Growing up, I loved reading Little House on the Prairie and other books about people living off of the land. But, personally, I wanted to live off of Lucky Charms and plump, pink chickens wrapped in plastic wrap and styrofoam.
You see, I grew up on a small farm in New York State, where our chickens came, not from the hallowed, air conditioned aisles of the grocery store, but directly from the chicken barn. Of course, before hitting our fridge, they all had to make a brief pit stop in the front yard where my father lopped off their head with an ax and my mother dipped their still twitching bodies in scalding hot water and then pulled off their feathers.
Meanwhile, I stayed safely locked inside my room, as far away from the chicken-killing and plucking process as possible. This wasn’t because I was opposed to the violence and the gore of it all, but because I was opposed to the potential “learning experience” of it all. You see, my parents were forever trying to instill their children with life skills that they deemed useful; like, plucking chickens and cleaning barns and weeding gardens.
I had already decided early on that I was most definitely not a farm person. I regarded my childhood on the farm as an uncomfortable stopover before I hit eighteen, at which point I would slip into the life God had intended for me — a life that included lots of little luxuries like milk that came from a plastic carton (and not directly from the warm udder of a cranky goat) and bigger luxuries like hired help. I knew the skills my parents were trying to teach me were just not for me. After all, I reasoned, I planned to spend my adulthood plucking chickens from the freezer case of the local grocery store and having my butler do any tasks that might involve dirt.
If I could, I would retreat to my bedroom every time the words “muck out” and “barn” were ever mentioned in the same sentence within my earshot. If I did end up getting finagled into some farm chore, I would whine the entire time while my mother would threaten knowingly, “One day, you’ll be glad you know how to do this.” I sincerely hoped to God she was wrong.
While I certainly wasn’t the most enthusiastic farm kid in the barnyard (I tended to care more for books about horses rather than actual horses… after all, books don’t require regular manure removal), I did learn how to milk a goat, wield a pitchfork and train turkeys to attack my younger sister. (Okay, so I didn’t actually learn how to do that; the turkeys were able to do that on their own free accord and I was more than willing to take credit for it). Despite all these fabulous “learning experiences,” I yearned for something different… and preferably something that involved a lot less cow manure.
Sure, watching turkeys run full-tilt at my terrified younger sibling was a good time, but I wanted to be able to play with the neighborhood kids instead of being forced to play with my brothers and sisters and a random assortment of farm animals. I wanted a Mr. Softee ice cream truck and a sidewalk.
I enjoyed our childhood game of “Lock Someone in the Chicken Barn” as much as the next guy. (I mean, who wouldn’t?! Should you never have played this exciting game, let me tell you, it is the game to play in the barnyard! First there’s the initial challenge of trying to get some unsuspecting sucker to go into the chicken barn before you swing the door shut and lock him in. Then there’s the joy of listening to said sucker scream and threaten you from the inside of the barn for a good five to ten minutes. After that, there’s the sweet victory of watching your victim crawl out of the tiny chicken door carved into the back of the barn. While sweet, this is also a short victory — as it’s important you hightail it out of the barnyard before your victim shimmies his whole self out of the chicken door and comes after you.)
Despite the hours of entertainment this activity provided, I yearned for something a bit more sophisticated — maybe a game that involved sidewalk chalk and, well, a sidewalk.
My friends in Catholic school, most of whom were from the suburbs, would talk of pool parties and T-ball practice and candy stores within walking distance. The suburbs became a land of enchantment inhabited by moms who wore dresses and didn’t smell like manure, unicorns, and children who knew what the heck a T-ball was and didn’t own a single pair of “barn jeans”. When Santa Claus asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I said, “a house in the suburbs.”
I dreamed of my future home, a modest seven-story affair complete with a basement roller rink and unicorn parking. My home would be located in a magical land called a Cul-de-Sac — a word I found enchantingly exotic and mysterious… mostly because I had no idea what it meant. (It was quite the disappointment when I learned the word’s true definition at the ripe age of twenty-four).
