Monday, February 7, 2011

Thais & Americans: Compatibly Clean and Filthy

The sun was still up when my two CIEE sisters and I were ushered inside our Meh’s (Thai word for "mother") house after an intensive jaunt around the village. We stood in the threshold of our Meh's high-reaching living room as she disappeared into a side room speaking to us in Thai, despite her being fully aware of our humbling inability to comprehend anything she said. However, the three of us exchanged nervous glances in recognition of what we suspected she was saying to us. Sure enough, Meh emerged from the room carrying three towels and ushered us into the wash room. Even with prior knowledge of this Isan tradition, all three of us could not comprehend how much of a struggle taking a shower in Thailand was actually going to be.

Thais are apparently known for their incessant habit of keeping physically clean. The custom in this region of Isan is to shower at least once or twice a day. Morning, and evening. They say Thai families insist on their guests showering whenever any activity is finished as a way to feel refreshed and ready to start anew. My roommate, Gee, jokingly asserts, “Because it’s hot!” As a shameless puller of the “I want to conserve water” card, it would normally be uncharacteristic of me to bathe more than three times a week. Yet, not wanting to offend any one’s culture or nostrils, showering is a habit I have had to urge myself to take up since I’ve arrived here three weeks ago. But what is most interesting to my non-traveled eye is how, in this country, other forms of cleanliness are utterly disregarded.

Heaps of trash line the bending roads in Khon Kaen, roads barely wide enough to squeeze in two lanes of traffic (let alone bus stops, vendor stands, and pedestrians). Potted plants and grassy medians assume the role of public trash cans, even on the main streets that run through the city. I recalled the days as a Girl Scout when our community service badge could be fulfilled after working a few sweaty hours at a park with our little litter-picking tools, and how in the U.S. a clean community translates to a conscientious community. So with this perspective, my initial impression of the inhabitants of Khon Kaen was that they were a somewhat disorganized community of people. Yet, according to my roommate, I come across as irresponsible for neglecting to take care of my personal hygiene. So the question is, do we as Americans and Thais, have the responsibility to share our cultural subjectivity with one another in hopes that it catches on, or will these differences eventually become cultural barriers between us?

As my two “sisters” and I stepped out of the washroom, with our soaking wet sarongs pasted to our bodies from the soap we forgot to wash off, it didn’t matter that we had a frustrating and relatively unsuccessful experience. What mattered was that Meh saw us fit to eat according to the standards she lives by. We conceded to wash our bodies -- would it be too brazen to encourage Thais to clean up their backyard? We could make a day of it: we bring the litter-pickers, they bring the Singha beer.

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