a child of the northeast

I recently read a very moving book about Issan called “A Child of the Northeast” by Kampoon Boontawee. Here is a quote from the introduction:

“The slums of Bangkok are filled with people from the Northeast. It is difficult to believe, when one has seen both places, that anyone could perceive the quality of life in the urban slum as better than that in a Northeastern village. In fact, many modern Thai short stories examine precisely this theme: life in the city turns out not to be better than life in the poor villages, but a thousand times worse.

It is not that rural people long for the life of the urban slum, but there is a wistful hope for the kind of life they have seen on television or in films in the district town, or read about in magazines.”

If you ever go to Issan, especially in the dry season when the land is sparse and a dry yellow, everything gasping for water, it’s pretty easy to think “this place sucks. Why don’t these people move somewhere else?” — and I mean, they do. Issan people come to Bangkok in enormous numbers. If you’ve ever taken a taxi or motorsai in Bangkok, eaten road-side food, said hi to a security guard, or (sadly) visited a prostitute, you’ve met someone from Issan.

But reading this book made me understand why Issan people would want to stay: the tremendous sense of love that people feel for their land — that dry, dry land that is so often cruel to them. Every book written by an Issan writer about her life is called something like “Child of Issan”, and I think people do have this sense of the land being like their mother, their generator, their very body and blood. How can you abandon your own mother, even in the face of hunger and difficulty? How can you abandon the land that you love, the place that sustains you, that made you everything that you are? Not anyplace, but one particular place that is your own home.

Of course, migration to the city is changing this relationship between people and the land, but you can still see echoes of it in Issan music — a lot of which talks about missing your village, missing your own kind of people from your own village, being away from home. This change is interesting to me, because in my own society, this relationship between people and the land was broken a long time ago.

If I put on my “pretentious theory” hat for a moment, you could argue that one thing that is necessary for industrialization is the destruction of all kinds of relationships: between people and the land, between family members, between men and women, between people and what they eat, between teachers and students — which makes it possible for everything to be interchangeable and commoditized, to live here or there — who cares? to constantly change places, jobs, friends, teachers — if your relationships were too deep, if you felt too much that one thing was special and irreplaceable, you would just die of sorrow from the constant dislocation.

And perhaps (to throw in a pretentious metaphor into my already pretentious theory) — this dislocation is exactly what powers modern life, and gives its tremendous energy — just like destroying the bonds within the nucleus of a uranium atom, in nuclear fission, creates the most powerful source of energy that we know.

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A blog about culture and technology in South-East Asia.

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