In Thai culture, the first question people ask is not “How are you?” but instead “Gin khao reu yung?” Have you eaten yet? As a kid, I’d learn this phrase from my mom, who immigrated to the U.S. from Bangkok in 1989. It just made sense: If you hadn’t eaten yet, there must be something wrong.
I hear this question often when I go with my family to the small outdoor Thai market in Bridgeview, where we peruse items ranging from sweet basil and stewed pork belly to herbal teas and handmade soaps. Sometimes, the saying can be more of a demand than an ask. The moment I sit next to a lady huddled over a helping of som tum, she passes me her plate, nodding toward it. “Gin,” she says. Eat.
In America, we’re told not to take candy from strangers—but if a Thai person tells you to eat, then you probably should. “I need friends,” says the woman, Monchita Ratanawong. “You can’t eat papaya salad alone.”
We share a dish packed with peppers and fermented fish sauce from vendor Chef Kim’s, huffing away the heat in our mouths between pauses in conversation. “Ped,” Ratanawong keeps saying. Spicy. She recruits the help of three other women to tackle the meal, including my mom. They introduce themselves to each other in Thai, saying, “Sawasdee ka.” Hello. I can’t understand them, but the sound of my mom speaking in this language makes me happy. Aside from the few Thai friends she has in my hometown, the market is her sole opportunity to meet other Thais in the state.
“You met some nice people today,” she says in a follow-up text. “Thai people are usually friendly by nature. So when we are far away, it’s nice to be able to form our own community.”
Thai Chamber of Commerce Sunday Market
Sundays 10 AM-2 PM
7430 S. Harlem, Bridgeview
Tickets require, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for info
“Jek” Suthasinee Schembari says this is what the gathering is really for—bringing Thai people together. As codirector of the Thai Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which hosts and organizes the weekly event, she’s watched the market grow from a hub for picking up meals to an affair attracting hundreds of Thai people from around the midwest. Each Sunday during the summer, different vendors, many from Chicago, surrounding towns, and even out-of-state, drive their homemade products to Thai Twin in Bridgeview, setting up shop in tents that line the grass lot behind the restaurant. While the market is currently limited to invitees, those not associated with the Thai community can still request tickets to the event by e-mailing email@example.com.
The fair, open from 10 AM to 2 PM, serves as a haven for Thai folks living in Illinois, where true Thai tastes are rare. Though Chicago abounds with Southeast Asian restaurants, finding an authentic pad see ew can still be as challenging as meeting fellow Thai people. Menus are fit for American palates: more sweet than savory, more mild than spicy.
“Here they can get what they used to use before, so it brings them back to their own country, like a little Thai in the U.S,” says Schembari, who has a stand selling Asian veggies from the Monarch Forest Garden, her one-acre farm in Woodstock. “I’m lonely here. But when I go to the market, we talk Thai language, we see Thai food, we eat Thai food, we buy Thai stuff. It’s more happy.”
Wearing a sticker that reads, “I just got vaccinated,” Patrick McIntyre, Ratanawong’s husband, tells me he came straight to the farmers’ market from getting his second dose of vaccine. He had waited until July, thinking the Thai government might require tourists to be inoculated before entering the country. “I wanted to wait to see if some other people fall first,” he jokes. “But I really want to go back to Thailand.”
“We’ve made a couple of friends around here,” he adds. “We come mainly for my wife to be able to have some people in contact with her.”
The couple married last October, and Ratanawong, who recently got a job at a Thai restaurant near Tinley Park, lives in the U.S. on a K-1 visa. “You land from Thailand here, then you’ve got 90 days to get married,” McIntyre explains. “You either get married or you’ve got to pack your shit and go back to Thailand.”
Ratanawong shows me photos of her family, who live thousands of miles away in the northern Thai countryside. Handing over a bag of steamed sticky rice, she says I remind her of her oldest daughter, who’s the same age. Though Ratanawong calls them every morning, it’s been nearly two years since she’s seen her mom and daughters, and with COVID-19 restrictions tightening in Thailand, their reunion likely won’t come anytime soon.
Until this summer, Thailand had managed to contain the virus, avoiding much of the fallout other countries, like the U.S. and China, faced last year. But now, with more than half of Americans vaccinated, the situation has reversed. In Thailand, a vaccine shortage has resulted in just 6 percent of the population being fully inoculated, and the record for daily COVID cases inches higher each day.
At the market, a petite woman guards the entrance, chasing down kids not adhering to the guidelines. Masks have always been required—vaccinated or not.
Ratanawong assures her family that the Thai government can handle the pandemic, perhaps even better than the U.S. If those living in America could get through it, she says, then Thailand could too.
Richard Hanviriyapunt, a financial advisor at the chamber and landlord of Thai Twin, recalls COVID’s initial impact on Thai restaurants in Illinois. He says many Thai immigrants were left without jobs as businesses began to shutter.
