By Wu Jiao, first published in Sources for Action
By He Longxiang, person-in-charge of the project by Sources for Action
More and more people have been moving to villages, yet exploring the core values of rural life is rare. China’s agricultural expert Wen Tiejun was once asked what these values are, and he answered, after contemplation: “taking care of and helping each other”.
The writer Wu Jiao presents a cultural map of a Northern Thailand traditional village with an anthropological perspective, including matters such as indigenous peoples’ sense of time, their values, and how social groups communicate, collaborate and organise. Her account shows a mode of human survival quite different from the modern world. Only after becoming familiar with the ‘ancient language’ of the community could Wu Jian clarify the initial perplexed impressions she had of the village at the beginning of the learning trip. She has come to enjoy the tranquility of village life.
When one prefers village to city life, it is not merely a physical thing. One must learn to truly feel the essence of the rural world at heart in order to be able to hear its chords and breathe its breath. Learning the profundity of the rural world makes a rural returnee’s life light and delightful. Through Wu Jiao’s precious account of her time in Northern Thailand, her unexpected happiness is evident, especially in the relationships she has made with the people.
The Sense of Karen Time
“P’Kwiv is going to pick you up in the afternoon.”
“What time will he come?”
“What time in the afternoon?”
“What time then?”
I finally gave up asking.
It was an October day in Chiang Mai, still very hot – a bit of coolness only comes when the setting sun buries itself in the mountains. I had arrived here three days earlier on a learning trip, as part of the ‘China-East Asia Youth Project on Sustainable Living’ organised by Sources for Action. I was to learn about community life of the Karen, an indigenous tribe.
In the conversation above, I was speaking with P’Wattna. In the Thai language, ‘P’ refers to an elder brother or sister, a title expressing respect for people senior to you. P’Wattna, the young Karen village head, is passionate about community development, choosing to return to live and work in his home village soon after graduation from university. P’Kwiv was my mentor from another Karen village named Nongtao – he was a leader with Chiang Mai Network of Young Rural Returnees.
The networks of Northern Thailand’s young rural returnees are thriving,
supporting people to return to their rural home to build their communities and explore a sustainable way of living.
P’Wattna had planned to arrange P’Kwiv to pick us up in the afternoon to see the ‘Royal Project’ initiated in 1969 by King Rama IX. This livelihood improvement project encouraged people from the mountainous regions, including the Karen, H'Mông and Lisu tribes, to grow commercial crops suitable for high altitudes, instead of opium. I was quite curious, and excited. I had been waiting for P’Kwiv all afternoon that I gradually felt asleep, and P’Kwiv did not show up.
When I woke up, it was evening and I heard the engine of a motorbike. P’Kwiv had arrived. He looked to be in his 30s, with a strong and fit figure wrapped by bright dark skin baked by the sun. Beneath a pair of thick eyebrows, his sharp yet wild eyes turned serious and mysterious when looking at me.
“We won’t go now as it’s too late. You all may go back home,” said P’Wattna, waving his hand. I could only go back to my room to collect my luggage, but when I came out again, no one was around. I waited and waited, and they finally showed up just as the sky was about to turn dark. They came from a long way, going through fruit forests at the foot of the mountain. I looked at the time on my mobile phone and thought surely it’s time to go, but someone asked, “Coffee?” Then I saw them starting to boil water and grind coffee beans…
Suddenly I felt powerless. They and I seemed to live in the same space but in a different manner. They did not have a sense of time, or it was different from mine. Going through the experience of the day, I was about to prepare myself to sleep in the house for a while, but two minutes later, they told me that we were to set off right away.
Nongtao is a beautiful and tranquil village, located amidst mountains surrounding Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon. There were 160 households in Nongtao.
P’Kwiv’s home was at the utmost north of the village, facing terraces and layers of green mountains. We went through bunches of tropical plants and finally reached a giant piece of grassland where the house for P’Kwiv and his parents stood. It was in the traditional Karen style, with a slanted roof. I was to be accommodated in this house, next to a rice storehouse and a shed, under which a truck and a farming machine was placed.
Every household has a beautiful yard next to the house.
