Behind the Scenes at Earth Heir

Last week, I had the great pleasure of going to one of our many artisan studios and meeting Mr. KL Ng, a rattan weaver who makes a few of the Earth Heir products. As soon as we arrived, he graciously welcomed us into his home, which doubles as his work space, and showed us many of the things he was working on. I was awestruck by the intricate details of the benches, chairs, and baskets that surrounded the front door to his house. There were bunches of untouched rattan leaning against one wall while some pieces that had already been thinly carved for weaving laid on top of a shelf.

We followed Mr. KL Ng inside, where his wife was also working on a piece, and he showed us around the variety of baskets he had been making. As we sat down to watch him repair some of the handles before we took them off his hands, I was entranced again. His hands moved quicker than my eyes could even follow and I felt like I was watching a magic trick in fast motion. His fingers nimbly braided the thin rattan and twisted it to his own desire. He checked it with the basket, saw it needed more adjusting, and continued working. All this while holding a conversation and a television set playing in the background. 

Mr. KL Ng and his wife talked about the changes in crafting and artisanship in Kuala Lumpur, sharing that the annual craft fair may be moved to a new location next year. As Mr. KL Ng is disabled from polio, traveling can be a challenge for him. They talked about their uncertainty regarding where they would sell their crafts, and I looked around the room to see stacks of gorgeous bamboo chairs, waiting to be sold and used. I realized that companies like Earth Heir are so important because the average consumer would not know how to find these artisans, leaving little to no hope for their work. At least with social enterprises buying from these artisans, they could hold onto that hope, but there is still much that can be done to improve their access as artisans and the assistance they are receiving from the country for their traditional artwork.

Later in the week, I was able to visit a second set of artisans in the Mah Meri community, women weavers who work together to create a livelihood for themselves and their families. The Mah Meri community has their own set of challenges as an indigenous population who have faced oppression and exclusion on their own land for centuries. Now, they make money by selling traditional crafts, such as beautiful wooden carvings and some woven pieces, such as the ones that Earth Heir purchases from them.

The afternoon I spent with them was an incredible break from the hustle and bustle of the city of Kuala Lumpur. As we drove through green, lush valleys, the number of cars around us started to decrease. I felt a sense of calm as the palm trees rose around us and reached up towards the cloudy, yet blue, sky. Before turning into the Mah Meri Cultural Village, an area that has been opened up for tourists to visit and purchase crafts from the community, I noted a large resort just next door to the land. Another reminder of the stark inequalities that exist for many indigenous communities.

The afternoon was slow and lazy, and full of laughter. I watched the people around me, doing more listening than talking. Dogs and cats of all sizes eased in and out of crossed legs and feet, children played with toys made out of plates and utensils. The smell of food filled the humid air and clung to my nostrils. I chatted with Sasi about how the calmness reminded us of villages in India, where taking things slow is okay.

More than an hour later, we were sorting through colorful bracelets, headbands, bookmarks, pouches, and more, all handwoven by the Mah Meri women. The afternoon light joyfully bounced off the pastels, making them call to me and play off each others’ shades. I listened to Sasi speak in Malay with the artisans. One of my favorite things about traveling is being in environments where I have no verbal skills, it allows me to learn how to read people and understand situations otherwise. The flick of a wrist, a finger circling the air, a laugh or a click of the tongue. When words cease to mean anything, these all mean so much more.

Before I knew it, it was time to go. As we said our goodbyes and slowly walked back to the car, I thought about the community that had welcomed me in for a few hours, fed me, and given me warm smiles. Although this is a group of people who have had their land and their home taken from them, you would not see it in their eyes. They seemed more at peace than anyone else I had met in Malaysia, and I felt this joy through their crafts, as well.

Volunteering with Earth Heir has been an incredible journey of seeing the narratives of so many different people, and understanding the multitude of ways one can be Malaysian. But, also, it’s reminded me of the importance of using our skills to help each other and to live on this Earth together. Through the process of empowerment, we can strengthen our communities and tell more stories, make our values deeper and more meaningful through a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I think Earth Heir works towards this ideal every day, by connecting and weaving narratives the same way the artisans weave their products. Earth Heir is a reminder that we can always do better, whether it is how we treat our neighbors or how we decide to shop and consume. It’s a simple reminder that working together will always result in more.

