Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Saturday, October 20, 2018

In Sight Of Land


I have waited a few months to give my report on my trip to secure a tiny farm in Northern Thailand back in July. Things had happened to me prior to that that words were failing me to contain or resolve. Somehow all available words I might have to discuss this event had been co-opted to serve a purpose that was no longer serving me. So in the end I had to wrestle the words back and make them do my bidding. I could not make it go away otherwise. A retreat from Trump's America certainly helped to clear my head. I offer that respite first.


My Thai Land

I sat down at the counter of the land transfer office to write my name carefully in Thai script conscious that the government was now under authoritarian rule since democratic elections had been shelved for some 4 years now. Massive protests had forced a corrupt prime minister to step down resulting in a power vacuum that justified a military takeover. During that time the country had been polarized into the Red shirts of the northern rural areas and the Yellow shirts of the urban population of Bangkok. When asked to come to some kind of agreement in order for governance to proceed each side insisted that only their way would do and refused to allow the other any concession. And everyone basically gave a sigh of relief when the military stepped in. 

All the officers at this Northern station had on yellow shirts as if the Yellow shirts had won, but I learned later it was because it was the King’s birthday month and his birthday was on a Monday which in Thai tradition bore the color yellow. Thai culture could be so whimsical in its cultural expression I mused. At least I knew what the colors of the days were from having gone to Thai kindergarten. I was not wearing a yellow shirt. I had on a long sleeve maroon shirt which I hoped would not mean anything. Or if it did would be in my favor.

The officer sitting across from me in her pastel yellow polo shirt watched me laboriously writing.

“Take your time,” she said. I had not expected kindness and warmed to it. We were far from Bangkok in this pleasant rural province of Mae Taeng where I was buying a farm. Behind me in the waiting area sat my farm partner Clasina holding the hand of the farmer’s daughter whom she had befriended on a previous visit. We had not sat together in case her fair haired foreign presence complicated this matter of land ownership. The old farmer himself had already been to the counter with his grandson to verify his ownership of the land I was buying.

After I had signed my form I was sent to the next officer, a man higher up the chain looking perky in his bright yellow polo shirt as if he were on vacation. He looked over the information on my form. A copy of my Thai I.D. card stapled to it showing me in a striped black shirt worn last year during the year of mourning for the beloved late King Bhumibol. Looking at it gave me a sense of continuity with my Thai heritage. The year of mourning had done much to unify the country.

“Do you live in Bangkok,” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said

“Or do you go go/come come,” he said using that cute all inclusive Thai phrase for so many of us now with a foot in the West.

“Yes,” I said nervously, but my answer seemed not to matter too much. He was not looking to strip me of my identity as the officer in Bangkok had who demanded that I produce my parents’ marriage license to prove I was indeed legitimately Thai. He verbally had me confirm my age and address and reaching the bottom of the form signed it. I was done. Grandson and I then paid our share of the transfer tax and I gave him the check for the balance of the money for the land. He did not even open the envelope to look at the check. Then we all got back into his white taxi truck which he drove as an additional source of income. I joined him in the front cab as befitting my status as investor and elder while the others rode in the back. Grandson seemed subdued though he had been quite chatty driving in. Selling land was a big deal for a farmer I suspected.

“How long does it take you to plant the rice seedlings”, I asked him for Clasina had given permission to the family to sow another season of rice on our land since we would not be using it anytime soon.

“One day with ten people,” he said, “then we help to plant rice on each of their farms.” I was floored. Wow. It was still here this barn raising Amish style community work force. Each villager beholden to each other trading their produce and time not for money, but for reciprocal gifts. How secure that would make me feel to have such a community. 

He asked me if I was going to farm organically. And I realized that he saw our venture as a form of technological advancement. The next big thing. Otherwise why would I bother with such an investment. I said yes though it was more complicated than that, but I did not have the words for food forest even though this was now a trend in Thailand, a style of agriculture that the late King had promoted. And not one that had profit as an end goal.