In this house of wonder, I would teach my children skills I felt were useful; like, how to effectively dole out tasks to your live-in maid or how to order a pizza (because our home would also be located in the magical land called “Where the Pizza Delivery Guys Will Actually Deliver”).
While I always thought I was destined for greater things than life on the farm (and by “greater things” I mean Domino’s delivery), I’ve discovered the heart of a farm girl beats somewhere beneath my city slicker ways (these ways include knowing how much to tip the pizza guy and not owning a single pair of “barn jeans”).
When I first arrived on the Malaysian rice farm five weeks ago to start my volunteer assignment, it felt a bit like a homecoming for me. (Granted, there weren’t too many rice paddies or rice-paddy-dwelling pythons on the farm I used to call home).
After three years of living in a tiny apartment in suburban Japan (where, yes, in fact, Domino’s did deliver), there was something comforting and familiar about being once again surrounded by fresh air, green fields, the sound of crickets at night and the smell of cow manure in the morning (Yes, I know, it’s weird but I actually like the smell of cow manure… maybe this is because it reminds me of my childhood; particularly of my childhood spent indoors trying to avoid cow manure.).
In addition to discovering that I may very well be a farm girl at heart, I’ve also discovered I’m something of a farm girl in body. Blessed with a physique that could best be described as “sturdy,” I would have been quite the catch in the good old days when marriageable traits for women included “able to lift heavy seed bags” and “capable of stopping runaway tractors.” My legs, which are short and lack any visible sign of ankles (a physical trait which forced me to wear socks for the majority of my adolescence, even when socks were inappropriate… like while swimming), have actually come in handy on the farm. Being closer to the ground, I’m that much closer to the weeds. And, I can’t help thinking that my lack of ankles only makes me sturdier, which will, no doubt, prove useful should the tractor ever attempt to make a break for it.
My supervisor on the farm, Mr. Choi, likes to tell me on a regular basis (usually while I’m lifting a heavy seed bag), “You’re not fat, just big and strong — like a cow” (The last part he tacks on, I believe, in an attempt to make it clear that he means all of this in a good way). And, after little over a month of manual labor on the rice farm (including a great deal of seed bag lifting), I’ve only gotten bigger and stronger. I’ve probably gained about ten pounds; half of that is rice, the other half is muscle. Due to all those heavy rice seed bags, most of that muscle has amassed freakishly in my forearms, which have started to resemble tree trunks in both size and density.
As I’ve felt myself slowly morph from city slicker (or, at least, suburban-slicker) to farm girl and my forearms morph from human to tree trunk, my attitude has also changed. I’m no longer the cheerful fresh face on the farm, but the grizzled, know-it-all, weed-weary farmhand (and when I say “grizzled,” I’m not just referring to the thick layer of body hair that I’m currently sporting due to the lack of mirrors on the farm… and lack of farmers I care to impress).
You see, most volunteers only stay on the farm for a couple of weeks (or, in some cases, a couple of days… or, umm, hours). Seeing as I’ve been here a full five-weeks, I’m currently the veteran volunteer on the farm. I’m also one of the few volunteers I’ve met on the farm who actually grew up on a farm (probably because most people who grow up farms wouldn’t travel halfway around the world just so they could do something they could be doing at home… especially if that “something” involved weeding… and cow manure).
My tenure on the rice farm combined with my previous farm experience (even if this experience was merely gained from watching the proceedings from my bedroom window), has lent me the air of someone who knows a thing or two about life on the farm. And, I’d like to think that I do, in fact, know a few more things about farming and country living than your average fresh-off-the-bus and just-out-of-the-city volunteer on the farm (even if most of this knowledge wasn’t gained from a lifetime of firsthand experience, but more from a lifetime of bedroom-window-watching experience and, say, Wikipedia experience).
For example, I know the names of a surprising number of plants and flowers and garden-dwelling creatures on the farm (a trait I’m going to attribute to my Wikipedia-addiction… as I’m pretty sure we didn’t have any passion fruit vines on our farm in New York State). I have been known to set other volunteers straight when they confuse toads for frogs and lily bulbs for onions (And I’m sure they don’t mind in the least my know-it-all attitude when I deem it necessary to lecture them on the fine differences between our amphibious friends).
