Yesterday we harvested rice from the acre next to our house for the last time. Pramote has been hinting more and more boldly that it’s time to quit. The reasons are mounting. Lon, the real farmer in the family, has had “heart problems” and can’t handle this sort of hard work much longer. Our neighbors on every side have converted their rice fields into orchards which require a different type of irrigation. Furthermore, the economics of growing one’s own rice are increasingly unfavorable.
Using firm figures and guesses, we can say that a 5 kilogram bag of rice in the grocery store sells for about 180 baht or 36 baht per kilo (roughly $1 in US currency). If the rice is bought in large 48 kilo bags in the market it costs about 1300, or 27 baht per kilo.
We got an estimated 1200 kilos of rice from our 2 rai of land, which will be about 900 kilos when it’s dry. We could have sold the new rice at 8.3 baht a kilo yesterday or 11 baht a kilo when it’s good and dry, ready to store. The cost of production included about 1500 baht for good quality seed, 500 for fertilizer, 1200 for sprays, 2100 for a crew to do transplanting last August, 1000 for harvesting yesterday, but nothing figured for about 4 days of additional incidental labor. Milling the rice locally costs nothing if the miller gets to keep the hulls to sell for pig feed. That comes to a total investment of 6300 baht. We will keep the rice, but it is worth 11 baht a kilo, which is 9900 total for 900 kilos of dry rice ready to cook. That is 7 baht per kilo as compared to 27 in the market or 36 in the grocery store.
The profit for the year can be said to be 3600 baht ($100+).
The question is why have we persisted in growing our own rice?
For one thing, it’s a clan project. In the clan are some who can afford to go out and buy rice and some who cannot. As long as we are growing it as we always have, we share it as we always have. Actual costs are more or less hidden or overlooked. But if someone is putting out actual cash for the rice, the cost is more obvious and the receiver feels the difference as keenly as the purchaser does.
A second reason is that growing rice is a deeply rooted tradition. Despite the fact that the cultural aspects of growing rice are disappearing as village life no longer revolves around the cultivation of rice as well as around the social aspects of planting and harvest, something important will be lost (lost but lodged in the collective unconscious as a lingering memory). Even folks living in the city for two or three generations still resonate to this over-riding culture. We are reminded of it every meal.
Another reason to keep planting rice for these past years is that converting a rice field into another purpose will take an investment. Traditionally, rice fields are open, but land for other purposes is fenced in. Rice irrigation uses a centuries-old gravity flow system of canals and ditches. Orchards nowadays depend on pipes and pumps. There must be land-fill for trees to raise them above the flood level. These costs are rather high. For example, we would be able to support about 40 trees on our rice field. That would take 40 truck-loads of soil at about 750 baht per load, or about 30,000, plus another 15,000 for a new irrigation system, 4000 for saplings and fertilizer and sprays for 6 years before the trees begin to bear a marketable crop. In about 10 years, however, if all goes well the annual fruit will sell for around ¼ of a million baht ($7,000) at today’s prices, which is a whole lot more than the profit for growing rice.
Nevertheless, the decision to convert from rice to fruit is not actually all about money.
[If you found this interesting, you may enjoy last year’s harvesting rumination: Harvesting Rice ]
THANKSGIVING in the USA is all about the annual feast. The focus of a feast is on the food. The reason for the event is the food. Families should assemble, but the primary reason they come is to appreciate the food together. Feasts are different from other gatherings and celebrations in that respect. A US Thanksgiving feast also involves an assumed or implied narrative.
Based on reminiscences and reflections on Thanksgiving feasts I have experienced, I suggest that the operative underlying narrative is not about Pilgrims. What I have observed is: (1) the feast is a tradition energized by memories that go back to the generation before last. The cooks who organize the feast remember their grandparents. It would be a rare Thanksgiving if the food traditions of remembered ancestors were not talked about. The ones cooking now may do things differently but they will remark on the differences. That’s the narrative running through their minds even if the Thanksgiving meal is outside the home or the menu scandalously includes tacos rather than turkey. (2) The feast is a celebration of bounty. It is a harvest festival above all, but the food represents a whole range of blessings, endowments, benefits and entitlements that are circumstantial. The circumstance is “America” but it is felt in a more localized sense as “our community and family and the territory where we live(d) and thrive(d).” (3) The foundational narrative is that our ancestors arrived and settled here in this general locality. Our collective story begins with that settling. Afterward, our place is “around here,” even if we or some of us are not here now. This is our place and our natural culture is the attitudes and behaviors of the people in this place.
