29 March 2009

Open Houses, Open Hearts

What consistently strikes me through our home stays is the strength and connectedness within each community. Everyone knows each other, and more than that, depend on each other. In the majority of the communities we've visited, the houses are open. There is one main road for the community. People are buying and selling anything from food to gasoline right in front of their house. It seems like there's nothing to hide, there's no fear someone will steal from "their property" or ruin their garden. It is this openness that helps create such a connection with the people around them.

In the Nong Jahn community forest, I still felt this strong community presence, but there was more to their interconnectedness that struck me on this last home stay. What also joined them was their dependence on the forest and farmland for their livelihood. Anywhere from 50-80% of a Nong Jahn individual's food comes from the forest, and most villagers farm for consumption as well as the market. Everywhere, behind their houses, down the road or in the forest, there is food to plant or gather. My host mom, who has lived in Nong Jahn for most of her life, would ask me if I wanted some coconut milk. Upon hearing my eager reply walked 10 feet behind her house and started prodding the coconut tree with a large wooden stick. I don't know why that amazed me so much. Should it really be that remarkable to not have to drive to an air-conditioned building to grab the day's food? What does it mean to me when I see others so nonchalantly pick and eat the food from their own backyards?

Paw Dai, another long-time Nong Jahn villager, is said to be the most dependent on the forest. Every morning he gathers food and/or medicine from the forest, as the elders of the village taught him to do decades ago. The seasons and the community's needs dictate what and how much he gathers (since those who are unable to go out into the forest count on him bringing back extra to share). This season's specialty is *paag* *wan* and red ant eggs, considered delicatessens in Thailand because they are tasty and hard to find. Dai never destroys the plants or cuts down trees for selfish purposes; he merely takes a plastic bag and a small machete to gather food, one day at a time. The forest's survival is the community's survival, so it is his duty to look out for it.

It seems like the whole community acts in a way that shows it is their own responsibility to care for the land and each other. They use organic fertilizer, plant for themselves and each other and pick what they need from the forest. The fields, their gardens, their houses, and even the forest to an extent are all transparent and definitely meant for sharing. Nong Jahn even made total strangers like us feel we needed to eat everything they shared, maybe in order to be initiated into their style of doing things. There would be no point in hoarding food or any resources because there would be no true trust from which to thrive off. It is the giving and taking from each other and the land that allows them to have balanced, happy and healthy lives.

Generally speaking, in the US, it’s so easy to just drive alone in our cars to go grocery shopping. We can choose not to see our neighbors for days, and in some cases, not even know our neighbors. If we really wanted to, we could choose to never even leave our houses and instead order all of our food and clothes online. But being exposed here to such communal trust, in some of the most beautiful and simple terms, really teaches me the importance of connecting with people and the local place. I hope I can carry back with me to the US how much I have been touched by these people.

Lisa Bruckner - Macalester College


Kelsey said...

Thank you for your thoughtful blog entry, Lisa – I really enjoyed reading it. You said in your first sentence that what consistently strikes you throughout homestays is the strength and connectedness of each community. I think I have heard this same feeling expressed by every CIEE student, and I know I have definitely thought this myself. I first began to really think about this during Unit 1 in Yasothorn when I learned about the incredible support system of the Alternative Agriculture Network. Our next unit took us from a rural agricultural community to an urban slum, but still the community strength was apparent everywhere. I stayed in Theparak 1, and during our community exchange we learned that residents of this slum refused to accept the government’s offer of land leases because it would mean that their neighbors living within the first 20 meters of the train tracks would have to be evicted. It was so important to them that their community remained united, and they were all willing to stand together in resistance. I often wonder what this says about our communities and culture in America – that we are all from different regions, some from cities and some from small towns, and yet we are all so similarly affected by seeing communities in Thailand standing together and strong. How will we reflect on this feeling when we return home? How can we inject a little Thai community flavor into our own localities? I think about this often…

Cortney Ahern said...

Lisa- I really enjoyed reading your blog entry! I have noticed more recently that after coming back from home stays (while I am always slightly relived to be sleeping in my own bed, comforted by air conditioning and internet access) I always feel a little bit lonely, like I am missing something. The communities we stay in are so incredibly connected to their neighbors, to their children and to their land. And while sometimes we all need our personal space, I find myself seeking out the other 29 students when we get back just to be around our own community that we have created here at KKU.

I have shared your feelings about the disconnect between in the States between neighbors or between resources. But I have also noticed a huge difference between connections within families themselves. In every unit, from organic farming to slums/landfill, Nong Jahn forest and now again in the dam communities we have heard about the importance of passing down generational knowledge and the threat of that chain being broken by various development projects. I wonder if development has played a role in breaking, or at least disrupting, that chain in America? I know a few stories from my Grandfather's childhood and I share a very current relationship with him, but there has been no active exchange of passing down familial knowledge and skills. This is one of the things I think about most in my time in Thailand and one of the things I want to be sure to take home with me.

Julia said...

Your post really resonated with me, Lisa, and it echoes a lot of the feelings that I have been having for the last couple of months. I think that it is really important to create connections between people, in addition to supporting our relationship with the environment. I keep trying to picture what a sustainable life would look like for me back in the States, and things I could do to continue what I have experienced in Thailand.

One thing that I have thought of is to garden more at my house. My experience with gardening has always been helping out my mom with weeding or something, and I think it would be completely different to grow vegetables in order to eat them. I also want to look at chemical fertilizer in my own community and see if my parents use it at all in their garden or in their yard. It will be interesting to see the differences and similarities between organic agriculture and sustainability in Thailand and in my own community. This is just one way that I have personally been trying to cope with the issues that you brought up.

I think that it is really rare to be able to observe a completely different way of life, as we have done throughout our semester. I also believe that we are lucky to be able to get distance from American culture and values and re-examine our lifestyles, as you have done in your post. It will help us be more conscious and aware when we get back home.

justin.crosbie said...


I've been thinking about this as well. Growing up in a city, it was hard to feel like part of a "neighborhood" like all my other friends. I did have neighbors, but I did not know them, and our conversations were limited to "hellos" and "goodbyes" as we saw each other in passing.

Coming here I was thrown completely off my rocker to see how connected these communities are and how much they rely on other people, both relatives and friends alike, to maintain such a strong bond.

But I feel comfort in the invisibility I have in cities. Maybe it is because it was what I was brought up around, but I just think it's easier for me to walk down the street and just be another face to everyone passing by. Something about the fact that I could trip and fall and nobody would notice comforts me. The more I think about it, the less sense it is making to me. Just another thing I'll adjust to back home.

Katja said...

thanks for your blog Lisa! I too am always amazed by the sense of community in each of our homestays. It makes me wonder if there is any place in the United States that the community is that open, or the people are that unguarded as they are in the villages we have stayed in in Thailand.
I also have thought a lot about their reliance on the nature around them. By western standards, the people living in Nong Jahn would be considered to be poor and many of the villagers probably live under the "one dollar a day" standard. Places like Nong Jahn, however, have made me realize how ridiculous this assessment of poverty is. I mean, how many people in America just go to the backyard or venture into the forest to find dinner? I would feel fortunate to have even half the vegetation they do in my backyard. So now when i reflect on statistics that state how many people in the world live on less than one dollar a day I recognize that this statement may not be as valid as I may have originally thought. Since it is a very capitalist assessment of poverty, it neglects to incorporate people that don't base their lives around a monetary system. many of the people in Nong Jahn simply live off the land and trade food amongst each other.