Given the wealth of my experience (and by “wealth” I mean a grand total of five weeks on the farm and a grand total of about a billion hours spent on Wikipedia), it’s become my job to instruct the new volunteers on everything from their expected hours and duties to the intricacies of rice paddy weeding to the best way to avoid fire ants while pruning fruit trees. (“Attack any fire ant inhabited shrub with a long-handled hoe and don’t be afraid to admit defeat should they overtake your flip-flops”).
While doling out my farm wisdom, I’ve made a point of not mincing my words. After all, growing up on a farm means I had to listen to a lot of matter-of-fact conversations about calf castration over the dinner table (Again, this was not my choice; had I been able to chose our dinner discussion topics, I’m sure we would have discussed something much more sophisticated… like whether or not we should hire a bellboy in addition to our butler or where to park the unicorn come winter).
After my experience this week with two new volunteers, it’s possible I should start mincing my words a bit more. (Heck, I might need to dice and julienne them a bit too, should I want any volunteers to stick around long enough to help me weed the rice paddies).
Let me explain.
On Thursday night, a young American couple showed up on the farm with plans to volunteer here for about a month. Having just left the States a mere week before, they had a bright, cheerful, freshly scrubbed look about them. (A look I’m sure I was sporting at the beginning of my trip, too… Heck, I may even still be sporting it; it’s just hidden under a thick layer of rice paddy mud, body hair and insect bites!).
They had just quit their jobs and made a big move across the U.S. before coming on their trip. They said they were traveling for six months before “settling down”, and they figured doing some farm volunteering would be a good way to travel on the cheap.
They both seemed excited and enthusiastic about their upcoming weeks on the farm. The girl looked dreamily at the sun setting over the pond and sighed happily, “I think this is going to be good.” Her partner, a strapping, six-foot-tall fellow who looked like he’d be right at home on any tractor or corn field in America met my eyes and said, “I’m looking forward to getting to work in the fields tomorrow.” An aura of earnest hopefulness bounced off the glow of their freshly scrubbed skin.
In retrospect this was maybe not the best time to mention snakes.
You see, I had almost stepped on a snake the night before while feeding prawns, a task which requires you to walk around the prawn ponds, flinging prawn feed into the pond with one hand while trying to keep an eye on the snake-infested ground beneath your feet. (That I’m even capable of such a task shows you how much I have learned while on the farm. I’ve never been one of those walk-and-chew-gum types of people, let alone one of those walk-and-throw-prawn-feed-while-not-stepping-on-snakes types of people). The night before the two volunteers arrived, I had been making my way around one of the ponds when a snake slithered out from underneath where my feet had just been and slowly entered the water.
Having had a recent near-snake experience, snakes were fresh on my mind the night the new volunteers showed up.
Well, to be honest, snakes are almost always fresh on my mind on the farm. I feel it’s best that you remind yourself that at any moment you could step on a snake so that you’re mentally prepared for that moment when you do, in fact, step on a snake. (Given all my mental preparation, you’d think I would have been better equipped to deal with the situation when I did almost step on a snake; as it was, my course of action, after watching the snake slither away from where my feet had just been, involved whimpering and calling my supervisor on my cell phone to report the snake and tell him that he owed me a beer for asking me to do a task that involved close contact with snakes).
When I think about my reasons for telling the lovely couple my story of the near-snake experience, I’m sure I just meant to entertain them or inform them of some of the fascinating experiences they, too, could soon be having on the farm. How was I to know that they were both deathly afraid of snakes?
Upon finding out about their fear of snakes, I probably shouldn’t have gone on to tell them about the seventy-pound python which was found in the rice paddy last year or about the other python (a much-smaller forty-pounder) who reportedly lurks around the chicken coop.
Come to think of it, I probably shouldn’t have mentioned the time one of the previous volunteers found a snake in his dorm room window.
Again, I’m sure I didn’t mean to scare this shiny, happy couple… just, you know, let them know about all the places they should stay away from should they want to avoid stepping on a snake; for example, the prawn ponds, the rice paddy, any enclosed space filled with poultry and, say, their dorm room.
