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The Pale Blue Face Towel

June 9, 2009

In Asia the concept of ‘face’ is an integral component of the culture.  Keeping ‘face’ or ‘losing’ face is deeply embedded in daily life.  It is across gender and age.  It functions at all levels from the poor to the middle and upper classes.  Sometimes, as Westerners. we are unsure of  exactly how it works or what it means in our interaction with the asian poplulace. It can result in small skirmishes or extend to murder and death. Often it is frustrating and bewildering to those of us who are Westerners living in an Asian culture.  After time one learns some basics and attempts to understand some of the frustrations that ensue from this concept.  It is not my intention to provide a discourse on this cultural phenomenon, I am not qualified to do so.

Residing in a Condo in a large Asian capital not only are there the other residents but usually there are a number of security guards, men only, and several women who maintain the common areas of the Condo, cleaning corridors, tidying the pool area and generally ensuring that the building is kept clean.  The subject of wages is an area I will not go into suffice to say that manual labourers earn a very low wage, some of them from Up Country or even other immigrant workers eking out a small monthly salary.  It probably amounts to what some Westerners spend in a mid range restaurant on a meal and wine.  Why do so many ex-pat people decide to settle in such Asian countries?  I think that is self evident when one examines cost of living compared with that of Western countries.  The ex-pat, either on fixed income or working here, is astounded at how comfortably one can live at such a low cost.  Of course some of us find the culture attractive, so radically different from our own.  Yes infrastructure is the same world wide, there are schools, hospitals, churches or temples, post offices, roads, internet and the like.  But the cost of these is often so less expensive than that of our home country.

It is difficult to gauge the age of the asian face.  Often one makes an estimate only to find out that the person is either 10 years older or even 10 years younger.  Workers in rice fields, tilling the soil, seem to age fast.  Conditions in such work are far from relaxed and easy.  Most of us Westerners would not last an hour either planting or harvesting the staple diet of rice.  I think it was only 5 minutes of cutting rice in the fields on North Eastern Thailand when I had to say enough, my excuse being I am old, 60!  My feeble attempt had the villagers in fits of laughter, here I was with wimmin and kids trying to get my feeble brain around the skill of wielding the scythe..frankly I was hopeless and left the field to return to the village house.  My performance probably was the topic of conversation for many days, but without malice.

Each morning I see the women, in a work uniform, mopping and sweeping outside my door and greet them in their own language, that always brings a smile and gestures of deference to the White Man.  It is often uncomfortable.  My culture is one of egalatarianism.  I see no superior or inferior element in our exchanges, but remain polite, as this is my home, it is where I have chosen to live.  These people warm my heart, there is no pretence and the lines of poverty are deeply etched in their asian faces.  So often these faces evoke those of an ancient culture, some even remind me of images of ancient Buddhas, serene and calm, going about their menial tasks day after day, maybe one day off per month, supporting families with their meagre wage, ensuring that their is rice on the mat, these people dont sit at tables but on the floor or the earth.  The mat serves as a table and they partake of a large array of dishes squatting in circular formation.  In the urban centres tables and chairs are now the regular adjuncts to having a meal.

Swimming is my preferred exercise routine and the Condo where I live provides a simple but functional pool for me to plunge several times a day in order to get the cardio pumping.  I catch the lift down several floors to the outdoor pool.  This morning was no different. I always greet the wimmin cleaners on my way down or up.  A few civil words in their own language, and always a smile.  I noticed the woman on my floor mopping.  I could not estimate her age, maybe between 30 and death.  She was going about her business as I passed by.  On this occaison I noticed that her face was dripping with beads of perspiration, it is a tropical climate and it is the ‘hot’ season.

Seeing this small woman at work with her face dripping prompted me to ask in her native tongue, “Do you have a towel?’  She replied with a simple , “No”.  I recall in the first few years when I came here how often I would perspire and how uncomfortable it was.  And for me it did not include manual work.  It was just my body adjusting to a new climate so I carried a small hand towel around to wipe my face and neck.  I thought how uncomfortable it must be for her working for hours at a time and not having a towel to wipe away the discomfort of perspiration.  I asked her to wait a moment, went into my apartment and found an old, but freshly laundered, pale, blue face towel.  She was at the end of the corridor so I called out, “Wait a moment’.  She did not reply, I got the towel and handed it to her telling her she did not have to return it, it was now her own.  She clearly appreciated what I considered a small act of kindness.  She could continue the days work but now was able to wipe her gentle face with my small gift of the pale, blue, face towel.

I walked away.  The perspiration on her face was just one of many difficulties endured by these poor manual labourers.  I looked in my wardrobe and lost count of the nuber of towels I had.  The small act I had performed had made a small difference to the life of this asian woman.  The concept of ‘face’ took on a whole new meaning for me. That experience was of more value to me than all those years I spent swallowing ante depressants to cope with the western neurosis so often that grips our psyche.  Live simply so that others can simply live, oh how true!!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. dyoll09 permalink*
    June 9, 2009 11:21 am

    Dedicated to the poor of Asia!

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