We all seem to approach life in a logical way. What’s right in front of us is the most important, and it fans out from there.
As I go through my day with its normal stresses I can easily forgot to look up at someone else and think what their day or life might have been like. They rarely loan me their shoes, so walking that mile in them can be tricky. But none the less it’s important to try. I do believe that the ability to empathize is one of the best parts of being a conscious ape.
On the farm, when we are rushing around picking beans, making bouquets, fixing broken shear bolts and winging things into the van on any given Wednesday afternoon I can easily get mired down in the injustices and tribulations of my life: leaving late, traffic, rain, radio isn’t working so I’m gonna miss Dianne Rehm. You know, first-world farm problems.
I drive like a maniac and arrive at the Carrboro farmers’ market late in often the same disheveled state week after week and get my wares on the table as fast as I can. Finally when I get a second to look up, my glance is always met by two of the very warmest smiles you can picture. Across from my table is where Mur Tar K’paw Garden’s stand is set up each week. Just the name of their farm is a smile in and of itself and in the ethnic Karen language means “we all come from the sun.”
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The owners are my friends Tri Sa and Ae Htee Kaw, and this is their first year at market and actually not that far from their first year in the U.S. They are refugees from Burma, and they are some freakin’ amazing farmers.
They prefer to grow Asian vegetables and herbs from home, most of which I’ve never seen previously, and all of which look picture perfect. They are fleeing decades of war and life in refugee camps to arrive in a completely foreign land with little or nothing to go on. They were both farmers in Burma before being forced to leave their homes, and here they are doing it again. And they are almost always smiling, not in a disingenuous way, but more in the way of pure joy that comes from getting to do something that means the most to you.
Toward the end of market, when I’m all beat, I always have to put my life in check when I consider Tri Sa and Ae Htee Kaw’s day, which isn’t even halfway over. After market I get to stroll over to the co-op and have a well-earned beer with friends. And then head on home to do whatever it is I do before sinking into bed after what (to me) is a long and sweaty day.
But for Tri Sa and Ae Htee Kaw, they are about to rush on to work. Their day goes a little like this: head in to work at 11 p.m. and clean buildings and restrooms all night, get off at 7 a.m. and head out to the farm, pick, pack and process vegetables all day and then head over to the market at 3 p.m. Sell and converse with customers in a second language that is drastically different from their native language, until it’s time to pack up at 6 p.m. head home, clean out the truck and put away what doesn’t sell, wolf down a meal, check in on their families, sleep at the very most three hours and head right back into work the third night shift at 11 p.m.
If that was me you couldn’t pay me to smile. I would just crumple on the floor periodically and throw a toddler-style fit.
And yet week after week there they are happy and grateful to be doing what they do. They always come to the stand to give me a fist bump, show me what new interesting vegetables they harvested this week or deliver a gift of hot peppers or seeds from Burma. Then at the end of the market day, no matter how hard I protest, they are at my stand helping me load up my heavy tables and market swag. They love to talk about farming and plants, and they are hungry to make their farm successful. You should probably go by and pay them a visit. Or pay them for a bundle of water spinach, bitter melon or bird’s eyes peppers.
If you can’t get by the market, maybe you could just ponder as you go about your day that other folks have had a different journey from you and when your paths cross try to send a sunny smile their direction because we do all come from the sun – Mu Tar K’Paw.
George O’Neal owns Lil’ Farm in Timberlake. You can reach him at lilfarm.nc.com. Learn more about Mu Tar K’Paw Gardens at TransplantingTraditions.com