“Have you thought to grow organically/” I asked him

“No,” he said, “it is more expensive and we do not have a market. But you know more people,” he added implying that we would find markets he didn’t have access to. I did not ask how it was that organic farming was more expensive. I wasn’t sure I had enough Thai to understand the answer. I could see he had some regrets about having to relinquish his land as if he had somehow failed and now his son had gone to computer school and his daughter to some other career. At least the land had not been in the family for generations. I would feel bad about that.

Our farm was originally government land, part of the national forest that had been portioned out after the dam was built. Given to the farmers who had been displaced by the government built damn. The reservoir now feeding all the farm plots with cement lined ditches that bordered each plot. The stipulation of the two deeds that now bore my name was that the land could not be used for commercial purposes other than farming. Though we were permitted to build whatever housing we needed. 

I had seen it for the first time the day we arrived. Clasina and I had traveled up from Bangkok on the newly updated express sleeper train full as usual of European travelers. We were met at the Chiang Mai station the next morning by a fellow mud hut sister Jesse a Canadian expat, with whom I had built a house three years ago. She had met Clasina already as she had come by to visit our mud hut build back in January. She had listened with interest as Clasina talked about a farm she was looking at buying. When I told Jesse of our plans to collaborate in buying this land she was happy to have us stay at her house. She too had bought a rice farm paddy and put on it a refurbished traditional wooden Thai house. Jesse was the perfect person to midwife our farm project. She had familiarity with the process and asked good questions.

It was Jesse who drove us to the farm for my first viewing with me in the back of her little white pick-up feeling very farmer like sitting with a bale of hay. We turned off the highway and a dirt road brought us to the farm entrance marked by the opening in the barbed wire fencing. 



“Welcome home,” Clasina told me as she gave me a hand to help me out of the truck. Home. So many meanings that had for me.

As Clasina pointed out the markers at the corner of the rice paddy field below the road the plot seemed smaller than I had imagined until we actually walked it. For our purposes it would be fine. Across the road was the orchard dotted with lychee trees. It was on a slight incline which would be perfect for a homestead. In the distance were the mountains that Clasina had wanted when she was looking for land. They were covered in forests and were sensuous and green reminding me of Hawaii which was ironic in itself since the last time I had looked at land for a homestead was with a lover living in Hawaii. Lucky that  romance didn’t work out and I had come home instead and had this chance to secure a foothold in the land of my childhood. 

Once the deed was done this new status of owning land slowly began to fill me with a sense of a future and kinship in Thailand. I had feared that once the elders in my family had died I would have no reason to come to Thailand. Owning land was a way to make my childhood home meaningful again. It also gave me new friends.

Clasina and I had not run out of things to talk about on the train coming up and we hadn’t even touched on what kind of farm we wanted. She was so cheerful and easy going we traveled well together. With Jesse the three of us shared a congenial time delighting in each others company and lots of girl talk. Jesse in turn introduced me to other permaculture farmers — a young man from Brazil who was co-teaching a class with her, a Frenchman who had settled in Thailand with his Thai wife. I shared with them my tiny house story augmented by a Powerpoint presentation I had put together to share at my last mud hut build. There was an ease here that was restorative in the way these expats shared their perspectives. People yielded conversational ground to each other. I was pleasantly surprised. The conversational style in the US was becoming decidedly unyielding. I sorely needed this respite, for I was now living in a society that was becoming increasingly difficult for me to navigate.


A Nation Divided

Back in the U.S. a nation under a President intent on fomenting a form of white tribal nationalism I knew I would not have an easy time of it and had taken steps to buffer myself from his enraging rhetoric. Meanwhile on the Left I was trying to keep up with what was considered respectful use of another culture’s teachings or group’s symbols and what was a disrespectful appropriation that projected a hurtful stereotype. I enjoyed appropriation of all sorts of cultural dress and symbols for my own amusement just to keep people guessing my mixed race heritage. Plus I am practicing shamanism a spiritual path that may or may not be a cultural appropriation depending on what words you use to describe your spirit guides. People were so busy correcting each other that it was harder to find common ground as less ground was given and less benefit of the doubt offered. We were overcorrecting in a divisive and distracting way I felt. This self censoring restricted creative thought and the imagination when we could be creating a culture we could all inhabit.

