Unbrave Girl Wraps It Up: All I Really Need to Know I Learned on a Rice Farm

July 7, 2010

When I first thought up the idea of spending one to three months in each of the countries that I’ll be visiting this year, my reasoning was that by spending a significant amount of time in each place, I would have a better chance of learning more about the people and culture of the country that I was visiting… and maybe even pick up a bit of the language.

Which is funny when you think about it. Here, I’ve been living with myself for over thirty-four years, and I have yet to learn anything about myself — like the fact that I’m not exactly one of those people that just “picks up” things like language and culture while traveling. (Meanwhile, I can easily “pick up” five pounds, eight candy bars and twelve pairs of new shoes simply by walking through an airport terminal.)

After two months of living in rural Northern Thailand this spring, I left the country almost as clueless about the Thai language and culture as when I first arrived. I showed up knowing two expressions in Thai: sawatdee kaa (“hello”) and khorp koon kaa (“thank you”). I left the country having learned only one new word: khya (“trash”). As for learning about the culture, my learning experiences were limited to observations I made while riding my bike on the streets of the tiny village where I lived or on the nearby superhighway. For example, I learned that traffic lights are seen by the Thai people as merely suggestions, motorcycle helmets are taboo and it’s customary to scream “Hellooooo” at any random white girl riding her bicycle on the side of the road (even if by doing so you scare her half out of her wits so that she almost falls off her bike).

I have now been in Malaysia for almost two months, and have just wrapped up my stint on the rice farm. Yet, despite being surrounded by Malaysians every single day for almost eight weeks, I managed to do an even worse job at learning Malay than I did at learning Thai. I have no idea how to say “hello” or “thank you” in Malay (And, God forbid, I need to have a conversation about trash with anyone!). The only words I did manage to pick up are kampong, which means “village,” and, mat salleh, which I was told means “white person.”

Granted, I didn’t have a whole heck of a lot of exposure to the Malay language while on the farm. Most of the Malaysian workers on the farm are Chinese, so the predominant language is Mandarin (Not that I picked up much Mandarin, either, mind you, but I do, at least, know how to say “thank you” in Mandarin, if not any other important words like “hello,” “excuse me” and “Look at me! I’m the village white person!”).

The majority of the other workers on the farm are not Malaysians at all, but migrant workers from Nepal and Indonesia (or, say, volunteer workers from United States and Europe). So, on any given day on the farm, I could just as easily hear a conversation in Nepalese as I could in Malay. (Oddly enough, my knowledge of the Nepalese language is even more useless than my knowledge of Thai, Mandarin and Malay; after traveling in Nepal for one month two years ago, the only word I managed to pick up was the word meaning “multi-colored.” And, just in case you’re wondering, that isn’t exactly a word you hear in everyday conversation while on a rice farm.)

As for Malaysian culture, well, that’s been even harder to get a grasp on than the language. While the Muslim Malay people make up a slight majority, overall, the Malaysian population is incredibly diverse. Having been colonized by half a dozen European countries (Holland, Portugal and England to start with) and settled by half a dozen Asian countries (China and India being the heavy-hitters), Malaysian culture is a lot like American culture: confusing. And it’s even more confusing should you be stuck out in the middle of nowhere on a rice farm without any fancy, schmancy things like museums and English-speaking tour guides and Wikipedia to explain stuff to you.

After my first month in Malaysia, I tried to find a book that would help remedy my cluelessness about the Malaysian culture. After sorting through titles in the nearest mall’s only bookstore (titles which included riveting numbers like Honk! If You’re Malaysian and Tax Avoidance in Malaysia), I picked up a thin book of essays about a variety of topics including Malaysian film, food and politics entitled The Malaysian Way of Life. The back of the book promised that after reading the book, I’d “discover new perspectives on Malaysia’s culture and politics and see them in a different light.”