Walking on a grass path, we went inside and I saw a Japanese-styled wooden frame, then came a flourishing garden filled with fruits and vegetables – high up were hanging fruit such as coconut, banana, tamarind, mango and avocado, and lower down, green plum, papaya, lemon and coffee… Chayote climbed on the persimmon tree, and I could just barely make out ginger, taro and many local herbs under the trees. I couldn’t have imagined a richer scene.
Scattered around P’Kwiv’s home were small bamboo-made or wooden areas for storage or meetings. The particularly beautiful parts were the kitchen and an open-style coffee house with transparent green glass windows. The mix of traditional- and modern-styled design reflected the owner’s artful ideas. Living in such an environment would be pleasant and delightful, I thought. P’Wattna as village head was good at communicating with people, while P’Kwiv was more like a Japanese craftsman.
I was eager to talk with P’Kwiv about the plants and architectural structures in his house, but he did not speak English. We simply could not communicate. One thing I felt more perplexed about was the way he allowed me to wander freely around his home and that he did not arrange for me to do anything.
Before I came here, more than one project staff member had told me about the delicious organic coffee that P’Kwiv grew and roasted – he was famous for his coffee. Now, the one thing I did every day in his house was to enjoy the coffee he prepared me with such warm hospitability.
“What are we going to do today?”
“What is arranged tomorrow?”
“Are there any plans for the day after tomorrow?”
I was trying to ask my questions in Thai with the help of a translation machine. P’Kwiv always
answered the same way, and always with a cup of coffee in his hand.
‘Sbay-sbay’ seemed to be P’Kwiv’s easy response to any question. For me, it was the third Thai word I had learned since coming to the country. The first two were ‘sawadika’ (hello) and ‘gin kwal’ (to have a meal). ‘Sbay-sbay’ means to lead a relaxed, leisurely and slow-paced life.
While P’Kwiv was saying “sbay-sbay”, he was treating his coffee seriously.
This situation lasted for several days and my learning plan was heading nowhere. I had no idea what village life was like, what kinds of wisdom I could learn here, or even where to find a person who could speak English. Everything depended on P’ Kwiv’s sense of when he should take us anywhere.
The high time finally came the next day when P’ Kwiv was planning to cover the walls of his coffee house with red mud to keep the cold away in the coming winter. All the materials he needed were available at home. The mud had been already stored at home and the rice husks to be mixed with it could be given by relatives living nearby. In the afternoon, the village was bathed in serenity －wooden houses with slanted roofs were spaciously laid out, sunlight was pouring onto every yard, and dogs were playing under the trees. P’Kwiv finally came back with the materials from his relatives, whose children came along, sitting on the cart pushed by P’Kwiv.
We were told to visit a family alongside the road. We had to take off our shoes before entering the house and once inside, climbed up a wooden ladder. In this Karen-styled house, the kitchen and dining room is merged. A woman here named P’Aibot, who seemed gentle and quiet, bent down toward a bucket with some fish it. P’Kwiv took one, placing it in a child’s hand who screamed with fear while P’Kwiv laughed. P’Kwiv repeated this playfulness several times, and I wondered if he had forgotten about his task of covering his coffee house wall with mud.
Later, we went back to the yard and met P’Kwiv’s sister P’Saton, who lived nearby her parents’ house after marriage. She was frowning. I heard her say something and she pointed to a pile of dry wood behind the rice storehouse. P’Kwiv immediately took a long rod and walked quietly toward the woodpile. “There’s a big snake!” she said.
Now I worried about P’Kwiv’s safety, but suddenly an idea came to me: maybe this is what village life is like – everyone lives without planning (which is torture to someone like me, who is inflexible and sticks to orders). But in that moment, I could only accept what was in front of me, and give up resistance, just like P’Kwiv’s frequent ‘sbay-sbay’. I thought about how to translate the word into Chinese – maybe ‘Sui Bo Zhu Liu’ (following the tide and doing as others do) or ‘Le Tian Zhi Ming’ (enjoying what destiny arranges for you). Which of these translations is the true meaning of ‘sbay-sbay’? I can’t say.
