I’ve seen a lot of rice planted-Like weirdly more than the average person. Northern Vietnam. Thailand. Myanmar. Indonesia. I even lived in a village and planted rice in Laos. It’s vibrantly colored, its own work of terraced art, each long stem of waving green in a seamless row.
Recently, I was in Bali, Indonesia, meandering about in endless rice fields when my good friend, Emily, said, “You know what’s crazy? Someone planted each one of these by hand.” For some reason, I had never marveled at that fact before? I had experienced the tight hamstrings and sore back from bending over all day. I danced around the not-so-little spiders, trying to run up my legs, as we moved their stalks from one terrace to another. I knew how bad I was at making straight rows, how slow my hands worked, and how quickly the women made a little circle around me as if to say, “You’re kind of slowing us down, white person, but we want to include you, so here’s your little plot of land.” How had I not marveled at the wonder of standing in front of huge and endless mountains of rice paddies, knowing someone planted each and every individual stalk by hand? No tractor. No plow. No modern machinery. Just two pairs of hands.
What makes it even more intriguing to me is the significance of rice in many Asian cultures. A meal is not considered complete without rice. Breakfast, lunch, dinner- rice is present. The history of rice growing has shaped whole cultures and countries, even as modern technology and globalization has diminished the industry in practice, values still remain. In Japan, it’s considered rude or distasteful to douse your rice in soy sauce because of the labor behind it. In Thailand, the word for “food” and “rice” are the same. In Bali, rice is considered a vital function of the community. Each member of a village does their part in working the fields. The rice is then distributed evenly throughout the community when harvest comes. (Is it appropriate to site Eat, Pray, Love as an academic source?) What does it speak of a culture and people if their labor of love and sustenance is centered on the work of their hands within a greater community? A meal is not complete without the work of their neighbor.
As I clumsily wandered through Bali, I noticed rice is not the only aspect of life which is communal. Within a village are very small neighborhoods, where every house is connected facing inwards surrounding a temple. A Balinese person can’t walk out their front door without looking at a symbol of their faith and the face of their neighbor. Side-note: It can be very awkward to think you’re wandering up an alley, only to realize you just wandered into a whole neighborhood’s front yard.
This level of foundational community doesn’t exist in Western cultures. My food source isn’t tied to the well-being of my neighbor. Culturally, if someone is struggling whom we love and know, we will help, sometimes on the precept of being repaid when he or she “pulls themselves up by their bootstraps.” But on a macro-level, the individual is greater than the whole.
A few months ago, I wrote down “beauty comes from commitment.” I’m a very distracted, wandering, wondering person. I’m committed to people, ideas, communities, and am an incredibly loyal and value-oriented person. But ask me to accomplish a methodical, practical task in an orderly and systematic manner, and there’s approximately a 100% chance I will start 5 other small tasks, forget about what you asked me to do, leave it sitting out for a day, and then come back to finish it proclaiming, “oh shit! How did I forget to do that?!” aka I’d be the worst rice farmer of all time. It’s hours of bending over, methodically picking apart stalks of large clumps of rice, and replanting them in smaller pods, to grow large again, to then again, be replanted.
Rice is a commitment. It’s a commitment to your neighbor. Rice is generational. Rice is communal. Rice is symbolic of a culture which is dependent on the whole over the individual. What if I was committed to the work of my hands, the betterment of my neighbor, and the sustainability of my community? What if my good, my faith, my food, was actively tied to the good, the faith, and the food of my neighbor? What if I couldn’t look my faith in the eye without looking my neighbor in the eye?