28 September 2008

Confessions of a Shopaholic

I have a confession to make: I am a shopaholic! I am a compulsive, impulsive, reckless, irresponsible shopper. That, however, is not even my worst trait. I over pack to the point of obsession: cat ears for the costume party, sequin shirts for ANY event, 100 shirts (just in case!), and the list goes on.

I decided, though, that packing for Thailand was my opportunity to work on this character flaw. In an effort to improve I came to Thailand with a meager suitcase, two duffel bags, a backpack, and laptop carrying case; all necessities in my opinion.

Aside from developing better packing habits, though, Thailand has taught me more than I can ever express. The home stays, in particular, have been humbling and enlightening. While the villagers may have little, their capacity for love, unending generosity, and infinite spirit have changed me in a way that I will forever cherish.

These home stays offer countless humbling experiences, but the best example comes from my last home stay. Five nights and six days and I was captured. I was ready to call home to tell my parents that I was staying indefinitely in a rural village in Surin. The goal of staying in this village was to learn and experience organic and sustainable farming practices; more valuable, though, than learning about agriculture was what I learned about the human spirit.

My home stay family was very involved in silk weaving, as were most of the other families in the village. Each day, I would walk across the street to the silk house where I was encouraged to participate in each step of the silk progression. I was so excited – I had found fashion is a rural village in Thailand! From helping feed the silk worms, to removing the silk worms’ cocoons from wicker baskets, I quickly began to realize how much work and effort goes into the garments that I have taken for granted. Fashion is not simply a finished garment.

Silk weaving, though, is not the only task for these women. The women of this village have many and varied jobs ranging from tending the rice fields to selling goods at the markets, and despite the work they never complain. The tasks were tended to with a smile and a fervent tenacity. Their happiness in the simple things humbled me beyond compare. The silk weaving house became my heaven on earth, my paradise as I marveled at what these women accomplished every single day. On one of my days in the home stay, I walked over to the silk weaving house. One of the women was working alone at the loom creating a length of silk cloth. As I watched her, she started speaking in Thai.

“Mai cow jhai, I don’t understand,” I said, shaking my head. Undeterred, she rose from her seat at the loom and motioned for me to sit down. I shook my head again, “My chai khab kun ka, No but thank you,” there was no way I was ruining her length of silk. ‘No,’ however was not an option and soon I was sitting with my feet placed on the pedals of the loom (not unlike piano pedals), pushing and pulling at the loom to create this length of silk. After a while, I got up to leave, thanking her in the process. It was only then that I noticed she had placed a needle on the silk cloth to mark the place where I had begun. As I walked away, thrilled with my experience, I grasped the importance of that needle. That needle was a marker for my work (heartfelt, but inexperienced) and a marker of how far back she would have to undo the silk cloth.

How can these women have so little and give so much – literally sharing everything with me so that I may learn? I am not saying that this experience has changed my entire persona (I still love to shop!), but it has given me a new perspective. I can’t keep stressing the small things, I need to be more willing to not only learn but to teach, and I can only hope that I do so with half the strength and character demonstrated by these women.

Natacha Petersen - Claremont McKenna College


Christi said...

Natacha, your thoughts here really mirror what many of us are thinking, and that is an immeasurable amount of gratitude. I know that every time I try and say “mai cow jai, I don’t understand” it’s not met with a shrug of shoulders from my home stay families, rather they just try harder to use hand signals and talk louder in the hopes I’ll miraculously understand Thai. And though it was good to learn the words “mai chai kob kun ka, no thank you” I find that I really never have any use for them here. My families are always letting me do what they’re doing and it’s always a rewarding experience. So why then would I ever say, “no thank you” when asked if I want to participate in a life that is so beautiful as that of the Thai villager? We also learned how to say “mai arroy, not delicious” which is another useless term to throw in my vocabulary, because even if some of the rolley polley fish heads, coagulated chicken blood, or fried silk worms seem, maybe even taste, “mai arroy” I know exactly what went into getting that food from the field to my mouth, and it could never possibly be anything but “arroy mak mak, very very delicious” or “sep ee lee” as we learn more of our Isaan dialect here in Northeastern Thailand.

Emma Htun said...

Natacha, it's so great to look back at your excited love for a Surin village from the end of the urban unit! (By the way, 100 shirts?? I don't know if I even own 100 shirts, you are beyond ridiculous...) Your enchantment with the beautiful simplicity and love of Isaan lifestyles has been shared by many of us during all the homestays. Our brief brush with such a different way of living during these units is probably going to change how a lot of us live, act, and consume when we return to the States (at least a little bit!).

Despite all the units we've been on, I'd have to say that Surin was probably still the unit that has most affected the way I will consume and live in the States. Physically doing something with your hands like you did with needlework is something totally different - this is something that you learn through hard work, not genius. It really served as a reminder to me how insignificant all our learning is at some times.

Max Weisman said...

That was a beautiful story Natacha; I think you really caught the essence of that awesome home stay. Personally I never would have imagined the life of the workers who produce the food we eat and the clothes we wear until now. Surin really opened my eyes to a whole world that I will never – or could never have imagined were it not for this program. When I planted the Banana trees with my paw, I saw first hand the effort that went into a single bunch of Glue-aye, a fruit I never put much thought into besides when I would eat one. I know that if it weren’t for Matt’s enthusiasm for everything about the home stay, I would have been too scared and nervous (of screwing up their farm) to do anything, a mistake I am proud to say I didn’t make. While hesitant, I did participate in every chore my home stay family threw my way, a practice I wish to continue for the rest of this trip.

Anonymous said...

Natacha I find the first three paragraphs specifically interesting as I am about to head back home to the U.S. After having studied a semester in Mexico, living with a working-class family, I am continuously forced to rethink about my own habits and the consumerist culture I was, and will be once again, surrounded by. From the media, whether it’s the radio or television, blasting sale advertisements, to taking the bus system that flashes ads both outside and inside the bus. I feel fortunate to be aware of this culture the U.S. has, and hope to spread to others the ways we can change being so consumerist for the benefit of all.