07 December 2008

Going Home...Is Building Community Even Possible?

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to make some sense of the units we’ve studied and to identify some of the ties between villages we visited. For me, the most important parallel between all of these villages is the strong sense of community they seem to develop. It’s not a realization I recently came to, but a topic that I came to Thailand hoping to learn more about. I never expected to be as moved as I have been by the relationships villagers forge with one another. During our home stay in Kambon Noi, the landfill community, it was difficult to tell which of the many people coming in and out of our house were actually family. The families there relied on each other for daily survival, helping each other scavenge for recyclables to sell. At the exchange in the evening, I noticed that the women in the village acted more like sisters than neighbors.

It’s difficult not to envy the strong bonds that villagers share. My family moved into a housing development a few years ago, the kind of subdivision with a neighborhood association whose primary concern is how long residents keep up their Christmas lights. We still don’t know our neighbors. Big surprise.

I’ve been wondering why it is that this concept of a strong community has been disappearing throughout America. Why is it that we can join online networks to read about the music preferences of acquaintances living across country, but not take the time to know those who live right next to us? Are we just too busy? I’ve been asking myself “why don’t we have community” when really I should’ve been wondering what reason we have that would bring us together.

There are many reasons why the villages we’ve studied have been able to develop a strong community. Each village was united by a common issue. In Surin, it was farming. In Khambon Noi, it was the dwindling economy and poor health conditions. In addition, Thailand has a rich cultural history. Isaan has a culture that is so tight knit and specific.

But what unites us as Americans? In a nation of immigrants, do we even share a cultural history? In “Angels in America”, Tony Kushner calls America “this great big melting pot where nothing actually melted”. It may be pessimistic, but lately I’ve been wondering if it’s even possible to strengthen communities in our nation that is a heterogeneous mix of immigrant cultures.

And while I know this may spark harsh criticism from many, I can’t help but think race is a part of the dissolution of communities. I’m from a small Georgia town, where racism is still very much a problem. I have seen the way it affects communities and feel like I can confidently say it is a dividing line for many. The college I attend also has its fair share of race related issues which have contributed to a rather disjointed student community. Sometimes I wonder if Thai villagers are able to share such close bonds not only because they share a common issue, but also because they come from a similar racial background.

This blog post probably says a great deal about my faith in humanity, which is another post for another time. Disenchantment is not a pleasant experience. I came to Thailand hoping to learn about how to build community and now I’m unsure of whether an attempt at reconstructing it is even possible.

Lane Eisenburg - Wofford College

1 comment:

Faye Whiston said...

I think I'm feeling a similar kind of disenchantment. Turns out, the country I've called my own for the past 20 years kind of.. sucks. Much like what you saw in Khambon Noi and Surin, our group was able to see a vital, lively community called Nueva Esperanza in El Salvador. Just as the villages you mentioned were united by farming or by a dwindling economy, members of Nueva Esperanza were and still are united by circumstance--they all wanted to return after the the civil war came to a close but had nowhere to go. I, too, wonder why community seems harder to come by in the United States. It seems to be a combination of factors- race, class, ancestry, religion- you name it. In a lot of cases it seems like it takes a civil war or some similar catastrophe to unite a people.

"It may be pessimistic, but lately I’ve been wondering if it’s even possible to strengthen communities in our nation that is a heterogeneous mix of immigrant cultures." I wonder that too but I also wonder why that heterogeneous mix can't ever be seen as a strength, as an asset that many other countries do not have.