07 October 2009

Yasothorn Experience

Living with a family in Yasothorn, a small province in the lower Northeast, I began to understand the life of a Thai rice farmer. Each day rolled into the next, my family seamlessly performing each day’s work which began well before sunrise. My meh and paw (mother and father) rose at 5 o’clock, paw heading to the rice fields and meh washing the dishes from the previous day, feeding the animals and beginning the day’s food preparation. The children woke up a bit later, washed, ate and headed to school- one by bicycle and one driven on a motorcycle. As the morning progressed my meh and her sister (whom share the same house) washed clothes, prepared sticky rice and tended to the cows, pigs and buffalo. After sunset the whole family ate together,usually watching a Thai soap opera or other comparable show on their television which resided on the roofed deck located a few yards from the house. By 10 o’clock, everyone was showered and asleep under the network of mosquito nets hung every evening. Besides a chicken or two unsuccessfully attempting to swipe a few grains of rice during meals, the day ran without interruption. There were no arguments, tele-marketers or blinking call-waiting signals.

As an American raised in New York City and the surrounding suburbs, I have grown accustomed to a slightly different routine. Breakfast is generally rushed or eaten on the go, parents commute to their jobs and housework is regarded as an unfortunate chore. Work, I have observed, is an aspect of one’s life to be separated from the rest. One’s occupation is not necessarily “who you are.”

Living with my Thai family, however, I realized that they do not consider farming an occupation. Rather, it is a lifestyle. While the mere proximity of the cows and rice fields signifies that there is no physical separation between work and home, it was clear from every activity I watched my parents perform that this division simply does not exist. The contribution my paw makes by planting and harvesting rice is not more significant than other work that must be done. While meh may not plant in the field as frequently as the male family members, the concept of a “stay at home mom” does not exist. The whole family functions as one unit; when asked their profession, every family member answers “ben chow na,” I am a farmer.

Both the average American family and rice farmers in Thailand are dependent on some sort of livelihood, but it is the definition of livelihood that changes. While I grew up defining this term as one’s salary, monetary gain is not the goal of my Thai family. Rather, they farm to feed themselves. Any extra crops are sold to afford only the food and amenities they themselves cannot produce. The Thai government may consider the farmers in my village impoverished, but I now realize that falling on either side of a poverty line established by officials who do not understand one’s life is meaningless. Experiencing this lifestyle for only five days has made me question the power I assign to money and the materialistic values that seem almost innate as an American citizen. While, as Americans, we may convince ourselves that our career cannot define us, the fact remains that the majority of our waking hours are spent in offices or tracking billables (at least until we retire at the ripe old age of 65). While I do not plan to abandon my future career goals just yet and certainly understand the positives of capitalism, I think it would do us all some good to question our perception of money and the consequences of categorizing our lives into “work” and “personal.”

Katherine Cahn
Georgetown University


Ian S. said...

The issue you discuss here is one I viewed similarly upon my return from Yasathorn, and which I made point to highlight in the conclusion of our last exchange. It's true that a typical day in the lives of the ordinary Thai family dissolves with ease, for the most part moving without interruption. Specifically, I like how you analyzed the difference between work and lifestyle, noting how most professions in the United States are not regarded with such loyalty and appreciation.

This goes for most things back home in New York. The lack of time causes most things to fast forward, and a day without interruption is a needle in a haystack. However, some could argue that there are much more enjoyments to be had, specifically those who welcome the unexpected, in a day where anything could happen.

Surin Farmers Support said...

http://aanesan.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/family-and-culture/ - thanks for your great piece!