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Friday, March 09, 2012

International Women's Day

It was a bit odd to observe International Women’s Day this year.

While I am even more keenly aware of the international status of women, I can not help but reflect on this as a Western woman who is presently in Thailand.

That's a very, very different perspective. Indeed, I find it positively transformative.

It seems to these eyes, from the very superficial perspective of having only been in Thailand for a little over a week and having been, thus far, only in Pattaya and its environs, that Thai women are more liberated, in many ways, than Western women.

I’m not talking so much about economics or the pragmatics of liberation and all the Western markers of that – equality in employment opportunities, access to affordable, quality education and health care – including reproductive rights, and laws against domestic violence, etc.

I’m really talking about attitude towards women.

I am keenly aware that we may have 'liberation' on the books, but many attitudes toward Women in the West are still at the pre-Neanderthal stage when compared with the Thai attitude toward Thai women which I've observed in Thailand.

I hasten to add that, while the Prime Minister of Thailand is a woman and the Queen and the princesses are revered as much as the King, the dominant male paradigm is active and in full throttle here.

There is no doubt that this is a patriarchy with all that entails. But, there is the strong presence of a matriarchy which is also undeniable.

Women seem to have carved out a role for themselves within the patriarchal system which affords them a modicum of power that many Western women do not have. Even those Thai women who have bought into the Western ideal of beauty are strong and independent in a way that many Western women could not begin to imagine.

There is a reverence here for women – especially mothers, but also sisters and cousins and most especially children (actually, of either gender). I think this happens especially within the context of families – and 'family' seems to be more important than the individual sum of its members.

This is a culture that makes the Evangelical "family values" people look like they don't know what the heck they are talking about. Because, actually, they don't. Never have, have they?

I have been impressed and deeply moved watching Thai families interact. It’s pretty clear that, for the most part, men and women own the shops and businesses fairly equally, but women run them, absolutely.

Oh, the man may sit at the cash register and take your money while it seems that the women all run around, but that's mostly for show and because he would just get in the way, anyway, so why not let him do something useful.

Everyone – including the men, it seems – checks with “mamasan” before any decision is made.

Mind you, men may have the illusion of having made the decision, but never, it seems, without checking in with mammasan.

I’ve been especially impressed watching the families of a few small restaurants in my neighborhood – so understand that my perspective is based on this small sampling. I do not either presume or pretend to make generalized statements about the whole of Thailand.

Truth of it is, after a little over a week here, I really have no right to say anything about anything Thai, so I want to be certain to let you know that these are just first impressions and that they are mine, which I own and for which I take responsibility.

If I or you were in most any other Western city, we would probably never eat in most of these establishments everyone calls "restaurants". They are tiny little ‘holes in the wall’ - I've seen tiny Pizza Parlors in Brooklyn that were larger and for all their scuzziness, cleaner -  jammed in between shops that sell soap or wigs or little convenience stores like the Family Mart or the Seven 11 (yes, they are as ubiquitous here as they are in the States).

These places all seem to have a street vendor component crammed on the sidewalk entrance - with a hot plate and a few cooking pans - which also serves, for the most part, as the extension to the kitchen.

So, one walks by two or three women who preside over long shelves with tanks of swimming smelly fish or turtle or eel or squid (ewww, ewww, ewww), and chicken, duck or pork which has been partially roasted but some which has simply been killed and plucked and 'dressed' and are hanging all about on cords (one tries to ignore the flies), next to huge pans of eggs (one hopes they are boiled, but suspects they are not), alongside huge bins of vegetables and fruit (again, mind the flies), and all not too far from great pots of steaming rice (which may or may not have been mixed with coconut milk) before one enters the actual restaurant.

I've learned to breathe through my mouth and smile until I get indoors and let the pungent odors of the curry and chili and other spices begin to take over.

There is one place in particular that I absolutely adore. I had the Massaman Curry Chicken there shortly after I arrived here and I must say that I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

The incredible thing is that the entire meal cost 80 baht (100 baht is $3.50) - for something that, in the NYC metro area, I would have easily paid $22-25 and it wouldn't have been half as good.

It was To. Absolutely. Die. For.

The Chef there is a wonderful, short, round, middle age Thai woman named Nan whose cherubic round face is an absolute delight and whose smile is truly a joy to behold.

Rob introduced me to her as his sister (it's just easier that way) and she began to treat me at once like a cross between a long-lost relative and a royal guest.

"What you want, Madam?" she asked. "I make anything for you. Anything, Madam."

I asked for Curry Chicken. "Ah," she said, "I make Madam Massaman Curry. Very special. Favorite of Queen of Thailand."

"What is Massaman Curry?" I asked.

"Ah," she said, happy to teach me, her facial expression an interesting combination of delight and intensity as she attempted her best English.

"Massaman is old way saying 'Muslim'. Many dry spices old days come-come Thailand from Muslim traders. You wait. Oh, you wait," she said, rubbing her hands together in absolute delight.

"Nan fix for you, Madam," she said, and began to run down the ingredients on her fingers. "Have coconut milk. Cinnamon - yes, that right way say? Ah, yes. Ginger. Peanut. Potato. Cook long-long time. Sticky rice. You eat. You like very big".

