The Universality of “Comfort”

By November 10, 20122012, Asia

As we reach about two-and-a-half months on the trip, many are beginning to feel the call to head home; as easy-going as I am, I have found that even I have begun to sense faint inner aches for western comforts (which, in itself, contradicts my intentionality). This is not to say that I thought I was immune to being western, but rather that I don’t think of myself as being one who submits to western comforts.

SSU student Steven Barker enjoying a popular local food festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

It’s not the food that I miss; in fact, I like the food in Thailand more than anywhere else that I’ve been in the world. Anyone who knows me knows that I could easily eat rice every day for the rest of my life. Rather, once in a while I miss the comforts of my parents’ home, and the assuredness that I can be myself, relatively wholly, with no signifiant voice telling me that I should be, act, or do otherwise.

But I digress. What I have really been pondering lately are the little things that separate me culturally from Thais, particularly relating to personal comfort. My parents’ home has walls. It has an indoor kitchen, an indoor bathroom, and indoor living rooms. It is virtually weather-proof, in that the season outside is rarely wholly reflected by the indoor environment of the house. While home-life in Chiang Mai more often than not contrasts this quite dramatically, the real difference is impossible to ignore in some of the still-functioning hilltribes.

The Karen hilltribe in Chiang Rai province where our group stayed for two nights.

A voice may whisper deep and subconsciously inside the western visitor that the comforts of the western are universal: that any person would feel most comfortable given the escape of a nature-free, temperature/humidity controlled environment, hot food straight from the oven, washing machines and electric dryers, hot showers any moment of the day, and readily available toilet paper. While some eastern people would admit to enjoying some of these comforts, these values are really only embedded in those raised with them. While I could continue for hours talking on this subject, it is perhaps most easily summed up by an experience I fondly remember:

Two years ago, four months prior to my first trip to Southeast Asia with SSU, I moved into a motel room with my sister in North Dakota, where we both work. Our neighbours across the hall were two young Filipino men, who we spent quite a lot of time with. When the one clothes washing machine for the entire motel broke down one day, we and many of our coworkers were forced to find alternative places to do our laundry. A few days after this, I was walking past the Filipino guys’ room, and I heard splashing noises, and one of them singing pop songs at the top of his lungs. Since their door was slightly ajar and we were fairly good friends, I pushed the door open the rest of the way to reveal my friend squatting in the bathtub doing his laundry. He was happy as can be. When I asked him “Isn’t that inconvenient? Isn’t it strenuous and thankless?” he answered quite quickly and genuinely “No. It reminds me of my mom. She does our laundry like this at home. I miss my mom.”

The friend in question and I would often attempt to beat North Dakota fire laws by having small fires in a coffee can outside the motel.

I believe that is the moment where I realized that comfort is not a universal concept. We may find our convenient ways to be the most comfortable, but everyone will always find the deepest level of comfort in the pleasant familiar ways of their upbringing: from their mother hand-washing their clothes, to showering with cold water pumped straight from a well, to their care-givers’ cooking. Our ways – however practical, however efficient, however systematic – are not necessarily ‘right’. I believe that in recognizing this, we can begin to understand the world around us in a new, beautifully human way.


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