting to find their song, maybe one day a tourist will be playing Madame Butterfly or Lisa Gerard or Michael Jackson and they’ll burst out of their habitual silence. They do live in cages….
People that know me often think I’m a loudmouth, that I say more than other people might say in some situations, that I occasionally speak what I feel is the truth. But as i look around myself, I still find these cage bars, and the closed door and the silence. I’m a mina bird, too. Out there in the jungle, there are other voices in careful snippets of sound.
What little notes of the truth are we repeating, hoping for an echo, or a treat? Where is the song gone? Are we the kind that sing?