Shortly after my 60th birthday I decided to travel to Minneapolis to visit a dear friend I hadn’t seen in five years. She was a tenured professor deeply involved with issues of climate change as part of her work as an artist. So we had much in common to discuss. I had offered to give a talk on the eco aspects of tiny house living to a group she promised would love to hear all about my composting toilet and waste water gardening. And because of our fascination with multicultural influences I added to my talk additional personal information about my background, my privileged upbringing in Thailand and my LGBT coming of age in the US just to showcase the many intersections of subcultures in my life that might have led to my choosing an off grid lifestyle. Being presented as an eco hero already set me up for judgement, but these additional details broadened this potential in untested ways I felt, but I trusted my host.

She also told me how adept the students had become in staking out their own personal identity politics. So much so that it seemed every week a student would be “triggered” by something she said and would vocally reprimand her for using a colloquial term or presentation they found offensive. It was almost a competitive thing with these students since even the mild mannered ones were just as apt to jump on this band wagon. This detail of her teaching life annoyed me intensely as it seemed to be giving students so much power over how information was delivered to them. Weren’t teachers to be respected rather than constantly corrected?

And just as I was wondering what this must be like for my friend I was given a dose of it myself. After I gave my talk to a very polite and attentive all white audience who did not laugh nearly enough for my taste, we went to dinner where my friend picked up a message from her assistant, a grad student, reprimanding her for being so insensitive as to allow me to wear an outfit bearing a symbol that was extremely offensive to her particular minority group. And she was right. In this region it was an offensive symbol. One I had sewed onto the back of my outfit over a decade ago in an ironic moment, a printed logo. I had completely forgotten about it and was chagrined to be the cause of my friend’s attack. It took us all evening to discuss the possible ramifications for what most would consider a rather insignificant offense. After which I concluded that she was working in a hostile environment that was becoming increasingly stressful to her whether she acknowledged it or not. And now was causing me distress.

When I got home I spent an hour writing an apology to the offended grad student choosing my words with careful humility hoping for some lenience owing to my being a stranger in a strange land and a guest. She gave me no such mercy, but was quick to give me a label that categorized me and my “people” as ones who would do harm — in effect an enemy. I had never heard this term of hers before and was undone by how it cast me into a ready made narrative. I felt as if my American citizenship had been revoked. She then added that unless I cured myself of my ignorance of the significance of this symbol I was aligning myself with white supremacists. This being now the label for racists with the added implication of intention to maintain white rule. This was a patently ridiculous claim, but the damage was already done. My sense of who I was in this country was scrambled and few hearing the details of this event could help me so intent were they on explaining to me why this person would be so “triggered” (which is why I have purposefully left out the details here. I am extricating this story as one would a splinter. In the hopes of healing). 

Upon my return to treatment my acupuncturist was alarmed by my emotional and physical condition. Not only was I leaking energy at a faster rate than he could restore it, but my confidence in my own narrative was decimated. I didn’t trust that I could convince anyone of anything I had to say or that I even had the right to say it. If students could reprimand professors with no accountability as to the appropriateness of their complaint I had no ground to stand on, no support from these peers.

I was angry, but I also understood the territory. Raising consciousness about racial bias was not a bad thing. It was progress. And though I was not granted forgiveness so I could be made whole again, I forgave my young assailant for her youth having wielded such weighty accusations at my elders myself when I was a student. 

Plus this was not the first time I had been taken down by someone speaking for a minority people in America for when you are the “model minority” you are by your very success in navigating these complex race lines demonstrating that race doesn’t matter in the land of “equal opportunity”. You have “assimilated” and made it work for you. And by your example you have made race a non issue in the eyes of white people. Yet institutionalized racism continues. You are just the exception that proves the rule. I accepted this lesson as graciously as I could. I also understood that while we might be categorized under the same People of Color umbrella, we were not necessarily friends. This made me wary. 

