My Better Half: How Life on a Rice Farm Has Made Me a Better Person (kind of)

May 29, 2010

When you tell people that you’re going to quit your job and spend a year traveling around Asia, most people tend to be pretty supportive. I’ve had friends, family members and complete strangers wish me luck, buy me drinks and make me promise to send them postcards (umm, about those postcards…).

On the other hand when you tell people that you’re going to spend two months out of that year working on a rice farm in Southern Malaysia, those same people tend to have a much different reaction; usually an “are you sure you want to do that?” reaction followed quickly by a “do you even know anything about rice farming?” reaction and possibly a “you know rice grows in a muddy mosquito-infested swamp, right?” reaction.

Should those same people know you really well because they’ve lived with you or, say, given birth to you, they tend to have an even stronger reaction. I told my mother my plan to volunteer on the rice farm during a phone conversation a couple months ago. We had to end the conversation shortly after I spilled my news because she was laughing too hysterically to continue talking. She didn’t stop laughing for another two days — I know this because she wrote me a letter after the phone conversation telling me so. It also appeared that she might have had a giggle or two while writing the letter as her handwriting appeared jumpy and uneven.

While all my family and friends and more than a few complete strangers have been happy to inform me that I wouldn’t enjoy working on a rice farm, I chose to think otherwise. Sure, I know about as much about rice farming as I know about retirement investment. (In case you’re wondering, that wouldn’t be much… seeing as my current plan for retirement rests heavily on the hopes that the world will self-implode before I turn sixty-five). Sure, I’ve spent the past three years of my life teaching English where my most back-breaking task was to erase the whiteboard on a regular basis. (Luckily, I could often coax a few spry college students into doing that job). Sure, I couldn’t even bring myself to sign up for Farmville on Facebook because it sounded like too much responsibility. (I was sure I’d get distracted from watering my virtual crops or weeding my virtual garden by some Facebook personality quiz asking me to find out which Backstreet Boy I was or promising to tell me at what age I’d be struck by osteoporosis). Even though I knew I wasn’t exactly cut out for life on the rice farm, I was certain my Better Me could cut it.

You see, my Better Me is like the Real Me… just a lot better.

My Better Me is a morning person. She wakes up at the crack of dawn and needs neither coffee nor the threat of being fired to get herself to work on time. My Better Me can maintain a conversation with actual humans before noon (and not just cats… or Twitter followers).

The Real Me is more of an afternoon or evening person. The Real Me can be a real firecracker around, say, seven o’clock in the evening, but at seven o’clock in the morning, the Real Me’s preferred mode of communication involves a system of grunts and unhappy facial expressions.

My Better Me is a gracious roommate, loves communal living and doesn’t mind sharing her space (and her secret stash of cookies) with others. Heck, my Better Me could be the social coordinator on a kibbutz.

The Real Me is a fun time at parties but needs her alone time… lots of it. The Real Me has stopped talking to roommates for weeks on end for offenses as small as their attempting to make eye contact before noon. The Real Me actually enjoyed living like a hermit for the past two months of house-sitting in Thailand.

My Better Me is chipper even when deprived of sleep, chocolate, cheese and the occasional margarita.

The Real Me needs approximately eight to twenty hours of sleep each night… and regular applications of Cadbury’s, camembert and tequila.

My Better Me is capable of manual labor and doesn’t mind getting dirt under her fingernails (or toenails… or lodged in her hair). My Better Me takes pride in a job done well.

The Real Me has spent her adult years working a number of jobs whose most dirtiest task involved changing the toner cartridge of the office’s printer (a task the Real Me would try to get out of by faking a sudden bout of food poisoning). The Real Me would prefer not to look and smell like a pig farmer at the end of the day. The Real Me takes pride in her couch.