The Dining Table and The Gathering
In the evening, I followed P’Kwiv to go to P’Aibot’s home.
In Karen tradition, there are no chairs and tables; we all sat on mats on the ground at P’Aibot’s home. Outside, there were banana trees with leaves as wide as a traditional-styled hand-operated fan. Some women were leaning on wooden fences and chatting with each other leisurely – their heads wrapped in white towels after a bath, and their bodies in red hand-made long sarongs. Men were enjoying ‘the local whisky’ which was home-brewed rice wine. This moment was no doubt the most relaxing and happiest time of the day for them. P’Kwiv pointed to a man with a gentle smile, telling me it was his father, and then left me behind to cook meal. I recalled that I had once asked P’Kwiv why he did not introduce his family to me, and though I had not expected it, P’Kwiv did seem to remember my request!
When P’Kwiv introduced me to his father, the lovely uncle seemed to feel a bit uncomfortable, but he still arranged me to sit beside him. At the time I did not imagine that we would become such good friends later. I was curious about P’Kwiv’s skills in cooking. In the afternoon, I had seen him catch an eel and cut it up into small segments, not removing away any organs or the head, and then putting the pieces directly into a pot of hot boiling water. He also added lemongrass, turmeric and other fresh ingredients I had never seen before, grinding them before adding it all to the pot.
P’Kwiv’s father pointed to a place far away and said, ‘Na’ - meaning ‘rice paddy’ - which I came to understand only after the lovely uncle took the time (quite a while) to explain to me by hand language what it meant. The yellow eel was caught from the paddy after releasing the water prior to harvest. There were also small fish and crabs. Uncle stressed the word ‘tamaqiai’ which means ‘nature’, referring to a mode of farming without pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Their produce is so plentiful and healthy – the bliss of any farmer.
An eel cut into segments, with fresh herbs from the yard
The Karen diet is highly diversified, with lots of wild animals and plants such as mushrooms, cicada pupae, aquatic plants and various types of wild vegetables, flowers and fruit. The simplicity of their cooking is particularly worthy of appreciation: they prefer keeping all parts of the food intact, seldom throwing anything away and never using any complicated processing. Eating raw food is also common, ad most cooked food is done with fresh herbs. Therefore, much of the preparation time is spent on preparing and grinding herbs. This is simply a luxury to urban people who are accustomed to a fast life pace.
P’Kwiv put the cooked loach on a large woven grass mat for our meal. We sat in a circle on the mat, lured by the spicy smell from all the herbs used, while the golden colour of the fish boosted our appetite. The rich stimulation to our taste buds made us feel so comfortable, and even though I had worried in the world, I also tried the ‘whisky for ladies’ – a plum wine brewed by the family. It nearly sent me to the sky.
The dinner was my first social gathering in the village, and quickly there were people asking about my presence. I heard P’Kwiv say ‘Keao’, my Thai name created by the person-in-charge of this project – it means ‘cup’. At first I was disappointed at such an ordinary name, but eventually I could see how wonderful this name is in social gatherings. Whenever someone did not understand my pronunciation of my name, I just raised a cup! They immediately got it, smiled, and raised their cup in a toast! Laughter always followed.
P’ajao gea, P’Kwiv’s cousin, told me that he worked in a nearby elephant centre for tourists. He could speak simple English, and went on to say that Nongtao has been inhabited by three major clans for over 700 years. The people gathered here for dinner were all from his clan, Jowalu, and they liked to gather together over meals.
The Karen people highly value family relationships, and family meals are common.
“Where are you from?” Someone a few seats away talked to me in fluent English. He was Oshi, appearing like an old-styled noble young man, stood out among the group. I answered, “I came here to learn from indigenous people about the sustainable way of living; however, I haven’t learned much so far.” He told me, “In a way, the Karen people in Thailand are equivalent to the Tibet people in China.” I was not sure if this remark contained special meaning, referred to a bloodline relationship, or both.
