24 March 2010

Moo-baan (village)


The Oxford American Dictionary defines the word slum as “a squalid and overcrowded urban street or district inhabited by very poor people”. This definition describes my own image of slums quite accurately. Or at least it did, before I spent a few days living in Nong Waeng, a slum community in Khon Kaen. Beforehand, I envisioned a maze of muddy, narrow alleys, with shacks crammed together and throngs of people barely scraping by.

With these preconceptions in mind, I was surprised upon arriving in Nong Waeng to find a relatively small group of modest homes stretched out beside the railroad tracks. One of the main streets was recently paved, and the others, while rutted and dusty, were wide enough for cars to pass. In the area where I stayed, houses occupied only one side of the street; on the other side was an open, grassy area where cows grazed and kids played. Flowers filled pots on doorsteps and bougainvillea grew wild over gates and roofs. And while most of the people living in Nong Waeng would be categorized as “low-income”, even “very poor”, this description falls short for me. Poor in monetary resources, sure, but rich in many other things. Rich in community, rich in family, rich in love. Though there are certainly many difficult issues in Nong Waeng, it is not the place of despair I had envisioned when I thought of the word slum.

Realizing that the label I had pinned on these people did them no justice, I searched for alternatives in English. Squatter community? Legally, that is what they have always been until now, with the absence of formal land title. But most of them did pay for their land, and they have been building permanent lives here for many years. They are not squatting, they are living, staying. The thesaurus provides me a few alternatives to slum- ghetto, shantytown, skid row, shacktown. None of these fit in the least. Nong Waeng is a neighborhood, a community. It is a home.

Frustrated with the biases of my own language, I began to wonder if Thai could more accurately describe the reality of Nong Waeng. The word we learned to refer to a slum is chumchon eyahd, which literally means “crowded community”. This word came into usage about 15 years ago to replace salum, the Thai pronunciation of the English slum. As in English, salum has negative connotations of filth, vice, and destitution. Organizers, the governement, and communities have attempted to escape some of these stigmas by using chumchon eyahd instead, but many of the negative connotations of salum persist.

Interestingly enough, many of the residents use a different word to refer to their home. Often, they call it moo bahn, meaning village. They are chow bahn, villagers. This struck me hard, as I realized that this simple application of language explains volumes about the rural-to-urban connections we have been learning about. The older generations of Nong Waeng came from rural places. Their identity is deeply rooted in being villagers, and the place they live, though urban in many ways, is still a village. And with that word, moo bahn, comes the deeply rooted culture of Thai villages- communal eating, communal childcare, communal watching out for each other, communal life. This is what I experienced in Nong Waeng- a moo bahn, not a slum.

These ponderings leave me with no conclusions, only a profound sense that language has an incredible ability to impact the way we see the world. I’m glad I’ve been given the chance to turn preconceptions on their head. I also wonder, however, if it’s always necessary to find the perfect word to describe something- can we take the language we have and transform its meaning? Can the people who are assigned a label take ownership of that word and mold it to their own purposes? Can the word slum come to mean something different?

Emily Hanson
Macalester College

2 comments:

Maggie said...

Emily,

I too walked into Non Waeng expecting something different based on the fact that we were having a home stay in a "slum". I found myself thinking that I would see a couple drug deals, rats would be scurrying across me in the middle of the night, and that the food that my family would feed me would probably upset my stomach. Instead I found the happiest people I have stayed with so far in Thailand. Yes, they seemed tight on money and I was woken up in the night multiple times by trains passing by, but overall the word moo bahn fits so much better than salum.

It was in this home stay that my point of view of community was completely altered. These residents literally call everyone in their village family. Across the railroad tracks from my home, I could see a row of cookie cutter houses with a cement wall as a fence topped with barbed wire. I could only imagine the sense of community that these houses must feel and it immediately brought me back to neighborhoods in the United States. The whole idea of FENCES by themselves makes me laugh now after home stays in Thailand. I am so jealous of the family-like atmosphere among the majority of home stays we live in.

Maggie M.

Megan said...

Emily,

Like yourself, I too had preconceived notions about what I thought a slum environment entailed and was pleasantly surprised and delighted by my experiences in Nong Waeng. I remember reading about slums in our lecture packets and thinking about the movie Slumdog Millionaire, trying to figure out how those movie images in my head would parallel my future experience in Nong Waeng. When I entered this community, I was immediately struck by the warm and welcoming atmosphere of my family and adjacent neighbors. I would be sitting in my home reading to my little sister when a group of her little friends would flock to my side and join in on our conversation.

Throughout this program, we have experienced community in every sense of the word: community within our own CIEE group and community within the villages. I think the term solidarity really applies within the context of our experiences here and how no matter what kind of environments we may encounter, we cultivate a deeper sense of what we understand community to be. And for that reason, I am glad that Nong Waeng defied my original expectations of what I thought a slum would be, and instead I was delighted to find a strong community whose relationships with each other are built upon a mutual respect and interdependence on each other.

Megan