The next morning I met the couple at the rice paddy where they were to join me in the task of weeding. They both arrived chipper and cheerful and decked out in rubber shoes. These were, in fact, the same kind of rubber shoes I had been given on my first day on the farm and had been told I could wear in the rice paddy if I didn’t want to go barefoot. Being a big fan of never ever going barefoot should there be even the remotest chance of contracting mud parasites, I was very happy to strap on my new pair of rubber shoes before heading out for my first day in the rice paddy muck.
Upon arriving at the field, though, I was promptly told by the grizzled rice farmer in attendance that my shoes would just be lost in the mud and I should take them off before getting to work. “But they told me I could wear shoes!” I whined. Then I whimpered for a little bit while imagining all the mud parasites who would soon be feasting on my toes. Then I took off my shoes and got to work.
When I told the couple that they should take off their shoes before getting into the rice paddy, the guy gamely did so while the girl looked at me like like she’d sooner gouge out her left eyeball. She refused and delicately stepped into the mud with her rubber-encased feet. Little did she know that sometimes it’s only the death grip of your terrified toes in the rice paddy muck that keeps you standing upright. (And, feeling like I had given out my fair share of farm wisdom that morning, I did little to inform her of this fascinating bit of rice paddy lore).
After an hour of rice paddy weeding and conversation about our hometowns and childhoods (during which I made sure to mention that I’d grown up on a farm, but failed to mention my whole bedroom-window approach to farming), things seemed to be going well.
Neither of them seemed particularly enamored of the task of weeding rice paddies, but it’s hard to be enthusiastic about anything when your knee-deep in mud. (Heck, a Mr. Softee truck could roll up to the rice paddy while I’m weeding, and I probably wouldn’t so much as crack a smile).
Then the girl suddenly toppled over into the rice paddy, soaking the entire lower half of her body in water and mud and mud parasites. At this point she went from less than enthusiastic to really, really, really unhappy.
In retrospect this was maybe not the best time to laugh.
I had meant it more as a “laugh with you” kind of laugh (rather than “I told you you to take off your shoes” kind of laugh). But after emitting a guffaw so loud that it startled the ducks in the nearby pond, I noticed that she wasn’t laughing… not even one little bit. In fact, the only noise that she was making was a distinctive, high-pitched whimper.
For the next two hours, she whimpered and he sighed and I did my best to not think about rice-paddy-dwelling pythons. (Just a word to the wise: repeating in your head the mantra, “Don’t think about pythons,” is a very ineffective way to stop yourself from thinking about pythons… in fact, it tends to have the opposite effect). We eventually climbed out of the muck to head back to the dormitory.
Upon our arrival at the dormitory, we discovered that the couple had been kicked out of their room to make way for some weekend guests. As my previous roommate had just moved out that morning, I had some extra space in my room. They were told they could bunk with me for the weekend.
In retrospect this was maybe not the best time to mention the bed bugs.
You see, my roommate had woken up that morning with bed bug bites across her back and upper arms. I also had felt something chomp down on my back in the middle of the night and woke up to a smattering of bites across my back.
After telling the now-very-unhappy couple about my recent bed bug encounter, I knew from the expressions on both of their faces that maybe I should have held off on telling them that bit of information… until maybe after I’d fumigated the room… and we had managed to finish weeding the rice paddy in its entirety.
As it was they’d grabbed their backpacks, discarded their rubber shoes and left the farm before I could get my hands on a can of Raid.
Later that evening as I was feeding the prawns with my supervisor, Mr. Choi, (and making every attempt to step over snakes rather than on them), he asked me why the couple had left the farm so quickly.
“Didn’t they like it here?” he asked with an expression that suggested he couldn’t possibly fathom why someone wouldn’t absolutely love living on a rice farm.
I looked at him and wondered if I should mention all the reasons why maybe the rice farm wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea; like the snakes and the rice paddy muck and the occasional encounter with bed bugs.
But, for once, I decided to watch my words.
“You know, Mr. Choi,” I said, “Some people just aren’t farm people.”