After completing high school, Oshi chose to go for a learning trip in India instead of studying at university. The furthermost place he travelled to was the Himalayas. Later, he also visited some cosmopolitan cities like New York and Tokyo. But eventually, he chose to return to Nongtao, saying it was his laziness that brought him back. Yet, I could see wisdom and sophistication in his eyes. “Our ancestors did not call ourselves ‘Karen’. The name was given by outsiders; we call ourselves ‘Pakeryaw’ which means human beings and simplicity.” Later I got to know that Oshi was the only son of the present and incumbent tribal head of his own clan; he was also the next guardian of their traditional spiritual beliefs.
The experience proves to me that getting to know people in a tribal village relies on sharing meals together. Not only did I become acquainted with different people, I also found the most important person for providing information. In the past days I had become deaf-cum-dumb due to my near-zero ability to speak Thai and Karen. But now I finally felt relaxed. I asked for Oshi’s address and learned that he lived just behind a neighbouring forest. I became more confident, and arranged a time to visit him.
Every household has a hearth, and women start their day cooking rice here.
From rice plants reaping to threshing
The weather the next day was brilliant. Early in the morning, P’Kwiv had put a sun hat, gloves, and high plastic boots at the door of my room.
We got on small motorbikes and left the village. After driving on a wide road for some distance, there came a bumpy country path, and at the end, we arrived at a big, tall shed where many motorbikes were parked. I looked around. A row of bushes led to a valley with a golden rice paddy; the plants were ready to be harvested and were releasing a pleasant smell. Some thirty or so villagers were working in the valley, and their voices spread upwards like waves of heat. Every single one of them wore a sun hat, and some were using sickles.
I had never seen so many people gathering together for farm work. Seeing everyone triggered a memory of travelling to the mountains of Southwest China a few years ago. An elder of the Miao minority there told me, “Decades ago, there were so many more people in the village and there was such solidarity. We always worked together then; it was a more enjoyable time than now.” To me, it felt like this that vanished dream was taking life again here in Thailand. How precious it is!
Following P’Kwiv, I suddenly heard him call my Thai name as he stepped at the edge of the field, “Keao, come!” Everyone turned towards us as P’Kwiv spoke. Then I saw his sister P’Aibot, who was always very hospitable to me, making me feel very loved. I vigorously nodded my head with hands closed to greet her. People around us laughed in delight.
What surprised me was the way Karen people handled the harvested rice. They did not immediately remove grains from husks but bunched plants together to dry them. This task was usually done by two people, for achieving efficiency – the person in the front cut the plants and the one at the back tied them into bunches. The job at the back is more difficult. P’Kwiv demonstrated it – his left hand loosely holding the bunch of rice plants, and his right pulling out the rice leaves which he used for tying. He then held the long leaves tight in his right hand, while his left grasped the end of the leaves and pulled them upwards in a spiral, to tie the bunch. Just before all the tying leaves were used up, with only a few to go, he made a little twist, a pull from underneath, and then another strong pull, and finally the whole bunch was tight!
These processes could not be learned from books, and there were still many details that could not be accurately expressed with words. To achieve an optimum effect and to accumulate such experience is only possible by someone who does the job, feeling one’s body throughout the work process.
The sun became hotter and hotter, over 30 degrees, which must have made it hard on these farmers doing their work. Children ran back and forth on the field ridges to bring them water and food. Some villagers gave me iced bars to relieve thirst, passing them to each farmer until everyone sat down for a rest. I followed their example, washing my boots in the small stream, taking off my hat, and sitting leisurely on the grass. The short break was surely anticipated by the farmers during their hours. After the rest, the big crowd went back to work. Their goal: completing the harvest throughout the whole valley.
Dipping a lemon into a pepper sauce tastes sour and hot and drives away fatigue.
When I got up the next day, I felt that my whole body was not mine, but I rejected P’Kwiv’s suggestion of staying home. Staying in the house in this season would mean sheer loneliness: people in the village all went out.
Oshi and I, together with his beloved dog and a small black pig placed inside a bag, went to another farm far away. A ‘farm’ for local people refers to a massive area formed by several farmlands. Oshi told me that all of the fields in the whole valley belonged to P’Kwiv’s father. It was out of my expectation that the friendly uncle always wearing a gentle smile on his face was so rich.
