Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The March 2013 One Hundred Baht Challenge

I read this essay to a group of fellow volunteers and PC staff at a conference this week. The first few paragraphs are excerpted from a previous post but the rest is new.

I'd like to thank my PCV friend, Mike Hamby for his editing help.

I'm taking an online course on global poverty offered by MIT through EdX, one of those free online class websites. The professors, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banjeree are rock stars of sorts in the economic development world. They're renowned for their groundbreaking and often surprising poverty research. One of the lectures topics for the class was on nutrition. Some of the presented material was particularly unexpected to me, until I considered my own life as a broke Peace Corps Volunteer.

Duflo and Banjeree found that when families living below the poverty line were given an additional expenditure for food, they did not buy more food. Instead they bought tastier food. That is to say poor people, rather than bridging their caloric gap with low-cost staple items, bought junk food.

The world's poor are rational agents and I don't mean to make light of their nutrition challenges but I will use this economic paradox to shed light on my own silly Peace Corps-kind of poverty.

A fellow Thailand PCV, also taking the class, pointed out that this is exactly how a PCV behaves when she gets a similar injection of capital in the form of pay day. I’ve been known to eat Mama, Thai instant noodles, twice a day all month long, then go to Bangkok with my pay day surplus and eat only things with cheese.

At site, I may spend one or two dollars per day (well, not this month), but while on bpai-tiao, vacation, I spend like I'm still an entry level accounting assisting living at home, basically I make it rain.

100 Baht, All I Had to My Name
This counter-intuitive consumption pattern came into sharp focus this past month. The events leading up to my self-imposed “March 2013 One Baht Challenge" are something I don’t care to relive, but suffice to say at the beginning of last month, after bpai-tiao in a quaint Northeastern province on the 
Lao border, I still owed several months’ rent and my bank account was tapped out – if the University of Wisconsin could see my bank statements they'd take away my economics degree. I found myself with 100 baht to last until Pay Day- for those of you following along stateside, that's about 3.22 USD.

The "One Hundred Baht Challenge" became the "One Hundred and Fifty Baht Challenge" on a Sunday when I cleaned my house and found an additional fifty baht ($1.60) in change. In a classic poverty trap maneuver I proceeded to go out and spend the fifty baht on my favorite food and frequent topic of conversation, Som Tam, Spicy Papaya Salad.

Could I make it the month on roughly three USD? Would the money last till Pay Day in a Hanukkah-esque miracle? I was lucky Thailand has such a wide offering of instant noodles.

Ill now add the disclaimer that several people offered to bail me out Wall Street-style, including the Bank of Sharon and Elton Langland with its very favorable rates. But I've gotten a number of bailout packages in the past and I felt ready to learn some lesson. So, this is what I had to work with:

1/3 Jar of Peanut Butter
12 Packages of Mama Noodles 
1 Box of Kraft Macaroni
1/2 Bag of Wild Rice
1 Box of Quinoa
2 Bars of Dark Chocolate
1/2 Bag of Sweethearts
6 Cloves of Garlic
1/2 Bottle of Hot Sauce
1 lb. Coffee
1/2 Oyster Sauce
3 Packs M&Ms
1 Roll of Thin Mints

It was clear I would need to supplement this inventory by adding the generosity of the Thai people to my list.  I was  on the hunt for free food. And in unexpected ways this selfish quest changed my life at site for the better.

As most of you know I started out my service in Sukhothai, a Northern province that served as Thailand's first capital in the 13th-15th centuries, and as most of you know I'm no longer there. Security concerns triggered by aggressive overtures from the Nayoke, mayor, meant I would be move to Isan, the culturally Lao Northeastern region. The Safety and Security Officer, Phanuthat, and I took a road trip and I arrived in Nakhon Ratchasima with a van full of stuff and more emotional baggage than I had planned on bringing along.

In Sukhothai I had a very caring relationship with the women of my sub-district office. In the aftermath of the security incident I thought my Tessaban ladies would have my back, in a way the hierarchical political structure didn't allow. In hindsight, I can understand many of the cultural constraints on my relationship with these women, but I left Sukhothai feeling burned.