These three dynamics give purpose and power to the Thanksgiving feast or whatever is substituted for it. The Thanksgiving feast is a reiteration of remembered family tradition, an emotional response to a sense of physical and social well-being, and an expression of being rooted and grounded (i.e. settled). If any of these three components is compromised the celebration of Thanksgiving will be weakened. Even though the food may be the same, if there are none around to share memories of Thanksgivings past (as with prisoners, for example) the celebration has a hollow ring. People who are unsettled (e.g. homeless) miss some of the power of the celebration, even if some kind agency serves dinner. Thanksgiving with tragically ill patients has a sense of urgency that interferes.
On the other hand, it does not essentially matter that the details of the stories we inherit about being settled are not the same. It is Thanksgiving in a farmhouse in Kansas as well as in a townhouse in the Bronx as long as there is a feast celebrating belonging, wellbeing, and settlement. That is what makes the idea of a national Thanksgiving functional. Even those of us living abroad can assume a Thanksgiving mode by keeping in mind our settled heritage as well as for our current situation. Of course, if we are religious we also give thankful credit to God for our wellbeing.
This year 2016, following the most tumultuous national referendum on national values in living memory, it would be good to reconsider what enables and underlies a successful US Thanksgiving. The least considered component of Thanksgiving is the concept of settlement.
Although the operative, Thanksgiving narrative (the story that we feel without prompting) goes no farther back, perhaps, than a vague notion that our ancestors ended their moving by settling down in new home territory, we can view this through a wider field of vision. Essential to our clan’s settlement is the whole idea of settlement.
“Settler Colonialism” is the emerging term for the particular type of process engaged in by immigrants from Europe into North America in the 17-19th centuries. Settler colonialism included certain concepts: (1) that the settlers were entitled to move where they went. (Some were compelled, in fact). (2) That there was no need to take prior residents into account. (3) That this movement reiterated a sacred (Biblical) precedent and mandate. (4) That the legal practices the settlers developed were sovereign. (5) That ranching, farming and manufacturing were the standard enterprises (mining, shipping and forestry were aspects in support of them).
The US national narrative tends to boldly celebrate this. Significant episodes revolve around successful establishment of settlements and elimination of threats. Heroes are those who pushed colonization forward. Alternative narratives were nullified in various ways.
What other narrative is possible?
A narrative of belonging has no concept of interruption, resettlement, or ownership. Eternal things cannot be owned. Well-being is not dependent on possessing such things. Even more absurd is the idea of owning other living beings or of a hierarchy of human authority. Instead there is unquestionable but inscrutable connectivity. In such a cultural ethos, thanksgiving is a response to particular events (a successful hunt, for example) rather than to abstract feeling and cyclical tradition.
A narrative of immigration is concerned with transition. Change is the constant. The destination is ahead. Narratives of immigration are nostalgic as well as hopeful, rather than satisfied and defensive. They espouse mystery, celebrate passages, and expect thresholds. Thanksgiving is concerned with incidents of adaptation and accommodation. Narratives of immigration are recapitulated in sacramental ceremonies in which divine-human encounters in the past presage ones in the present and portend ones to come. Thanksgiving is anticipatory.
These are two alternative narratives. They are irreconcilable with a settler narrative.
In order to celebrate the Great American Thanksgiving Feast it is not necessary to pay attention to any of these narratives. Consideration of the implications of settler colonialism could come at another time. Ironically, the pressure to do so on Thanksgiving comes from the imposition of a meta-narrative about patriotism, national heritage, and the myth of the first settlers. The story of the Pilgrims impels a response that our collective amnesia could otherwise avoid. The sober conclusion to critical review of settler colonization of North America is that the colonists cared nothing for their predecessors in the land and willfully drove them away as obstructions to settlement. We in any generation after these pioneer settlers are beneficiaries of their ruthlessness. The remnant of the original residents who survive, as well as recent immigrants, either do not share in the Thanksgiving or have capitulated to the principles of settler colonialism upon which the Thanksgiving Harvest Feast is founded and conducted.
Enjoy your turkey (or tacos).
This is the season for Dawk Khae. They fall during the night from two flowering trees next to our house. We are lucky to have them. They are fairly unusual in our valley. Seeds for ours came with the landfill when we were building. They were a pleasant surprise. They also are a financial help to Pramote’s sister, Jaa, who comes every morning to collect them and turn them into “Dawk Khae Stuffed with Pork”. Jaa has made about $100 (3000 baht) in the last 6 weeks collecting, cooking and selling stuffed Khae flowers.