Some days later, the harvested rice plants were a coke-yellow after being baked by the sun. A shed located at the foot of the mountains was filled with the harvest, and there was a large sheet of plastic placed on the ground. P’Kwiv’s mother pulled out that little black pig, cut its throat, and gathered a bowl of its blood, handing it to P’Kwiv’s father. The father poured the blood into a woven bamboo, funnel-shaped container that held leaves and a handful of rice, and then the old man spoke for a while. Karen traditions include animism, and at this moment I could sense that an ancient ceremony was now underway to express villagers’ gratitude to the god of rice and also praying for rich harvests in the future.
An old, thin and dark-skinned man wearing a knitted yarn hat sat down to make a fire, and then cut up the pig for our lunch. P’Kwiv’s father nailed two long pieces of wood together, later taking two wooden poles tied together by a thick rope. Everything was put on the ground. Then he placed a bunch of rice plants on the rope, quickly hooking one end of the plants to the other, covered the poles, held the plants up in the air and thrusted them onto the ground with a loud bang. All golden-coloured rice grains dropped, leaving a thick dust in the air.
I was so amazed with the effectiveness of such simple tools – two wooden poles and a thick rope. It demonstrated how wonderful folk wisdom is.
The tools for threshing are so simple, yet smart.
I wanted to try using the tools, and P’Kwiv’s father gave me small-sized bamboo poles specially designed for women and children. I noticed that the sound of my beating the rice plants was much weaker than that of other people doing the same job. Was it because I lacked adequate strength? I couldn’t ask with Thai language, but was motivated to observe well.
I noticed the old uncle’s right hand was moving all along, at different locations. When taking up the rice plants, his right hand was on the front end of the wooden poles, but when raising the poles, his right hand slid quickly downward until nearly reaching the left hand. At this time, the rice plants were already lifted to the highest point. Now the body bent a bit forward to follow the natural downward movement of the plants. The heavier the plants were, the more downward the rice grains flowed, and thus all the grains would drop without using lots of energy. After threshing the first round, the old uncle’s hands came back to their original positions, that is, one hand at the front and the other at the back. Then his left hand at the back slightly pushed down the poles, and the grains that still remained on the plants would all fall. This principle of leverage was scientific and amazed me.
While thinking about all of this, I felt silly that I needed to make such a complicated analyses. To the villagers, these skills were ordinary physical instincts. The honour of labour was shown by their beautiful yet quiet body gestures.
Helping each other
“Everything is done by human labour? Why not use machines?”
These were questions asked by many of my friends when they saw the video clips of rice farming that I posted online. They might see human labour as inefficient and that the use of machines would be much easier and more relaxing. I guessed that the reason of rejecting machines might be due to the mountainous terrain, but a friend immediately disagreed, saying that even the Yi people living in the Daliang Mountains in China had already bought small harvesting machines online from Taobao. He had assembled one machine already.
I wanted to know how the villagers responded to these questions.
Oshi said, “In our own way, we can help each other. Just like what we are doing now, we can see each other, chat with each other and help each other every day, which is something very important to us Karen people.” However I didn’t quite believe him, looking at him with doubt, while at the same time tying my rice plants. His remarks seemed too romantic.
“Maybe we have plenty of human resources.”
“Mm... P’Kwiv’s mother has got seven siblings, one of whom is your father.”
“But P’Kwiv only has one younger sister while you have three elder sisters. How many kids are you planning to have?”
“I like child-free.”
“Well, in the future, you won’t have enough people as youngsters are leaving the village to study and work.”
“Sure, rumble... rumble,” he playfully imitated the movement of a tractor. Yet his voice was filled with so many emotions that he seemed to withhold, deliberately. He went on, “Maybe in the days ahead, machines will start to occupy the land here.”
I recalled my learning here at different farms over the past half a month. I could only feel sadness. Farm labour usually made me ache physically, but that would gradually fade in four or five days. After that came a sense of calmness in my heart, as well as a feeling of belonging. I became increasingly accustomed to greeting villagers in the fields, learning the local language, joining their sweaty labour, as if partnering with them, arm in arm in some kind of peaceful fight. When I felt exhausted, a breeze blowing from afar would carry the scent of dry soil together with the smell of the golden rice harvest. This would make me feel connected with my body and feel ready to get back to work in the rice field.
