excerpt from Chapter 3: So Many Mysteries:
…….After breakfast, I wash my dishes as I’ve been instructed. I squat down onto the stoop outside the kitchen and scoop up some water into a bin. I scrape excess food into a container, wash the dishes in cold water with a little soap, then pour the excess water through a crack in the stoop. It’s like camping in a tree house. Yet another mystery, is, in a house with the modern conveniences of a toilet, shower
…….After breakfast, I wash my dishes as I’ve been instructed. I squat down onto the stoop outside the kitchen and scoop up some water into a bin. I scrape excess food into a container, wash the dishes in cold water with a little soap, then pour the excess water through a crack in the stoop. It’s like camping in a tree house. Yet another mystery, is, in a house with the modern conveniences of a toilet, shower and a refrigerator, there is no running water or sink. Then again, why would they need running water or a sink? To help with laundry, for one reason.
Oh, lordy, laundry. The bane of my existence as a volunteer in a Third World country. I am no stranger to old-style clothes washing. When I was a child the washing machine in my house was so old it didn’t have a spin cycle. It was just a big open-top bin with an agitator to wash the clothes. After rinsing, you had to feed the soaking wet clothes into a wringer which was two rollers that turned automatically (high tech!) and so tightly squeezed the fabric that every drop of water was wrung out.
It was great fun as a child to feed the wet clothes through the wringer. But it was a fine line you had to learn between getting close enough for the rollers to suck in the fabric and getting so close that your fingers got pinched between the rollers. Ouch.
Alas, here there are no rollers, no wringer. Just the clothes washer’s bare hands. I’m not a weak person but why, oh why can I never squeeze enough water from the clothes? When I hang my clothes on the line, they aren’t dripping, but pouring excess water. I desperately miss the automatic wringer and the whole damn experience makes me feel like I’ve been through the proverbial wringer.
The mystery is, while my host family splurged on the refrigerator, why wouldn’t they buy an automatic washing machine? Probably because they have the aunties to do the laundry.
So it’s the aunties who teach me how to wash my own clothes, as the Peace Corps staff has instructed them. Clearly, given their druthers, they’d just wash the clothes themselves. That would be much easier than trying to teach the pathetic farang how to do it herself. Remember the aunties don’t speak a word of English and my Thai is still limited to “delicious!” which doesn’t get me far in the laundry circuit.
Through gestures, it appears they want me to wash my clothes in the bathroom. This makes no sense to me. I’ve seen how laundry is done in Thailand. Most houses have big wash bins outside near the clothesline. The bathroom has no big wash bins. I can only assume this was for my privacy. Although everyone else in Thailand washes their underwear out in the open, I am special. In a society where everyone has their place in the hierarchy, it turns out, as an American in her 30s, with a degree or two under my belt, I’m actually held in pretty high esteem. Therefore, God forbid anyone sees MY undies.
Alone in the bathroom with the door closed I go through the motions of throwing some water and detergent onto my dirty clothes, right on the floor. I kind of slosh them around together, pour some more water over them to rinse off the soap. I come out a few minutes later, holding my dripping clothes in my hands, smiling and nodding.
The aunties, however, are not smiling and nodding. In fact, their brows are furrowed, they’re shaking their heads and tsk-tsking. I don’t need to understand Thai to know they are disappointed.
Apparently they are giving up on the bathroom washing idea all together as they grab my wet clothes and motion for me to follow them down the stairs outside to their clothes washing station. Still clucking and tsking…
Now I’m introduced to the age old process of women washing clothes by hand. They demonstrate the method. One big bin gets detergent, which must be swirled and sloshed by hand to promote lather. Two big bins for water only, for two steps in the rinsing process. While no words are needed to see what to do in this learn-by-watching, learn-by-doing process, they talk away in Thai, and I nod and smile my understanding. They show how to rub the clothes together for washing. I try to imitate what each hand does, but I never get it quite right. They always take it from me and finish the washing. The rinsing is easier. And I start to relax and breathe into the experience, the sound of splashing water, the wet coolness on my skin. If one is mindful, this is meditative.
Clothes have a hierarchy here, too. The nicer work clothes, like dresses, must be washed first, then more casual clothes, lastly undergarments. There’s something quite intimate about a woman you don’t know, who doesn’t speak your English, demonstrating the art of washing the arm pits of your shirts, the crotch of your panties. They model adding a little extra dry detergent, scrubbing hard. Here we bond. Here we connected. We may not speak the same language. We may not understand each other’s culture. But we know the experience of being a woman.
My undies are clean and hanging out for the whole world to see. They’ve instructed me to hang them on the lowest line, where they belong. I understand this. What I don’t understand is how to wring my clothes free of water by hand before hanging them to dry. That is still a mystery to me.
Amy McGarry grew up in Spokane Valley, Washington. After a 20 year hiatus, she moved back to Spokane Valley where she lives with her husband, daughter and two cats. She teaches English as a Second Language at Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute, the American branch of Mukogawa Women’s University in Japan. I am Farang is her first book and available on Amazon.com and Auntie’s Bookstore.