It’s true that as a model minority I am already ahead of the game arriving with a full set of tools and advantages. Immigration laws screen immigrants from overseas culling for the best and brightest just as my parents with their higher degrees were only allowed entry because jobs were already offered to them. The tension of being at the intersection of such class advantages paired with the presence of racial bias in America from the age of ten has shaped me and made me something of an expert on racial narratives. Not to mention being queer and female on top of it. But the Trump era has upped the ante some and racism is now being discussed much more frequently by white allies intent on raising the alarm about the agenda of “white supremacists”. Within these discussions is the hope of eradicating such an agenda. While my non-white contacts were just as apt to post blisteringly anti-white alliance statements. This just increased the tension without offering any possibility of a unifying cause. 


Gasping For Air

In Thailand nobody talked about politics even the expats and nobody asked me what all was going on in the U.S.. While I was enjoying this much needed respite within the peaceful sphere of a news media controlled military dictatorship I had to wonder if I was still up for Democracy. Was not the end result always going to be controlled by wealth stealing the show while infighting fractured the Left? I felt relieved to be in a country where I did not have to work so hard to navigate competing versions of reality. I could mind my own business relieved of responsibility for any outcomes whatsoever. The televised news was so innocuous it was not worth discussing being mostly reports about government sponsored programs around the country doing good for the people. And a good half hour spent on the selection of the day’s lottery numbers. Was this so bad? Much harder to watch democracy self-corrupt and be powerless to stop it.

Still I had to return. And in returning I would have to have a strategy. So I had armed myself with the recent book
Democracy In Chains by Nancy MacLean, something meaty to read while waiting in government offices. I felt that if I could just understand how democracy in the U.S. had been compromised I would have a firmer handle on how to engage in correcting this course and reclaim democracy. The book delivered. The history in it describing the last 50 years gave me the information to see that what was at the core of this mess was a class war being wielded by a white elite informed by a history of slavery. The intent being to take back power for the wealthy and reduce the power of the majority even further. The men responsible had worked tirelessly and persistently to manifest this agenda through controlling discourse in universities, in the news media and in the mouths of politicians. There was no real promise of equality or even a patriarchal promise to do what’s best for all the people. There was just the dangling carrot of opportunity. A premise further fueled by capitalism. This class war was so pervasive and subversive that everyone who has a chance to be upwardly mobile will likely betray those falling behind including those in their own identity group.

The history I absorbed confirmed for me that this was an old battle we could fight with an old school economic social justice approach. It was enough to give me confidence to return yet the struggle of living in Trump’s America would still get to me. The separation of children from parents at the border, white women calling the cops on innocent black people, the enraging Kavanaugh hearings. And every time I thought we might have a movement that would allow coalitions to form I saw bridges burned down by divisiveness. The Left scrambled by an impulse to persecute its own. Feminism being sacrificed just as it was getting a fresh reboot because another group’s issues seemed more just. Coalition building not on the table while everyone reviewed their privilege and challenged each others internalized biases. My dearest friends were enraging me with counter productive approaches. My favorite optimistic writers showed signs of despair. Would America save itself? Would young people vote? I had no confidence in the outcome. Now that I understood the coup that had taken place even before Trump I knew where I stood. But this knowledge did not empower me it just made me feel more helpless. How long before others would see it?


In Sight Of Land

I had been swimming while drowning for a long time. I had sighted land in a far away country that gave me solace. But here in what had been my home for 50 years I was gasping for air. Rage draining my energy. And then more rage at not being able to recover. I told people I was being treated for exhaustion as though it were an ongoing condition. Every time I thought I had my old self back someone would ask me to take sides and the energy would drain out again. I clearly needed a different philosophical interface. I did not want to just retreat from all discourse.

I would rebrand myself as a white supremacist. Not the violent exterminating kind of course, but the culturally appropriating idea bagger of all that humanity had to offer kind. Just as the English language has managed to absorb foreign words and chew down foreign concepts into their deconstructed parts I would unapologetically (with the Queen's English of my birth country) consume all ideas for my own purposes. Move chameleon like amongst every group, scarf up whatever doctrine was being served up, witness it and move on before the group think could get me. Democracy may in the end fail the U.S. but it won’t be the end of human society or even human goodness. I had seen that much.

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