Working with the local folk every day
“Buying machines needs money, and there are also expenses for gasoline, but mutual help among villages doesn’t require money in return. We do need to help each other,” said P’Kwiv.
Compared with China’s cultivated land that measures less than five mu per capita (1 mu is approximately 667 square meters), farmland owned by each household in Nongtao ranges from dozens to several hundreds of mu. P’Kwiv’s family is a significant landlord here, owning three farms, each measuring dozens of mu. Such a size is obviously difficult for one single family to tend. Although P’Kwiv always said ‘sbay-sbay’, life is not at all easy – he needs to help out different families every day.
Working with various people during this learning trip, I developed great respect for P’Kwiv. He was very considerate, and he showed his care. He harvested the rice neatly and let me join in a way that was manageable for me. When I tied the plants so slowly, he would stop and wait for me. When I made mistakes, he wouldn’t interrupt but demonstrated how to do things. All this showed that he was observing me along the way and treated me with consideration, even though this was not expressed in words. I could feel that every member of the village liked him and trusted him.
“Oh, some fields have accumulated so much silt, about half the height of a person. That makes using machines difficult,” said P’Kwiv with frowned eyebrows. He went on, “If you want to seek answers for your question, you should put it to every villager you meet.”
Gathering around a fire to chat during rainy days
In fact, many villagers were puzzled by my question. To them, that they accomplished all tasks without machines was something so natural.
“We have done things this way for several hundreds of years. It is our tradition,” said P’Kwiv’s sister. “Are there any other reasons (of not using machines)?” I kept on asking, and she returned this reply: “We don’t want machines but prefer to help each other, seeing each other and exchanging with each other every day, which is more precious than anything.” When I translated her words by the translation machine, such remarks were almost the same as what Oshi said. I simply couldn’t believe my ears, and I finally started to believe what they said.
Other villagers shared their thoughts as we sat together over a shared meal, after harvesting. They enthusiastically discussed the question, responding this way: “We like helping each other. Besides harvesting rice, we also help each other in building new houses, at weddings, or religious ceremonies… Most of these tasks take about one week, while working on rice is the most important task, lasting one month each time.”
For the rice cycle, this mutual help is needed in June for transplanting seedlings, in July for clearing weeds, and in October and November for the harvest. That means there are about four months, or one-third of the year, that people need to work together. On this land, where people connect with each other based on their bloodline and their homeland, how does their close-knit network operate?
A hidden, mysterious world
One morning, I joined more than 30 villagers to harvest at a farm. After completing the work, we had lunch together as usual. Quite contrary to the usual, however, we lingered on for a long time chatting and enjoying dessert. For previous gatherings like this, we each would have already returned home by motorbike by now. I felt something strange.
Then Oshi kindly explained, “We are waiting to see if anyone needs help with threshing this afternoon.”
“Oh, can we make it? Isn’t it almost afternoon?”
“Certainly, we can make it.”
I nearly doubted whether I had wrongly heard his words. My experience has told me that for an activity involving so many people, participants need to be notified long in advance, or at least one day prior. However this time, I could see the self-confidence on Oshi’s face that seemed to say preparation was not needed at all.
Lunch by the farm is always a happy occasion for many.
I had been wondering how the information about the work at hand was disseminated to each household in such a village inhabited by several hundreds of people. Such information includes which family needs help, what time to help out, who would assist, or what to do if several households need help on the same day. Most of the villagers, except youngsters, do not use mobile phone. P’Kwiv’s mother was an example. His father had an old-fashioned phone that could not go online, and he seldom used it anyway. The appliances this old couple used most were the fridge and the radio. However, each time when any family needed help, there would be dozens of villagers gathered to help, and no matter how large the farm was, we could always finish the work within one day at the most.
“There’s a hidden, mysterious network,” said Long Xiang with deep feeling. He’s the project facilitator from the China side. Later, I managed to link up many details I had neglected earlier.
