Also read this piece on Maptia, a site for storytelling around the world.
Ohk-gaht refuses to take it back. It’s a humbling “oh – okay then” moment. The power and connotations of a man literally giving the shirt off of his back are neither unexpected nor do they ask to be rationalized.
It’s a long-sleeve polo, one of those thick synthetic fabrics, in a bright purple. A little stretch. Neat little white logo on the breast, white stripes around the edge of the collar and cuffs. He might wear it over a ribbed white undershirt and faded work jeans with a pack of cigarettes poking out of the front pocket. Little hands likely sowed the shirt, likely we don’t want to see where. It’s too heavy for central Thailand’s adhesively dense and humid air. It belongs to someone who’s always swung his feet over and slicked his hair once and gotten up and made the family coffee in that air.
Ohk-gaht put it on that afternoon. He came back in from running the tractor’s motor to pump water out through the yellow marigold fields, before cleaning through the greens for tonight’s dinner, putting the first soup on the burner or frying the fatty pork from the uncle’s pigs.
Ohk-gaht answered that casual wardrobe compliment with a wordless, honest offer – almost a demand to “take it, please.” It’s an undeniably graceful response to praise. Nearly goading for how it invokes that English metaphor of seflessness but also loving. It starts off and continues to be funny. He then sits through dinner insistingly half-naked, not to bait guilt or to self-congratualte for a gag well-pulled. In part, he just carries a comic pride in his paunch.
Any answer to Ohk-gaht’s generosity is so inadequate that the Dengue-spreading mosquito on the wall finds itself involuntarily clunching its butt cheeks. But the exchange draws on an acknowledgment of inequality – if in no other sense at least in the giver’s decision to recognize what they might offer another person.
Ohk-gaht’s is a farming family in rural and right now very dry central Thailand, three generations living and working together as most neighboring families do. Ohk-gaht’s family has never spoken much English and I guess that the metaphorical complement doesn’t exist in Thai. However, he will indeed give you the shirt from his back – I’ve seen his closet, he has more. Come to dinner warned and ready to layer in spite of the sticky heat.
This kind of generosity endeavors to show someone that, if not uniquely so, they are of consequence – a potentially scarce feeling for some. Another sort of hollow motive is to demonstrate the giver’s importance via their ability to offer. The long-sleeved purple polo simply doesn’t suit the latter option.
There is a calculus of generosity moving in the background – the giver probably leaves with more than they poured in: more kindness fills the spaces they inhabit; more neurotransmitters and hormones associated with happiness fly through their body. The act of giving a shirt from a back doesn’t need to mind this calculus in any way; the giving still builds far more than a relationship. The generosity builds invaluable custom and culture. It’s as constructive as anything else we can ritualize.
As each shirt from each back has a wider impact, is it possible that generosity comes less from individuals and more from culture? The same as with any cyclical cultural trait (generosity would probably die if it weren’t cyclical), chronic giving is the fault of neither only the structure nor only the agent.
It may encompass this acculturation best to consider actions like Ohk-gaht’s as acts of maintenance; they maintain a vital feature of how we live together amicably. Sort of like paying your taxes – a “tax of altruism” which, as it is demanded, of course, is no longer altruism at all.
The inadequacy of the exchange is still cringe-worthy. It’s like a Now-and-Later of socially painful pangs: first in the moment of watching someone pull their shirt off and hand it to you, and again as each attempt to match the weight of this gesture bowes in insufficiency. In fairness, to identify an individual’s kindness as maintenance of cultural generosity is also to rationalize, away from those social cringes, when it would be better to simply “sit with.”
But as the gift cannot be just about the two parties involved, it matters less how the recipient responds to the giver. Ohk-gaht’s father would do the same and so would his son, were his one-and-a-half year-old-sized Pooh Bear PJs big enough to fit you.
Ohk-gaht’s name has been changed.