Monday, November 16, 2009

There Are Many Ways To Build a House

The Carter Work Project volunteers are building eighty-two houses in a field outside Chiang Mai. All have identical building plans. All are being built out of identical materials with identical tools. But don’t let that fool you: there are still many ways to build a house.

Some homes are being built by groups of volunteers who know one another well, such as the employees of a sponsor company or the members of a particular Habitat affiliate. These crews are organized, they have established chains of leadership, and they communicate easily. As a result, their work is relatively well coordinated and efficient.

Then there is my house. Along with the homeowner, our crew includes half a dozen Americans, half a dozen ladies from Amway Thailand (a principal sponsor of the build), and half a dozen Thai men. The Americans speak no Thai, and the Thai men speak little or no English. Fortunately, the Amway ladies speak enough English to translate the occasional query, such as, “Have you seen the rubber mallet lately?”

First thing this morning (after a 5 a.m. breakfast and a 6 a.m. bus ride), the Americans caucused. We wanted to make a plan. What was the day’s goal? What resources were available? How should those resources be deployed? The Amway ladies waited eagerly to be shown what to do. Meanwhile, the Thai men simply began to work. Without talking to anyone else, they began laying courses of the interlocking cement blocks (an adult version of LEGO) that make up the house’s walls.

The proper way to do this, our American house leader explained, was to put up a string line, level it, and then use it to run a single course of blocks all the way around the house. No new course should be added until the preceding course had been completed and checked.

It quickly became clear, however, that the Thai men were utilizing a different method. By the time we Americans had gotten our bearings, the Thai men had already put up half of the back wall. They were using a string and tapping blocks gently into place, but they weren’t using a level, and they certainly weren’t on board with the one-course-at-a-time plan.

So for the next few hours, as the Amway ladies got busy pointing the blocks (that is, filling in the seams with mortar), all three of our house’s constituencies worked if not at cross purposes then certainly without coordination. It was a little frustrating, because everyone was motivated and working hard—the basis for some real camaraderie was clearly there—but we weren’t yet able to overcome the language and cultural barriers that separated us. And by we, I mean especially the men.

We needed a bridge, and it was the Amway ladies who provided it. Contributing both energy and goodwill, they engaged the American women and provided at least some cross-cultural communication. By lunchtime, the American men had realized that, although not necessarily skilled tradespeople, the Thai men were more experienced than we were in this type of construction. The walls they were building looked good and indeed were good.

For the rest of the day, we worked on some walls, and they worked on some walls, and the women pointed more blocks. B y the end of the day, we had reached the top of the windows on three of the house’s four sides, just one side short of our goal.

I felt pretty good about what we had accomplished, especially as I walked off the job site and saw that quite a few houses were three or four courses behind ours. I will be pointing this out to the Thai guys tomorrow—to my Thai guys tomorrow. If they don’t understand what I’m saying, I’ll ask one of the Amway ladies to translate for me.

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