Elayne Clift


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Small but Strong: the Women of Chiang Mai

Elayne Clift is spending a year teaching and writing in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

They come in all sizes and shapes, although usually they are petite and beautiful, with straight, long, black hair and graceful, elongated hands.    They lower their eyes and speak softly, especially to farang (foreigners).  They are graceful and patient, and they work quietly, whether they are the faceless street workers wrapped from head to toe so that only their dark eyes show or the professional women who own businesses, teach, or practice medicine.  They are shopkeepers, street vendors, sex workers, students, mothers, bakers, laundresses, real estate agents, volunteers, Internet entrepreneurs, and expatriates in retirement.

Take Linda.  She’s into gems and jewelry now that she has ended her career as a microbiologist.  Linda takes dance lessons, volunteers for Zonta International and helps out at the Red Cross.  Then there’s Margie, who started the first English language newspaper with her Thai husband over a decade ago.  Celeste, formerly a businesswoman in the U.S., worked with orphans when she first arrived in Chiang Mai; now she volunteers for an AIDS program and just about anyone else who asks her to help.  Heide works with a children’s charity, and Marianne started an animal sanctuary.  Hannah, Mikha, and Olga have all taught English.  Lianne is earning a bachelor’s degree along with her son. 

Among the Thai women I’ve met is Somboon Suprasert, a public health nurse and educator who launched the Grandma Project to assist grandparents who are raising AIDS orphans.  At 73 years old, she is one dynamo activist and advocate.  So is Lena Yupraphat, researcher turned real estate agent.  She goes so far out of her way for her clients that she is amassing friends faster than commissions, but mai pen rai – she loves having so much contact with people from Europe, Australia, America, and Canada.

I don’t know the baker’s name, but her bread and pastries are the best.  Nor do I know the name of the woman who does my laundry but she is a master at ironing.  Ampan, who gives me delicious massages, is so gentle I wish she could be with me every day.  And Gao – where would I be without her smiling face every Saturday when she comes to put my house back in order?  The ajarns I teach with – Laura, Jaranya, Jenjit, Ratanaporn – are all competent women who really care about their students, just as my neighbor, a young mother, gives her undivided attention to her two sons. 

Everywhere I go, I see and meet classy women, strong women, struggling women who keep their families, their communities, their country ticking along.  In my students I see future strong, classy women, women who will become doctors, lawyers and business owners, who will raise educated children, who will find their way into politics and public affairs. 

And in all the nameless faces of the struggling women I see every day in the markets and on the motorbikes, sweeping the streets, giving foot massages, selling handicrafts they have made in the Night Markets, cooking in the street kiosks, taking care of children, there are these reminders: there is dignity in all work, fate plays a huge part in where we fit into the order of things, and none of knows the burdens of another human being.

The women of Chiang Mai, like women everywhere, are awesome.  I never tire of watching them and wondering about the texture of their lives.  I am grateful for those whom I know, and hopeful for those whose paths will never cross mine in any meaningful way.  Who among them might have been the painter, the poet, the writer, the scientist, I wonder?  Which of their children will grow up to fulfill the promise?  I cannot know the answer, but asking the question keeps me connected, and reminds me of something a colleague of mine kept posted above her desk: I AM my sister’s keeper!  Some of these women have been gifted with the realization of their potential.  The others can only dream of it.  I honor them all.