Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Speaking of industry, as I was in my last post, another common topic of confusion and discussion amongst both my Thai and Falang friends, revolves around who is the more industrious as a people- the Thais or the Americans. Many Thais I know- and I should just digress for a moment here and repeat that I know my sampling- in terms of both geography and numbers- is pathetically small, and in no way am I ever thinking I am even remotely qualified to say, This is what Thailand/Isan is like, or the Thais feel, or think, or are like- anyhoo, many locals I know have noted their impression that Americans are "lazy".  I believe many western tourists, on the other hand, perceive the people in Isan as ineffective and unproductive. The Thais may base their notion on our wasteful habits (did you know that we ship enormous amounts of chicken legs and thighs around the globe because we somehow think of them as dirtyhttp://www.slate.com/id/2282473/). Once you have tasted all the giblets and eyes and so on, and seen a Thai work a carcass until it gives up the last of its treasures, it is hard not to agree there. Secondly, they know most of our kids do no work towards the upkeep of their schools or homes, and they have no other concept to hang that on but laziness. I think the entire attitude we have of providing a fluffy work-free zone for children- which probably came out of a long overdue emancipation of child labor in the west- is beyond their reach. No kid here works in a factory, but there is no adult who is going to lift a finger when a healthy young person is available to shoulder the load. Sorry for the mixed metaphor there. In our case we look at the Thais and mostly see "not Chinese". There is way too much relaxed Buddhism and Mai Pen Rai to grind one's face to a nub in an effort to outpace the Joneses. My experience has also been that here at least there is far less living through planning ahead. Obviously both cultures belie such simplistic labels as "lazy", though I would bet we all agree the Chinese are, on the whole, far more effective, productive, and ruthless than either the Americans or the Thais. Even my Thai friend said, "You want to see someone clean an animal to the last digestible molecule, go to China." And just when one thinks Isan is backwards or slow, a hundred acre solar power grid pops up overnight, or one finds out, as I did just the other day after living here for 4 months and riding in one every other day, that a large portion of the cars here run on natural gas- something the US failed miserably at implementing.
And what is it about work and productivity that has troubled us and tickled us from the day we were expelled from the garden, doomed get our bread from the sweat of our faces? I am always urging my students to work harder. I believe work, both mental and physical, has a connection with virtue. I love work of a certain kind- don't we all?  Mostly I love diving into a small project for myself or for a friend. One of my favorite jobs ever was helping to build my friend Siem's art studio. He had waited for it and deliberated for many hours on its design. That didn't feel like work. Back in the day I would come home from  teaching and sheet rock or paint the addition for hours and it was exhausting and energizing simultaneously. There is work that makes one feel human and work that makes one feel like an ant carrying out orders from the pile Ad infinitum.
From the perspective of a teacher- many of my US kids were very busy, often working but almost always for spending on luxuries for themselves, and nearly all of them were academically very lazy, self-satisfied, and disrespectful. My Thai students are very respectful, self-satisfied in a very different way, and on the whole, not particularly motivated. There are some intense exceptions to these characterizations, like Ning and Nat, but there were in the States too, like Hayli and Caitlin (oh Lord, and Buddha, in my next teaching lifetime, please send me some overachieving boys...). I can also say after volunteering with students all over Rockland and in New Orleans, that American kids are certainly up to a hard days work for no pay when asked. Too bad we have to translate it into "good for the college app resume". If I advise a student from Thailand on their college rec someday I will have them put: Responsible for maintenance and rebuilding of my school and village approximately 10 hours a week all year since I was 6. Speaking of industry, I wasn't sure what these villagers were up to when I snapped their photo on Saturday on my bike ride. They had long poles and nets, but I could not ascertain what they were harvesting up in the trees, even though I stopped to try to talk it over.

It wasn't until I went to dinner with Nit and Nok last night and ate my first ant eggs that the secret was revealed. They are a delicacy here and the nests are up in the trees. Once I got over the image in my head of baby ants hatching in my intestines and crawling out my nose while I was sleeping, they were really good. Served in an incredible fish stew, they actually had a little pop of juice- like a mini gusher if you will- when you bit down on them. One thing we really don't have the equivalent of in our schools is the mini farm and industry projects that many schools here regularly support. They not only provide food for the students and staff, and save money on expenditures, they are a terrific means for the students to learn practical skills they very well will use supporting families and even turning to for profitable businesses. This is the recently built mushroom house Mr. Jong and Snooker built with the kids help. It really isn't hard to harvest the mushrooms, I am just grimacing because it takes just the right twist to get the stalks clear so the next batch can cleanly come through. We had these for lunch today! Arroy Mak Mak!

That is Snooker, who drive me in to work and back, and Mr. Jong, general maintenance dude. He is in the photo with me in the temple on my Facebook Profile.

As I noted- I really  am not that out of shape. Those little bags are filled with a growing medium and they take about 12 days to produce a new crop. Way cool little business!

 And here are the beautiful mushrooms up close. Do they do this in the States? If not, why not? Seems like a great small business or just a great way to supply your home.

These are a collection of fish raising tanks. They are clotted with baby fish that the kids feed and care for and then we roast for lunch. Really delicious little catfish type critters.
Sorry I couldn't get a better shot of an individual fish. They were too small at this point.

Finally, this is the eucalyptus plantation, started by the last director. As far as I can see, it requires no maintenance at this point. I am not sure when it will provide a harvest. Right now all the rage is for planting rubber trees, since the price has over tripled in the last few years.

I remember reading a book in college way back in the 1980's called Small is Beautiful. I wonder what happened to that concept or if it ever really stood a chance. It is good to work hard, after all, depending on the nature of the work and the outcome of one's labor. I keep coming back to that notion of the manageability of the project and its outcome. A few pigs in the backyard. A few mushrooms in the house. A few words a day. And who knows how the ants feel anyway? I can't speak for the ants either. poor, hard-working little buggers.
My Thai friend who reads this blog informs me that those long poles in the photos are not for ant nests. Those particular poles are for catching frogs. Some kind of hooking motion to get them by the leg. When I think of the sheer amount of misinformation I have spread through the years, it astonishes even me!


  1. Nice perspective.

    My wife has begun inferring that I am not working, which I know translates into lazy. All the time I spend trying to understand all the options inside my web page and then writing and doing what I call editing is all just relaxing from her point of view.

    Where as, she works very hard chopping bamboo into satay sticks all day for about two dollars. I see the degree of physical labor, but can not relate to two dollars a day.

    This morning she told me that she heard the cement crying yesterday because it missed me so much.

  2. Just a fun fact: there are those mushroom kits in the states! only instead of a bag they come out of a block of something...i'm not really sure what. I saw them on the west coast when I was visiting Seattle. I was slightly awed by them!