Articles

Thoughts on Sweeping

Megan Cindric, 129 YinD

I’ve always hated cleaning.  All throughout college, my laundry and textbooks and other crap would pile up on my floor, desk, table, really anywhere in my room for weeks on end. Once per month I’d eventually hit a breaking point where there was literally nowhere left to put my things, and I’d spend a morning powering through cleaning, hanging laundry, dusting, and if I was feeling really ambitious I’d maybe even vacuum. Cleaning was a chore, it was unpleasant, and I wanted to postpone it as long as possible.

Here, it’s different. Honestly, I didn’t willingly change my view on cleaning, it’s more that it’s a necessity instead of a choice in Thailand.  Front doors stay open, in part to let in a refreshing breeze, but also to welcome neighbors over and let them know your house is open to them. There are no screens on the windows, and there’s a gap of about 10 inches between the walls and the roof in most houses. Nature comes into my house in endless forms: dust and dirt, ants that gather by the hundreds on bits of forgotten food, moths drawn in to the bright lights at night, hungry mosquitoes, and always tiny lizards scurrying along the walls.  It is no longer optional to clean my house, it’s required. If I don’t sweep every day, nature will overtake my house. On the weekends where I leave my site, a good portion of the morning of my return is spent calmly escorting nature back outside of my house where it belongs.

In Thailand everyone sweeps their houses. The brooms contrast drastically with brooms in America. In the US, brooms are rigid things, with tightly bound bristles. Somehow, the sweeping reflects the culture: Sweeping in the US is purposeful. You make short, quick strokes with the broom, and collect the dirt into a neat pile before sweeping it into a dustpan to dispose of. In Thailand, the brooms have long, flexible bristles.  Every time I see my broom I’m reminded of Hey Arnold’s iconic football head:

The resemblance is uncanny.

The handles are made of bamboo or plastic, and are typically shorter than brooms in America. You can buy them in the city, at local markets, or sometimes from a guy driving a cart around your village—yeah, that happens a lot. When you sweep in Thailand, it is much more fluid. The broom’s length and long bristles allow you to sweep one-handed, turning your wrist to follow through and shoo whatever you’re sweeping on it’s way.  It’s a gentle action, and the whole process feels much more relaxed than in America. It is necessary, but it is not rushed. Everyone does it, every house in the village must be cleaned and re-cleaned as nature continues it’s steady invasion of our homes. It doesn’t feel quite as… invasive as sweeping in America. I know I can do little to prevent the bugs and the dust and the dirt from coming back in. I don’t worry, I don’t even try to stop it. It’s a simple routine: The ants come in, I sweep them back out. They come back in, I shoo them out again. It’s a push and pull between me and nature. Sure, I could shut my windows and doors, seal myself in my house the way I did in America, but that’s not the way people live here. Here, the houses are kept open, people come and go as they please, stopping in to say hello, ask if I’ve eaten yet, and tell me about their lives.

Here I welcome sweeping, the few minutes every day of simple motions, collecting the various bits of outside that have found their way in, marveling at just how much stuff manages to find its way in in such a short time. Like so many other things here, it is not rushed. It does not feel like a chore, something that must be done quickly and efficiently. Instead, it’s an art, a necessity turned into mindfulness, a time each day to think, to reflect, and to be present.

If ever there was a reflection of Thai culture, I’ve found it in sweeping. The work ethic here is sabai, or relaxed and comfortable. Jobs will get done sooner or later, but when they get done is of far less importance. Work doesn’t feel as tedious as it does back home. In America, so much value is placed upon the finished product. Efficiency is the goal: do the job, do it well, and do it fast. Get the work out of the way so you have more time to relax. Work is usually unenjoyable for the most part, and there is a clear divide between one’s work time and play time. Here, work and play are intertwined with one another, whether it’s cleaning one’s house, teaching, or writing lesson plans at the office. It is not a crime to take a break from work if you need it, and you’re not seen as lazy for taking some time to pak pon, or rest from the job you’re doing. My first month at the office, I was so surprised when around 3 PM every day people would stop working to sit outside, eat mango and papaya, and catch up with one another. It was baffling to me, especially because we already had a generous hour and a half break for lunch, but I’ve come to realize this is how things are done here. In this culture, it is much more important to take care of oneself, and to maintain relationships with those around you, than to sit at your job toiling away for 8 hours straight.

So, what is the end result of a lifestyle like this? Well, it’s true, it is much harder to get work done by American standards. I am not nearly as efficient at getting from point A to point B as I was back home. Projects take much longer to complete, and very rarely do things actually go according to schedule. Sometimes I am worried by how little I’ve managed to get done, how few things I can put on paper that I’ve “accomplished” here. This is the cause of so much of my stress, because I am trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, trying to hold Thai culture to the American standard when they differ so vastly that it is downright impossible to do. But when I am able to finally let go of that expectation, I find all of my stress has suddenly lifted. I am so much happier here, I know the people I work with and get to spend so much time sitting with them, conversing with them, and getting to know their world. I no longer feel guilty for putting my work on hold to take a moment to myself, as I’m finally able to put my own well-being and those around me above the imaginary checklist of accomplishments. Work and play have become one in the same. It no longer feels like I am here just to do a job, but instead I am here to live, with all that encompasses: I wake up, I eat, I teach, I learn, I dance, I work, and I play. And I sweep, I always sweep.


 

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