Oh, indeed I did. Like. Very, very big.

After I ate - making a complete fool of myself, sounding positively orgasmic as I was 'oohing and aahing' after each morsel I put in my mouth - Nan came by and sat with us to chat us up a bit and, no doubt, to get off her feet (which I noted were a bit swollen) and out of the kitchen for a while.

It didn't take two and a half seconds for her children and grandchildren and sons-in-law to gather 'round her, clearly delighted to have these few moments together. Most of these folks work 10-12 hour days - at a minimum. And, they rarely stop.

And, that's just what they do at the shop or restaurant while it's open. There's food to purchase or procure and schlep back and prepare, and the shop to clean and, oh yes, the other activities of daily life in their own private homes.

The sons and sons-in-law own mopeds which function as texsi (taxi) and its their way to contribute to the family's economy. Of course, the proceeds from the restaurant business afforded them the investment of the moped in the first place but mostly, they make enough money for gas and permits and may actually make a bit of a profit, which goes right back into the family budget.

I was impressed by the deep affection they had for one another.

They touched and stroked each other often, laughing freely although, I must say that Nan did not hesitate to chastise and scold the little ones when they were out of line. It was clear when she meant business and everyone snapped-to in very short order - even the men.

What was interesting to me was to see a pattern emerge. Nan would say something and, even as the person or child obeyed, the sons or sons-in-law would repeat the command so that it seemed to come from them. It was as if they were putting their imprimatur on the order, although it was clearly not necessary.

There was no doubt that Nan was in control. The men were just riding her coattails - saving face in front of the Western woman, no doubt.

At one point I looked out the window of the restaurant and, pointing to the ubiquitous adverts with Western women in very Western clothing and blonde hair and makeup, and asked her, "What you think of this?"

"This, Madam?" she asked for clarification.

"Yes, yes," I said. "So many Western women. Not Thai. Western."

"Ah," she said, "Very beautiful, yes, Madam."

I frowned. "But, not Thai, no?"

She looked into my eyes, not certain where I was going with this. She was pensive for a few moments and then momentarily distracted by a grandchild craving attention. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a small portion of sticky rice, rolled it up in a ball, and gave it to the child who squealed in delight and then ran away again.

Grandmothers are grandmothers. It's universal.

She looked back at me and said, "Madam, beauty not here," as she circled her face with her finger. "Beauty here," she said as she pointed to her heart.

I smiled as she let that sink into my thick Western skull.

Then, leaning forward on her ample forearm, she locked my eyes with hers and, pointing to her head said, "Power here," then pointing all around her said, "No power here, Madam. See?"

We create our own reality, she was saying in good Buddhist fashion, and she had clearly created her own right in this little place.

I looked around this hole-in-the-wall restaurant, stuffed with customers from various nations - Germany, France, England, Holland, Australia - eating Nan's magnificent food. I then looked at her and her amazing family and I thought, you know, there are women - and men - in America with far more material things than she who don't have an eighth of the riches she possesses.  And, they have far less power and authority.

I'm not romanticizing here. Here's the truth of it: I wouldn't trade places with her.

Then again, I really don't think she'd want to trade places with me. Not for all the masseman curry all the Muslim men could carry out of Thailand.

And, I'm not at all saying that women need to learn our place and be happy with what we've got.

What I am asking is that power is relative to one's situation, isn't it?

What I'm saying is that we are responsible for creating our own reality.

"Up to you", you know?

What I'm saying is that if American women don't fight against the Republican War on Women, we only have ourselves to blame for our own oppression.

If we don't fight the sicko Rush Limbaughs who think that young women who want contraception as part of good preventative health care are "sluts and prostitutes" or that contraception for "good girls" is an aspirin held between one's knees, then we deserve exactly what we get.

What I'm also saying is that we can't impose our Western values on anyone else. 

International Women's Day is not about making every woman live up to Western standards.

International Women's Day is about celebrating the uniqueness of women in her own unique and particular culture, and making certain, in those places where patriarchy is so entrenched that women can not even dream about having parity with men, that we work with women where they are to change what they believe needs to be changed for them.

Otherwise, we are as imperialistic and oppressive as the very ones we are working against.

I'm in a very different place about International Women's Day than I've ever been before. A more humble place, I think.

After only a week, I have come to understand that my time in Thailand is going to be more transformative than I could have ever asked for or imagined.

I am woman. I don't need you to hear me roar.

I'm responsible for creating my own reality. I only hope, one day, to be half the woman Nan is.

Forget about the roar. Just stand back and watch me continue to grow and change.

And, if you tend to be insecure about your own power and authority, well, be afraid. Be very afraid.

I may have some sticky rice in my apron pocket - but there won't be any for you.


SCG said...

Wonderful post! And you're right: we can support women around the world in those places where patriarchal laws have kept them down, but we, in the United States, need to recognize that the patriarchy in this country is amping up the volume and only we have the power to turn it down.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

SCG = Right. We need to do BOTH.

David@Montreal said...

'After only a week, I have come to understand that my time in Thailand is going to be more transformative than I could have ever asked for or imagined.'

Live on cherished sister! Live on!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, blessed brother David. BTW, we flew over Canada on our way here. I waved and blew some kisses and sent on some prayers.