Pramote tells me the recipe is easy (for him). There are many versions. The fragrant, waxy, slightly bitter blossoms resembling an orchid are stuffed with a marble-sized ball of finely-minced pork (almost pureed), mixed with egg mixed with curried chili paste. These are roasted. They can also be steamed, fried or boiled. Some add them to soup – this is north Thailand, the land of ten-thousand soups.
McFarland [Thai-English Dictionary, Stanford University Press, 1944, p. 213] says “The fleshy petals as well as the tender leaves are relished in curries and soups or fried with butter. The bark, leaves and flowers are used medicinally.” He does not give Khae a name in English, meaning the tree is not well known by any English name in Thailand. Sesbania grandiflora (Leguminosae) is sometimes called Hummingbird Tree and is found from Malaya to North Australia. As traditional medicine has been replaced by more dependable modern pharmaceuticals, the only major use of khae products is for flavoring food.
In thinking about dawk khae I have 4 observations:
1. Nature is generous to the industrious. HM the Late King of Thailand developed an economic “philosophy” around the concept of re-introducing multi-use plants for sustainable income and utility. Dispensing with infrequent or minimal options is extravagant, but it is an aspect of movement into a money economy.
2. Thai cuisine is opportunistic. “Real” Thai food begins with the question, “What’s available?” Not “What do we want to eat?” This means that restaurants with fixed menus are only serving the most common items. A lot of Thai food remains little-known. Thai cuisine is also artistic. Some recipes took days to prepare. Fruit carving is only the most well-known surviving food-art; artistic decoration in cream on cups of coffee is the most recent.
3. Bitter is one of five basic flavors of Thai food, along with salty, pet (hot-spicy), sweet and sour. These flavors have varieties, from subtle to bold. A complete menu for a meal includes all 5 flavors as well as types (stir-fried, thick curry, thin soup, roasted meat and vegetables). Also there should be a variety of ingredients, typically, chicken, pork, fish, and “seafood” (anything from the sea that is not fish), which are used to flavor vegetables. Everything is eaten with rice. In other words, traditional Thai food is rice with vegetables made tasty by small amounts of meat, herbs and spices.
4. Thai cuisine is an aspect of Thai culture. It is probably more dependable than language as an indicator of cultural diversity in Thailand. Culture mandates emanating from the Bangkok elite have focused on language as the factor to unify the country. Increasingly, to trace cultural roots, food is the best way to identify strains of diversity.
This blog is about, “What can I say to make people understand?”
First, the situation: Pramote Wanna and I have a secure, mutually satisfactory life together. After 9 years we were officially married in Iowa in 2009. This relationship is the result of a slowly-developed realization that we are good for each other and together can provide what each of us would lack singly. We are also accepted and integrated into each other’s clans. I have a definite status and role in Pramote’s extended family and he has a place of esteem in mine. Because we live in Thailand we are not afforded the full protection and benefit of the law, of course. I am an officially unattached alien. I have an annually renewed right to live here and work at Payap University. Should something unforeseen happen and the Thai government decide I must depart, my relationship with Pramote would count for nothing. But for 16 years the worst that has happened has been my loss of title, membership status and roles in the church here. This was due to the aggressive attacks of American missionaries rather than action by Thai leaders. In all these years since 2000 the only homophobia and danger we have experienced has been from Americans.
Now, the problem: How can I explain that here in northern Thailand we feel safe but there in the USA we do not? The problem is not in articulating this. I have just said it. The problem is that the people to whom I say it reject what I’m saying. “Oh, the situation is not so bad,” some say. On a day-to-day basis people in the USA are kind, considerate, tolerant and polite. The exceptions are rare. Still, the exceptions are there. And they are not as rare as they used to be. Violence and terrifying events almost never happen here against same-sex adult couples. There they happen regularly. They are not exceptional. They are accelerating. “Just ignore those comments,” others advise. I can do that. I have been subjected to enough criticism and abuse to handle it. But I don’t think Pramote can put it into the same minimalist perspective I can. I cannot promise him that our comfort and safety as a gay couple would be as great there as here. In fact, I would have to say that the opposite would be the case. “Well, there are risks you take anywhere,” I am reminded. Yes, statistically our chances of being involved in a fatal auto accident are greater here. My chances of confronting a cobra in the bathroom are practically nil in Illinois. But our chances of being subjected to harassment or discrimination are much greater in America.