Like unicorns, Santa Claus and my sense of direction, my Better Me has been severely lacking in physical evidence to support its existence. Despite this lack of evidence, I still persist in believing in her and signing her up for things I think she might enjoy… like volunteering on a rice farm and speed dating. (My Better Me loves meeting strangers and hearing about their careers as toilet bowl salesmen; the Real Me can only take about four minutes of this and then starts faking food poisoning). I’ve always figured that if I sign my Better Me up for enough events and volunteer assignments, she might actually show up one day (and possibly fill in for the Real Me who is currently at home with a bout of food poisoning…. for real this time). It’s a “If you sign her up, she will come” mentality. Until now, I haven’t had much luck (both with my Better Me making an appearance and speed dating).

Having racked up almost two weeks of living on the rice farm, what has surprised me most about my stint there (aside from last week’s task of rolling tires into a pond), is the fact that my Better Me actually exists! Well, at least more than she ever has before…

Living on a rice farm means early hours. I usually am out of bed by seven so that I can be in the fields by eight before the sun has gotten too hot. Of course, I wake up a lot earlier than that as about a half dozen of my male housemates can usually be found outside my bedroom window around six o’clock where they like to gather and clear all the mucus from their body. Despite these early hours, I’ve still managed to be decent to everyone, if not practically chipper (well, chipper might be an overstatement… but I haven’t felt tempted to punch anyone in the head despite their copious mucus-clearing exercises, so that’s saying something!).

Life on the rice farm also means sharing my room with other volunteers. After my first week of living with roommates, I actually started enjoying it… well, until the one girl stopped talking to me and started playing Chinese pop music at midnight while I was trying to sleep. After both my roommates moved out last weekend, I started looking forward to having new roommates. When no new female volunteers showed up this past week to take over the empty bunk bed in my room, I started to feel a bit lonely. I even started to imagine what my new roommates might be like should I get some — of course, they, too, would be gracious and kind and willing to share their secret stashes of cookies (but not so into sharing their collection of Chinese pop music… at least not while I was trying to sleep).

Needless to say, life on the rice farm doesn’t include much consumption of cheese, chocolate or tequila. It doesn’t even include much consumption of food I can easily recognize… aside from rice… lots and lots of rice. But, yet, I haven’t killed anyone or threatened suicide or punched anyone in the head or faked any bouts of food poisoning to get out of eating more piles of rice.

Another thing there hasn’t been much of on the rice farm, at least for me, has been sleep. You see, earlier in the week one of the volunteers told me that he had once seen a snake in his room — a room which just so happens to be next door to my room. After hearing this story, I haven’t been able to sleep much. Despite my lack of sleep, I have managed to be upbeat and cheerful (and hopeful that my new roommates will show up soon… and that they’ll show up wielding magic powers to deflect snakes).

And, of course, life on the rice farm includes plenty of manual labor. After a taxing four days of weeding rice paddies and throwing tractor tires into the pond last week, I, frankly, had thoughts of quitting. As I was sitting in my hotel room in Johor Bahru last weekend, I couldn’t help wishing I had brought all my luggage with me so I could make a break for it. I reasoned that there had to be easier ways to get free accommodation while traveling– ways that didn’t involve pitching tires into a pond or having your room invaded by pythons.

This past week, I was entrusted with the task of weeding and pruning banana trees, a job I almost found, dare I say, enjoyable. Maybe this was because, after a week of weeding rice fields, I had finally gained a better appreciation for the wonders of agriculture… or maybe it was because banana trees, unlike rice plants, look quite different from weeds (which tend to look like rice plants)…. or possibly it’s because this job didn’t include wading around in a mosquito-infested swamp. After three days of working on the banana trees, my supervisor came out to see how I was doing, inspected my work and gave me a thumbs up sign (a gesture I hadn’t seen once during my week of weeding rice paddies and throwing tires). “Very good,” he said and then later that day he told me I could store my sickle in my room. I was pleased that I had earned his stamp of approval. (I was also pleased that I now had a weapon against any potential invading snakes!).

And, at least for a week, I haven’t had any thoughts about running away. When I left the farm this Friday to head into the city for the weekend, I packed only enough luggage for the weekend and assured my supervisor that I’d be back… and I meant it. After all, where else can you get free accommodation and your very own sickle?


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On December 24, 2010 at 12:24 pm NowMadNow said:

    Hilarious 🙂



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