At the same time that I bought that book, I also picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I figured it would be nice to have a little page-turning, pulp fiction after I finished the heavy task of figuring out what the heck was going on with Malaysian culture. This reasoning, of course, is yet another example of how little I’ve managed to learn about myself in the past thirty-four years. Always when given the choice between two books, one book which promises to enlighten me and another book which promises to scare the living daylights out of me, I’m always going to go with the second one.

So I have yet to crack open the book on Malaysian culture, but I raced through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in approximately three days. Instead of discovering new perspectives about Malaysia, I’ve discovered new perspectives about murderers and computer hackers — both of which I started to fear were lurking behind every single corner (including a few unlikely corners — like the corner of the rice paddy!). When I logged online to my bank account a week ago and discovered the balance was much lower than I had expected, I was certain someone had hacked into my bank account. (Of course, after reviewing the transactions, I realized, sadly, the only person siphoning funds from my account was me.)

So, after almost two months on the rice farm, I can’t say I’ve learned much about Malaysian language or culture. But, I did learn a number of important life lessons that I’m sure will come in handy in my future travels… or, say, should I end up living on a rice farm again (Sure, I’ve promised myself that I won’t work on a rice farm again… but I also promised myself I’d read that book on Malaysian culture… and stop buying shoes while in the airport). So, here are a few of the things I picked up while on the rice farm (aside from, you know, bed bugs, all my new job skills, and a persistent paranoia of pythons):

The Simple Life… Is Not So Simple

Over the past ten years, I’ve worked a variety of office and teaching jobs in a variety of air-conditioned offices and classrooms. And, while, these jobs were a lot more cushy (and a lot more air conditioned) than working on a rice farm, I was looking forward to experiencing a new work environment while on the farm.

I yearned for a simpler existence far away from the world of offices and office politics; a place where hard work was valued (and, not, say, your ability to pretend like you’re working hard while you’re actually just checking your Facebook account for the fiftieth time that day or sending an instant message to a coworker slagging off your boss… something I, of course, would never do). I imagined the rice farm would be a much more cooperative, cheerful place to work… maybe we’d sing songs together while working in the fields and call each other “brother” and “sister” like the Amish do.

It didn’t take me long on the farm to figure out the same office politics that exist in an office full of cubicles exist on a farm full of rice. In fact, I didn’t even have to figure it out on my own. Within ten minutes of arriving, I had already heard an earful about all the problems on the farm.

The number one grievance among the workers seemed to be the general manager, a man who very rarely showed up on the rice farm and, when he did, he very rarely showed any interest in the practice of rice farming. I only ever saw him in a rice paddy once. Well, he wasn’t exactly in the paddy. He was standing outside of the paddy shouting instructions to those of us who were in the paddy while attempting to add emphasis to his orders by swinging a hoe around vigorously. (I suspected this was the first time he had ever actually handled a hoe… and maybe the first time he had ever even seen a hoe.. and, in fact, he probably thought the hoe’s only purpose was to help him punctuate his sentences). Meanwhile those of us who were in the paddy dutifully nodded our heads and pretended to be listening (while we were secretly wishing the rice paddy came equipped with Instant Messenger so we could send messages slagging off the boss… of course, I would never do that).

By the end of my first week on the farm, I already knew who didn’t like who, who wasn’t talking to who and who would totally up-and-quit the rice farm tomorrow if only who could. While it wasn’t the happy, cooperative, “kumbaya” work environment I had in mind, it was in some ways comforting to know that across cultures and countries there are some universal truths that hold us together as a people: like the general belief that every boss is a complete and total idiot. (Of course, I would never think this… and if I accidentally ever sent an instant message to this effect to any of my former coworkers, I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding… or maybe somebody hacked into my computer and did it!).