I remember one day I got up quite early in the morning and saw P’Kwiv’s mother standing on the lawn behind her house and chatting with some aunties. They were all about the same age, in their 50s. They seemed to be exchanging information. Several times, I would see her in different locations around the village talking with someone over a fence. She had her own circle, or I might say there are countless circles of this kind, within which information is transmitted by mouth and ear. This kind of communication is sometimes seen, sometimes hidden.
Then I tried to recall in detail. When we started threshing each time, everyone was busy with one’s own task. Such a scene seemed to be chaotic but there were never any real difficulties. The old and young women picked rice plants from the field and carried bunches of them to the ridges where young and strong men tied them up and transported them to the shed for threshing by other aunties and uncles. When all the plants had been carried to the shed, the whole crowd once again gathered together. Finally, P’Kwiv’s cousin, with his face covered by a black mask, would come along, bringing a fan – the only machine used for harvest work, mainly for blowing away impurities among the grains. At this time, people would drink some water and rest under papaya trees.
This was not the end. The step now was to pack the grain into bags. The women began the job with enthusiasm, scooping the grain. There were two or three aunties doing another job – carrying soft bamboo strips under their arms, walking around and observing. When they noticed full bags, they would quickly act to tie it up with the bamboo strips. Then the boys standing aside would know that they could carry these bags away. Excitement and vigor filled the air, and you could feel how people of different generations were bound together in shining love.
Everyone, no matter male or female, young or old, participates in labour work.
However, none of this was arranged beforehand. No one would tell people what to do, but every single person, men and women, elderly or children, could manage to find their own place, except me though! At first I was looking at the working crowd anxiously, not knowing what to do, wondering why P’Kwiv did not arrange for me to take up a certain post. But their way of working was never so certain. I am a person who has grown up and led a life under an industrial system. The knowledge and theories I have been familiar with did not function at all in this village.
It may be more accurate to say that this village was a world not yet fully invaded by industrialisation. The vigor and worth of a traditional farming society was still alive here, preserved.
What impressed me most was when everyone gathered in a row on the same field, waving their sickles at the same time, which was just like the roaring of machines linked together. However, the people’s power was more admirable than the imagined giant machines. I once asked, “Why don’t you use machines?” Then I realised that such a traditional style of collaborative relationships was by no means inferior to machines – that it was even more sophisticated, flexible, sustainable and full of life and vitality. Human beings are not slaves to machines, but the king of the land.
Such an amazing capacity for collaboration comes from the tacit understanding among villagers that had been forged over hundreds of years. Everyone here, starting from birth to death, would participate in countless sessions of group labour work. Living in the natural environment, which is full of unexpected changes, has trained these inhabitants to be particularly flexible, self-autonomous, united, and tolerant towards different situations. No one lives alone. All are in mutual support, mutual reliance and mutual trust, living together with the same breath, and then creating a chaotic yet amazingly harmonious system. Such a system is invisible on the surface but actually exists everywhere, and in a way, manifests the belief in animism.
Let’s imagine: At meal time, our hands hold a bowl of rice which actually embodies the love and labour of everyone in the village. People are intimately connected through each meal, every day. Isn’t it touching?
A blissful life
I couldn’t tell when I started not feeling anxious on this learning trip. It was as if I had gone through a long process of detoxification. I had become accustomed to the omnipresent sunshine, wind, garden, rice fields and forests where I could run freely. I could look at a bird, patiently, noticing how it flaps its wings to fly up above various green colours of the earth and then disappear behind layers of mountains.
P’Kwiv’s mother always rose as the morning was breaking. The sound of the rice-grinding machine in the rice storehouse was then heard at the scheduled time, then she would feed the chicks, with their ‘cheep, cheep’ sounds. When I got up and came out, there was already a fire sparkling in the hearth, and a pot of rice was bubbling its ‘guru, guru’ sound. P’Kwiv usually came inside at this time, after watering the vegetable seedlings in the greenhouse-shed, weeding the fruit trees, and making the coffee that sent fragrance into the air. “Keao, Keao,” P’Wiv’s father would take out his cup at this moment and tell me to fetch a cup of coffee for him.
