American City Boy Meets Rural Thailand

Since my last post, I’ve traded in the never ending commotion of Bangkok for the slow pace of life in Ban Sang, a small town in Prachinburi Province. I am spending time at Nam Sai Farm, a tilapia hatchery that sells fingerlings to fish farmers throughout Thailand, to learn more about the day-to-day operations of managing a hatchery and the projects they are pursuing to meet changing demands for different strains of fish. I have also traded in the relative ease of English language conferences and a metropolitan area for largely non-verbal forms of learning. The owner of the farm is Scottish but I have spent most of my time with the farm managers whose English is fairly limited. Of course I do not expect English to exist wherever I go. Rather I am recognizing that with my very limited communication skills in Thai, my time at Nam Sai will be grounded in experiences outside of language and that my learning is occurring through events that I might easily miss when I could use language as a shortcut.

Working around the language barrier has been, at times, frustrating and confusing. I want to be respectful of workers’ time and space while also learning as much as I can, which can feel almost impossible to balance when I cannot verbally communicate. Certainly, some things are “slipping through the cracks” but losing spoken language has also allowed me to slow down in very important ways. Rather than trying to soak up every single detail of a conference presentation, I am focusing much more upon patterns and rhythms; I’m trying to attune myself to events, actions, sounds, and so on, that gain importance through their repetition.

Each day has introduced me to new non-verbal experiences that are collectively helping me learn about and understand how the farm runs. On my second day, I observed egg collection from one of the farm’s tilapia broodstocks. Men waded into earthen ponds filled with water up to their waists and corralled the tilapia into a corner of a hapa, a netted enclosure where the fish actually live. They grabbed tilapia one at a time; males were thrown back into the hapa while females were inverted so that the eggs they carried in their mouths spilled into a plastic bowl. Eggs were shuttled to cleaning stations where they were rinsed, weighed, and consolidated. Large tubs of eggs were brought back to a central, roofed structure for disinfection and placed in concrete ponds under streams of water until they hatched. The whole process seemed to run like a well-oiled rube-goldberg machine. Within all of the commotion and action was an ordered series of events that were coordinated in both time and space to ultimately bring all of the eggs to a single location at the front of the farm for hatching.

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The next day I had the chance to build upon my role as an observer and get my feet wet (literally) by getting into one of the ponds and helping to collect eggs.  If my second day as an observer gave me a good overview of egg collection, my third day allowed me to understand just how physical the process is. A bamboo rod is brought underneath the side of hapa and then raised to the surface so that it cordons off space inside the net. You then have to walk the bamboo rod down the length of the net (about 5 meters) until all of the tilapia in the pond are thrashing about in a small corner. As an observer, I had not realized how powerful tilapia could be, how painful their dorsal spines could be when you grabbed them the wrong way, or how tricky it was to find the “sweet spot” near their gills that pushed open their mouths and let eggs out. The images of the previous day, skilled collectors rapidly grabbing fish and pouring out eggs, seemed even infinitely more amazing now that I was struggling to do it myself.

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Other components of the process became clearer once in the water. In the ponds, I could more easily see that the males are significantly larger, so I could quickly “discard” them without having to check for eggs in their mouths. Conversely, sometimes the females would begin to spit out eggs as soon as you grabbed them. I also realized that eggs were collected in plastic bowls according to size and development, rather than just randomly consolidated as it had appeared from the “shore”. Three hapas (10 m2 each) of egg collection later I was beat, and had a developed an even deeper respect for the speed and efficiency of the actual egg collectors.

I have one more week on the farm and am excited to see how it goes; what new things I will learn, what things I will see again but in a new light, and what things will be reinforced as important components of day-to-day life. Next week I’ll have the opportunity to sit down with Warren Turner, the owner of Nam Sai Farm, and flesh out my understandings with more discrete details. I’m hoping that I can begin to put Nam Sai in a much larger context of tilapia farming in Thailand. Be on the lookout next week for a post that compiles all of the things I have learned about Nam Sai into a more coherent image!

 

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