Finally, the reality: I do not have to emigrate with Pramote back to the USA and we have no plans to do so. This discussion is hypothetical. It’s “what-if” thinking. But the reality is that for the last decade our type of relationship was becoming mainstream in the USA and that meant we could begin to expect movement here in Thailand, too. Now we are going to be on the defensive again. I have counted the postings by LGBT friends on Facebook and there is not one since November 8 that shows confidence we can keep on making progress into the mainstream without a fight or struggle. We LGBT Americans and immigrants cannot expect to do more than hold onto as much of the progress we have made as we can. Violence is becoming acceptable. Extremism is expanding. A considerable amount of it is directed at us.
I would like to be proud and unafraid but it’s not working.
A Crystal Child ลูก แก้า is a metaphorical, honorific title for a child going to be ordained as a Buddhist novice. He is fulfilling a traditional transition from being a prince into being a humble mendicant, which is a much higher role. To symbolize this change the child is adorned as splendidly as possible and then travels to the temple on the back of a horse. The Prince Gautama left his palatial home and family and rode his fabled horse, Kanthaka, across the mystical frontier (symbolized by a river) into the forest, on the night he renuoned his heritage and then began his search for enlightenment. In North Thailand the custom is to dress the boy in pure white or elaborately in bright colors to reiterate that journey.
What, then, is being symbolized when (as in the case of the girl in our pictures) the child is not going to be ordained, and indeed there is no ordination ceremony at all?
On the day this child rode to the temple the event was a katin, a celebration to make merit at the end of the rainy season by taking new sets of robes to the monks at a temple so they might be fittingly attired as they end their retreat and emerge into the wider world again. All katin ceremonies have two things in common, in Thai Buddhism. They are as festive as possible and they bring major resources to a temple. The point is to make merit through the donation of gifts. Merit is in direct proportion to the effort expended in making the donation. Traveling a long distance makes more merit than a short distance. Making a large donation makes more merit than a small donation. Contributing to an effort to expand the benefits of enlightenment to others makes more merit than other forms of human improvement.
When the Crystal Child rode her “dancing pony” at the head of the procession to bring robes and donations to the temple she was a symbol that the sponsors of the katin were doing more than helping build an assembly hall for a new temple in a small village. The sponsors were saying that they were giving spiritual, financial, and moral support to the village for its entire mission. They intended the festival to be as splendid as possible, but they were concerned for the future and were investing in it.
The future belongs to children. How often we need to be reminded of that.
On November 2, 2016 the people of Chiang Mai Province expressed their veneration of His Late Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej who ascended the throne 70 years ago and died on October 13, 2016 about two months before his 89th birthday anniversary. The service was attended by a throng of about 100,000 persons. (An early report in a Thai newspaper underestimated the crowd at 35,000, and that has been widely repeated.) It was held at the Royal Floral Park southwest of the city of Chiang Mai. The center of the park is one of several large “shrines” built around the country to honor His Majesty. The park hosts floral exhibitions and features long-term displays of multiple-use vegetation, which was a passionate interest of His Majesty.
The College of Music of Payap University was given responsibility for providing a choir and orchestra for the occasion. 200 youth from Payap, The Prince Royal’s College, Dara Academy, and Montfort College sang from the steps of the shrine and led the massed assembly in singing the King’s Anthem, “The Impossible Dream” and “The King of the Land.” The Governor of Chiang Mai spoke in behalf of the Province, remembering more than 90 visits HM the King made to Chiang Mai and his expansive agricultural projects which transformed Chiang Mai’s reputation into a renowned agricultural development area. ML Panadda Diskul represented the Government of Thailand as well as everyone in the audience addressing the King, as it were, to express gratitude and thanks for HM the King’s varied interests and their outcome. It was mentioned that Royal Projects undertaken under Him Majesty’s direction over 70 years amounted to more than one new project a week.
The memorial service included several highly planned components. Everyone in attendance lighted candles they had brought or which were provided by the provincial organizers. Candles were lit as the “King’s Song” Tha Wora Bhudda-jao was sung. At the end of the song everyone extinguished their candles except those placed along the avenue in front of the shrine. From the air these still-lighted candles spelled “Chiang Mai” with a heart, and the King’s monogram.
More than a dozen drone cameras buzzed overhead capturing the scene below. I am indebted to many sources for the photographic perspectives on this extensive event. I believe it is that largest gathering of its kind in Chiang Mai history.
NOTE: November 1 marks the beginning of the fifth year of this website, “Ken Dobson’s Queer Ruminations from Thailand”. Each year we have attempted a different set of topics. For 2016-2017 our subject matter will include images and interpretations from North Thailand, as well as timely reflections on topics of interest to Thai and American observers.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.