Updated: Jan 19
In 2014, I left my teaching career, and decided to do some traveling before finding a new job. I spent two and a half months in northwestern Thailand, and my experiences there fueled my search for a more authentic community. In my previous blog post I recounted my time in the small villages of the Mae Tan region, and how the hospitality of the locals has inspired the culture of hospitality that I hope to bring to Prairie Rivers Cohousing. If you missed my first blog post, you can find it here.
My sister was working in the Mae Tan region of Northern Thailand, and after visiting her for a few weeks I left to embark on my own adventure. I signed up with Helpx, and became a live-in volunteer on a few small farms.
The first farm on which I volunteered was a Karen ("Kuh-ren") community. My hostess was named Yuki. She was a Japanese woman who, like myself, had originally come to the area as a volunteer. She ended up falling in love, marrying a local man, and settling down in the little village. The community accepted and supported her, despite her ability to speak only the most basic Karen. The local women taught her the traditional Karen art of weaving, and when I arrived, they took me under their wing as well.
Karen women are known for their weaving designs. Although Western wear is becoming more common, many people still wear traditionally woven clothing. Selling their weaving to tourists is an important source of revenue for the Karen women. They get together at least once a week to connect and to weave. I felt an instant sense of community during my time weaving with them. They taught me the basic skills of twisting the fringes and hand sewing the seams on shirts. I appreciated the acceptance and patience of these women, and enjoyed contributing to the work they were doing.
While I was there, we volunteers were told that there was to be a wedding celebration in a nearby village, and that we were welcome to attend. We were interested, but concerned about our clothing, having nothing appropriate for the occasion - or so we thought. As it turns out, I would never have known that this was a wedding celebration had I not been told. Karen weddings are informal community affairs, and everyone is welcome to attend. No one needs a personal invitation, and no one dresses up. Yes, our group of three stood out because we were obviously foreigners, but we weren't treated any differently. We were warmly welcomed and were offered food and drink. The non-English speakers welcomed us with smiles and sign language. The few who did speak it were happy to talk with us.
To a North American, this wedding was a strange affair. There was a spiritual offering of rice and whiskey. There was no white dress, no formal attire, no decorations, no photoshoot, and no pomp. I was struck by the warmth and inclusivity that I felt at an event that provided so little. I wonder if most North American weddings might be putting too much emphasis on appearances and not enough on the meaning of the celebration.
I will never forget the welcome which the Karen people extended to us. I frequently talk about the kind of community that we will be creating once Prairie Rivers is built, but today I would like to encourage more immediate action. North Americans - especially city dwellers - have gotten away from community values. But as more and more people live alone and as the problems of loneliness and mental health are being recognized, it is more important than ever that we find our community. Not just within cohousing, not just for Prairie Rivers members and explorers, but within our current circles. With our co-workers, our neighbours, our families, and our friends. If we all do our part to build bridges with the people around us, we will work towards a more inclusive society where everyone feels welcomed no matter their circumstances.
Next month, this three-part, Thailand-focused blogpost will wrap up with a reflection on the place of children within their community.