Man Can’t Live on Bread Alone… and This Woman Can’t Live on Rice Alone

In Malaysia, as in most Asian countries, it is common to eat rice at every single meal (and as a mid-day snack… and possibly as an after-dinner palate-cleanser). The meals on the rice farm tended to be simple affairs, usually consisting of a vegetable or two and fried eggs, chicken or tofu. Of course, there was always plenty of rice to go around (and you’d think all that exposure to rice paddy muck would turn one off of eating rice!).

After my first week of non-stop rice consumption, I became concerned (along with a number of other words beginning with the letter “c”). The rice was going into my body, sure enough, but it wasn’t coming out. I didn’t exactly know where the rice was going; maybe it was having a nice holiday in my lower intestine or possibly hanging out in the pit of my stomach with all the chewing gum I’ve ever swallowed. All I knew was that it was refusing to leave my body, and it was making sure to block any other food from getting out of as well.

I stopped eating rice and started swallowing fiber pills after every meal. I downed cups of coffee and packets of instant oatmeal. I pleaded with the rice in my lower intestine to please leave my body, but it was usually to no avail. On the few occasions when I was actually able to, umm, evacuate the rice from my system, I felt a sense of accomplishment that most people might feel after giving birth or, say, winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Maybe this was the simple life I had once yearned for — I no longer needed a bigger pay check or a corner cubicle to make me happy. All I wanted was a bowel movement.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger… or Older

Before arriving on the rice farm, I imagined all the manual labor would make me lean and strong. While I certainly didn’t get any leaner (you can thank the twenty gallons of rice that have settled in my lower intestine for that), I did certainly get stronger. I have visible muscles in my neck and back I never knew existed, I have forearms the consistency of tree trunks and I can hoist a thirty-pound bag of rice seed like no one’s business.

While my muscles have been bulking up, the rest of my body has been rapidly giving up. After almost two months of weeding rice paddies and sleeping on a bed that could double as a torture instrument, my back is perpetually sore and prone to giving out on me. It now takes me approximately twenty minutes to bend over (a feat I no longer take lightly, as I’m never sure if I’ll be able to stand back up again). From hours on end of yanking out weeds by hand, my right hand has turned into a creaky, arthritic claw. On my last week on the farm, I developed a mysterious rash on my left knee which I have to periodically rub ointment into. And, well, there’s the whole issue of, ummm, blockage.

I think it would be safe to say that in less than two months on the farm, my body has aged approximately fifty years. Thank God I didn’t spend any more time on the rice farm or they’d have had to send me home in a box… or, worse yet, in orthopedic shoes.

Be Grateful for the Small Things… Like the Fact that You Didn’t Get Swallowed Alive by Pythons

While my body may be giving out on me and my lower intestine has collected enough rice to feed a small African nation, overall, I am grateful for the experience I had on the farm. Most of all, I’m grateful for all the wonderful people that I met while I was there.

I am also grateful for the fact that I didn’t die. When you think about it (and, trust me, I did think about it… a lot), there were no end to the ways I could have perished while on the rice farm: everything from attack by wild boars to spontaneous combustion as a result of over-accumulation of rice in my lower intestine. But, miraculously, I came out of the experience alive (if about half a decade older than when I came into it).

Finally, I’m grateful for the number of things I learned while on the farm — even if these things have less to do with Malaysian language and culture and more to do with Malaysian rice farming (and, say, the bacteria cultures you might find on a Malaysian rice farm… and now possibly incubating in the rash on my left knee). After all, you never know when this knowledge might come in handy — like the next time I end up on a rice farm. (I know, I know, I promised… but we all know how well that’s been working out for me…)

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

  1. On March 22, 2015 at 11:25 am Ron Bennis said:

    Fantastic article. I just returned from Tamil Nadu state India where there are lots of rice farms. The hardest work in the fields was done by women under the control of a male supervisor. The Indian people work extremely hard doing mostly farming. I tried to imagine myself living among the rice farmers and doing the same tasks as the farmers. Thanks to your article I feel like, as a westener, you provided me with the information I could only imagine. Thx.

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