We always submerged ourselves in the morning light and sat down cross-legged on wooden boards to enjoy rice, sometimes with a scoop, sometimes with our hands. P’Kwiv’s mother wrapped rice with banana leaves into rice balls and put them into cloth-made bags. P’Kwiv’s father had already learned the Chinese words for ‘uncle’, ‘aunties’, ‘mowing rice’ and ‘threshing’. He even managed to learn, by himself, how to say in Chinese that “uncles go threshing and aunties go mowing today”. I had already become acquainted with the pace of everyone here, and they had already accepted me as a member of their families and village.
Enjoying the everyday good life with P’Kwiv’s family
One month later, the harvest work in Nongtao was reaching its end. P’Kwiv took a day off and brought me to visit the young rural returnees of the village. They included teachers, nurses, construction workers, restaurant owners, organic farmers, and tourism workers, with some were also poets, musicians and philosophers.
When I asked P’Triboon about the amount of yields of the organic vegetables, he said that it was never calculated. He said, “growing vegetables in and of itself already makes us pretty happy. I have not yet tired of farming after more than a decade. I live with my parents, wife and children, enjoying good quality air, water and forests. When I have leisure time, I’ll go travelling with my family.” While we were chatting, P’Triboon’s daughter was playing, grasping the iron bar of the vegetable shed, swaying back and forth, just like on the swing.
“Why do you return to your rural home?” I put this question to everyone. Every single of them said, “Home is so good. Nowhere else is better than my home here.” The answer was the same every time I asked the question, so I gave up asking at last. This is a very silly question. Now I also felt that this place is better than anywhere else.
Visiting the young rural returnees of the village
In the past, I seemed to have lived in some kind of illusion – seeing the city as superior to the village and to nature. Yes, the industrialised world strives to put everything, including people living in it, under its control. We are living with endless plans and arrangements, and we attempt to control all things. Yet the traditional village and nature are sophisticated and changeable, free and flexible, filled with suddenness and instability – they are beyond human control. The relationship between the two is like a line, with one end fixed at a point, and the other end totally radiating out.
Nowadays, strange things happen. When I give up sticking to orders and accept uncertainty, I can feel an unprecedented peace of mind. This is because I don’t feel lonely anymore. I trust everyone in the village, I trust that the sun will rise, and that the moon that will go full. I trust that spring will come on time. I trust that a bit of effort will return me with a bit of reward. I do not trust money, houses and insurance. No matter what happens, I know my feet are stepping on the ground of nature, and I am living with a group of people together.
All things here are changing, but the nature of the changes is directed to eternity.
On the eve of my leaving, P’Kwiv asked me what I had learned here. A good many words ran to my throat but I ended up with only one word: ‘kuangsu”’ meaning bliss. After saying this, I looked at P’Kwiv with a bit of uneasiness, waiting for his serious criticisms. Yet he smiled, seemingly knowing I was expecting something else, saying:
“If you feel blissful, you have passed your learning here.”
Taking a photo with P’Kwiv in traditional Karen garments
I had guessed that P’Kwiv did not prepare any plans for my learning, instead letting me do anything, without his interference. In the debrief, I got to know the contrary. ‘No plan’ was actually his plan for me.
He said, “Before Wu Jiao came, we thought that she could have many methods of learning. In the end, we decided that just like for us, as returnees to our rural home from the city, that agriculture should be the foundation for learning. Other things could be added quite simply. The basics of agriculture here is rice, and therefore her learning started with this.
“What Wu Jiao learned during the six weeks here is not only knowledge. If what to be learnt is merely knowledge, there’s a very thick book in our village that explains everything clearly. I prefer that she could know and feel through experiencing, such as joining activities in the village, learning in the community, and exploring issues of her interest.
“She always asked questions that villagers were not always able to answer. A few questions could not be explained by a single answer, but needed her to experience it. A month or even a year is not enough for someone to understand us Karen people thoroughly.
“I once told her that we have different cultures. After the learning trip, she should go back home to learn her own culture.”
■ Wu Jiao, a freelance writer, is interested in sustainable agriculture and indigenous cultures, frequently travelling to mountainous areas to explore tribal wisdom and the beauty of humankind.