I tell John—not his Karen tribe name, of course—that I live in Los Angeles, California. He asks for me to point to it on the worn and dirty map hung on the wall of the wooden house he built himself. He was proud of his home on stilts, trunks he had cut down as a boy, a symbol of burgeoning manhood. No electricity, no plumbing but a panoramic view over the endless jungled mountains of northern Thailand.
I point to Los Angeles on the map. I yell Hollywood. He looks at me blankly. I am embarrassed, but he doesn’t see that. I don’t know why I yell when I am pantomiming in different languages, a prejudiced vestige in my reptilian brain.
“Alec, Alec,” he says, “pin it.” And I do.
I become another pin on John’s map of visitors who help with his 100-year-old rice farm. There are pins in Italy, in France, in Germany, in China, in Australia. I am the one pin in the United States. I represent all of us. I hope I do okay.
“Alec, Alec,” He shows me how to use a manual plough. The tangled roots, lifetimes old, have a particular direction in mind. One different from John’s path. I push, my shoulders pressing into the hot metal bar, my feet slipping in the mud. Those roots are stronger than me. Getaway plough. I nearly ruin a terraced paddy.
I end up standing knee deep in a paddy pulling the mud into the swampy water. This is only the first step in the year long process of rice farming. “Alec, good.” He gives me a thumb’s up. He catches an eel in the water. He kills it by whacking it on a rock. “Lunch,” he says. He’s taken to teasing me, so I am never sure.
Cooked over an open fire, we eat it for lunch over rice. Rice his family and village handpicked, rice his family and village hand threshed, rice his family and village stored and sold for their survival.
On Venice Beach, I can get my name written on a grain of rice. I never do, it’s ten dollars.