From the strangers I traveled with on the last of my three flights it took to get to Thailand, to the chaotic and pungent streets of Bangkok, all the way to Nakhon Sri Thammarat in Southern Thailand, the Land of Smiles has put some of the nicest faces in front of me, and one of my favorites is Phi Nee’s.
Phi Nee was the first name I learned at school and I remembered it after only learning once, not only because it was pretty damn easy compared to most names here, but because she was the one whom everyone made sure I knew. (Phi, pronounced ‘pee’, is the respectful name for an elder and means ‘older brother or sister.’)
Phi Nee isn’t a fellow teacher or principal. She isn’t my director or the superintendent. Phi Nee is a janitor at Benjamarachutit School.
I don’t know much about Phi Nee or her life, because she only knows so much English and I only know so much Thai, but I know the most important things about her – the most important things that anyone should ever know about anyone else.
Phi Nee is kind. Phi Nee is generous, hardworking and patient. She is usually the first to greet me, always in English, and repeatedly greets me anytime I run into her, usually while sweeping the shining tile floor or bringing desserts wrapped in soft banana leaves to the teacher break room. She smiles; she tells me to stop washing the dish I just used to eat sweet sticky rice on; she tells me thank you, you’re beautiful; and she calls me ‘Nong C.’ (Nong means ‘younger brother or sister.’ Out of quick thinking, I chose my nickname to be ‘C’. You could say I’m a creative genius.)
She is the best relationship I’ve kindled so far in my town, and I don’t even know her last name.
And it’s not just Phi Nee’s face that I love seeing every day, but it’s who I am when I’m around her and who everyone else becomes too, mirrors of Phi Nee’s spirit and selfless love – the first of many gifts I know I’ll bring back home to the U.S.