What’s in a Bag of Rice?

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How do people say thank you? In the culture where I grew up, it is usually with a gift, money, a few special words, smiles or a handshake. When I was in India, they always told me not to say thank you, that it was their duty to help me, and that my thanking them ruined it.

Here in Palawan, they have a word for “Thank you,” megsuker, but usually, they use the Tagalog word, salamat.

I think that sometimes thank you is said by giving a bag of rice. Sometimes people will bring me a bag of the first fruits of the coming rice harvest. At other times, kind people ask me to go harvest rice with them.

Today, I received two bags of rice and gave one bag of rice to a patient, an elderly lady, with us because of her COPD exacerbation with pneumonia. She and her family are from farther away, and they had to carry her to the clinic. They have been here for over a week now. I gave her the bag of rice as I raced around, assessing her, giving her medication, checking on the out-patients, and instructing the students on starting the daily chore checklist. (It’s only me at the clinic right now, so I’m everything from a doctor to a janitor all by myself—no one to help out or be backup.) When I walked back to my patient, her son was here to deliver some food that he had brought, including rice. Later, the patient’s daughter caught up with me and handed me a bag of rice. I expected that they would probably keep the bag of rice that I gave them, or if not, maybe they would return it since her son had brought superior mountain rice. But no, this was homegrown fresh mountain rice from their own rice field. I thanked them, feeling honored.

Then I went to visit my friend to tell her that I had scheduled her to see a dentist. She has had a lot of trouble with her teeth, and they have really been bothering her. As I headed home, she rushed to fill a sack and give me rice. I said it was okay, no need, that I would see her around soon, but she insisted.

As I walked home, it struck me. The rice, this is how they say thank you. You see, to you it might just be a bag of rice. It costs what, two dollars in the states? But to my Palawan brothers and sisters, and to me, it’s so much more. The cost of a bag of rice is this: clearing the land in March; then burning and moving all the old vegetation off in April; planting, slowly and painstakingly, step by step, in May; weeding and weeding and weeding in June and July; fighting off birds and bugs; praying for not too much rain, but enough rain; hot days spent in the sun, picking each stock and removing each grain by hand in August, using only a metal lid or a seashell; pounding the rice to remove the husk, then tossing the grains into the air to winnow it; scooping the rice into a bag and, finally, handing that bag of rice to me. No, that bag of rice is so much more costly, and it is definitely filled with love and a big “Thank you.”

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