The incident, in my mind, really highlighted my status as an outsider and caused me to turn inwards instead of out to my community when searching for stability at my new site. I sought to be highly self-sufficient, hoping my “healthy boundaries” would endear me to my colleagues and neighbors in my new sub-district, Takhob. I knew they would appreciate how well I could make it on my own. I never asked for rides. I came and went without fanfare. I did all my own cooking. I spent lots more time cultivating relationships with other PCVs.

But after a few months of feeling increasingly isolated, I began to wonder if one man’s "healthy boundaries" are a Thai man’s unnecessary emotional walls.  My attempts to stay an emotional arm’s length may have been seen as disinterest in my community.

I had trapped myself in a negative feedback loop. As I projected “okayness” to my community members, they rightly assumed I was “okay” and reached out less. Un-ironically the less they reached out the less “okay” I was.

This destructive cycle might have continued had I not completely run out of money, and in a surprise twist, came to my senses.

Now, let me now disclaim, if things had gotten "that bad," someone would have sent me money. But after taking stock of my meagerly stocked house, I realized if I really wanted to turn my humiliating tale of poverty into a heroic one, I would need to rely on the people I had assumed I should not to rely on.

Sharing a meal
The very gracious teachers and karatchagan, civil servants, at my schools and Tessaban respectively, always offer to share lunch with me. Typically, I wouldn't take them up on it, in an effort to not be a mooch. In March, having no money to speak of, how could I refuse their generosity?

Civil Servants having lunch at the Tessaban
Kuhn Yai, the grandmother, across the street called out nearly every day for me to join her family for dinner. I had previously erred on the side of self-reliance, but now thought it was as good a time as any to sit down to a meal with my favorite Yai.

Kuhn Yai Dancing at a Monk Ordination
When passing a monk ordination or a wedding on my bike and I would smile yell, "sawatdi ka," hello, and keep riding, basically ignoring calls to join in the festivities. During the challenge month,  hunger coupled with  no pretense of anything better to do, led me to stop and partake in the food and dancing.

Now, I would like to point out the I'm not a complete monster. I absolutely planned on replaying at least a little of the generosity. When I got paid I would really doll out the kanoms, sweet Thai snacks.

A new feedback loop started to take shape, this time a positive one. The more I sat down with my coworkers, neighbors, and fellow party-goers, the more comfortable it was. I felt better about sharing and enjoying the abundance in my tight-knit farming community. I reached out, not because I had to but because I wanted to.

I can't help but be reminded of the familiar "Rom Com" trope: boy using girl or girl using boy for some ulterior motives before the rouse turns into real love. This is the plot for half of all movies.

My integration attempts may have started out with, albeit benign, ulterior motives but they became as genuine as a Hypothetical Male Lead’s contrite confessions.

Maybe unsurprisingly to you the reader, when I started reaching out instead of in, things began to change. Not only did my community endear itself to me through their generosity and kindness, but...

In my efforts to radiate self-sufficiency, I neglected to realize that it's not highly valued here. There are a few English phrases that almost everyone here knows and uses with some frequency. One is: "take care." That "taking care" is one of the primary ideas Thailand would like to convey to the English-speaking world tells you a lot about its culture of generosity.  This didn't manifest itself to me until I began to let them do just that, "take care". I realized I needed taking care of and many people jumped into to do just that. And completely surprising to me, they seemed to enjoy it. They showed me nam jai, generosity, and I learned just how powerful and genuine this core Thai belief is. Literally, nam jai means water heart or the essence of the heart, but it's more encompassing definition of generosity, thoughtfulness, hospitality, and charitableness is reflected in every aspect of the social sphere. Letting my friends, neighbors, and coworkers "take care" and show me nam jai was letting them share a part of their culture I had thus far neglected to appreciate.

By the kindness of neighbors, my sad-sack self ended the month with a few servings of quinoa and two cloves of garlic, then behaved exactly like the economists predicted by going out and spending a bunch of money on junk food at Tesco Lotus, Thailand's answer to Walmart. I survived the self-inflicted poverty but the lion’s share of credit goes to my Chumchon Takhob, community for showing me the nam jai I finally learned to accept.

1 comment:

  1. El, I love this post. I have spent the last two weeks (and will spend the next two months) buying only fruit and bubbly water, to force myself to go have lunch and dinner with my neighbors, and it actually kind of works, whenever I get hungry enough I have to leave my house ;)