“The new generation who have restaurants are still students—some of them successful, some of them not so successful,” he says. “They realize there’s a lot of cash flow, but there’s no saving money. That’s why I have to educate them, I have to share my experience and tell them how to save. The businesses right now have a problem, so that’s why I have the market to help them.”
Last year, the Monarch Forest had already been using Thai Twin as a meeting point for pick-up orders, and many Thai social media storefronts began popping up in the Chicago area. Schembari wondered if a few of her friends would join in to make orders more convenient and safer for customers.
After consulting the chamber, she invited one friend, who invited another, who invited another. So many people expressed interest that it only seemed natural to call it a market. As the organization realized its potential for Thais to earn extra cash, Schembari set up a chat dedicated to advertising and coordinating the event on the popular Thai messaging app LINE. Later, she’d start a Facebook group for the market, which has grown to nearly 1,000 members.
On the morning of the debut, heavy rains sent vendors without tents packing, many of them at-home chefs and online business owners unprepared to weather the storm. Still, swaths of customers arrived, stocking up on Thai meals and goodies to eat while sheltering at home.
Schembari hadn’t expected such high turnout, especially considering the weather. She figures people were already traveling from outside the city—too late to turn around, perhaps not enough to keep them away from the products they’d been longing for.
Now in its second year, the market has worked out most of the kinks. “We’re learning on the fly,” says chamber codirector Tham Chaiket. “Getting people together was tough, but now that we’re getting experience, we’ve made sure it’s run smoother and safer.”
“Slowly but firmly,” Schembari chimes in. They hope to eventually expand the event, making it more open to the public, but the chamber and its vendors are still figuring out how to best manage the private gathering. More volunteers now provide traffic control, and the chamber offers free supplies to vendors, including tents and tables. “We don’t charge them anything,” Schembari says. “They just come and make the product the best that they can do, and then we help along the way. I like to give people the space and opportunity to do that.”
“Money is not that important when you get to the hard times,” she adds. “We help each other—that’s more important.”
For the past three years, she’s kept herself busy learning to cultivate different organic plants at her farm, as part of a compromise with her husband.
“He doesn’t really want to move to Thailand,” Schembari explains. “He’s a Westerner, he was born here.” In place of returning to southeast Asia, they moved to a bigger house away from the city, purchasing a stretch of land in the country. Though she began her business with no experience in farming, the garden has become a sanctuary and a reminder of her childhood.
Scehmbari often thinks back to her days growing up in a small Thai suburb. Her grandpa never seemed to leave the backyard. She’s certain of this because he’d always make her water the grounds as a chore. “I don’t like the garden in that moment,” she says, laughing.
“He just went to the garden every day and grew everything. When I grew up, I realized I didn’t have to go to the market. I have everything in the backyard of my home,” Schembari recalls. “Everything that he grew when I was young: mangoes, bananas, coconuts.”
Five years after Schembari moved overseas, her grandfather passed away. “I didn’t have the chance to go back to his funeral,” she says. “I’m still sad about that.”
The garden brings her closer to him. When she first dug her fingers into the soil, she felt chills. “I feel it,” she tells me. “I feel like he’s right here. From that moment, I just grow. Keep growing. And I was happy.”
Among the dozen tents, Ravadee Inphom sells handcrafted soaps infused with Thai herbs, while a mother-daughter duo fries sweet Thai bananas. Many offer premade meals, snacks, and cold beverages sold exclusively at the market.
Some have been in the food business for a while: Saifon Powell, a trained culinary chef, runs Chef Kim’s from her home in Warrenville. Tee Sutapa and Nipaporn Khajornkham, owners of online store Saweedus, feature meals from the northern and southern regions of Thailand. Another vendor, Max Bounyavong, second-generation owner of Lai Thai in Morton Grove, cooks his mom’s family recipes. Other stalls, like the Instagram storefront Gray Basic Cafe, are more experimental ventures.
Chatsaran “Jujue” Karnchanaudomporn, the 29-year-old architectural-interior designer who manages the virtual cafe, perfected her recipes at home throughout the pandemic. The brand is influenced by the trendy After You dessert cafe in Bangkok, and the Gray Basic aesthetic is an ode to “cafe hopping,” one of Jujue’s favorite activities during her yearly visits overseas. On Instagram and at local Thai groceries around the city, she and Noppanun “Pai” Saensuk sell fresh juices, milk teas, and pastries, including sweet bread toasts and pineapple tarts.
Young owners like Jujue and Pai bring hope to Hanviriyapunt, who provides the space at the market. He sees their entrepreneurship as an opportunity—a way to ensure the Thai community stays alive as older generations age.
“Some people still do Thai traditional dress when they come here. They still say ‘sawasdee ka,’” Hanviriyapunt says. “It doesn’t matter where you are. You’re still Thai.”
He hopes the market will teach others what he hadn’t learned growing up in America: to embrace being Thai.
“There is no culture like us,” he says. “To keep that culture, we should be proud of it. We have to belong to it and identify ourselves to be Thai. We have language, we have dress, we have food to be proud of.”