Originally written for Earth Heir

Living with Fewer Things and More Love

A few months before I graduated from college, I found out that I was one of three recipients for the Bonderman Fellowship, a $20,000 grant to travel the world. I know, it sounds straight out of a movie, but somehow I was lucky enough to get the part. When I first started traveling, I knew that this year would bring many adventures, challenges, and life lessons. But, as with most things we learn, the ways in which I’ve changed and grown have often been unexpected. A few months into my trip, I wanted to make a change in how I was traveling. Rather than see a lot of a country, moving from hostel to hostel, I decided to spend most of my time in one place. I wanted to learn how to make one place a home and truly get to know it before I left. I searched through volunteer websites and found a family in Sri Lanka who would be willing to host me while I helped out around the house and with their five children.

I arrived in Sri Lanka, spending a few days in Colombo before heading south to the small town my host family lived in. Colombo had been a nice break after five weeks in India, as it was one of the most westernized cities I had visited on my travels. Except for the fact that everyone around me had brown skin like mine, I felt like I had been thrown back to a small beach town in the States. Coffee shops and cafes perched on each corner, malls and boutiques every few blocks, and the humidity hung overhead while everyone waited for an afternoon rain shower.

When the time came, I boarded my train from Colombo Fort Station, barely making the last one before rush hour, which I had been warned several times to avoid at all costs. I breathed a sigh of relief as the train slowly chugged alongside the water away from the station. I watched as the scenery changed from tall buildings to clusters of shanty houses with stretches of beach in between. Two hours or so later, I arrived, and I got off the train to find the oldest child in my host family waiting for me with a tuk tuk driver. We loaded my backpack into the back and were on our way.

The driver weaved through narrow streets and potholes, massive puddles created by daily downpours, and the occasional chicken or cow. I felt the stares of passerby, and started to wonder what I had gotten myself into. As someone who looked somewhat local, but also entirely foreign, Sri Lanka had already proven to be an interesting environment. I realized that bringing myself to a more rural area would only exacerbate that.

We arrived at the house, and my host mom welcomed me in with a cup of tea and some conversation. As I looked around their house, which one could essentially do from the front room, I saw markings on the walls and a few toys and papers strewn in a few corners. She pointed me to one of the few side rooms, saying that I would be sleeping in there. I dropped my bag inside, seeing a bed, a mosquito net, and a fan.

I was given a tour and I quickly settled into a routine along with the family. As they went off to school each day, I would stay at home taking care of the youngest, their three-year-old daughter. Our first few days were interesting, as we both adjusted to spending our mornings with a stranger who spoke an entirely different language. The kids would come home at various times, usually youngest to oldest, as their exams would finish up. We spent afternoons playing cards and I would often break away to help their mom cook or clean when she returned from grading exams, usually an hour after the kids.

Although my schedule day-to-day was incredibly relaxed and mostly spent playing with the kids, occasionally taking them to the beach, and catching up on reading, I started to realize that I was more exhausted than I had been in weeks.

My mind was buzzing with all that was around me and what I was experiencing. From the moment—my first night—when I realized my host family was sleeping on the floor in the common area outside my room. My own cultural background, being the daughter of Indian immigrants, came to the fore, as I told them several times that I did not need the bed and would be happy to sleep on the floor outside. They, of course, refused, and also insisted that this was their normal routine. I believed them, but I also don’t think I got a single good night of rest, knowing that I was in a queen bed on my own while my host family slept on the floor outside my door.

The other strong memory that comes back to me is meal times. Again, as South Asian culture requires, guests are treated like royalty. The kids always asked me to eat first, serving me food first, ensuring that I always sat down first and got first helpings. But, as the days went on, the food supply dwindled because my host dad had not been able to come back from the city and buy groceries. For the first time in my life, I was incredibly conscious of how much I was consuming, how much space I was taking up, and not because of self-image issues. I wondered whether my contributions to this family were truly worth the extra food I was taking away from their stomachs. I felt immense guilt.

But, there were good moments. So many of them. Getting caught in a Sri Lankan downpour on the beach while the kids refused to leave because “they were wet from the ocean anyway,” laughing and screaming as we ran for the last tuk tuk so we wouldn’t get stranded. Playing game after game of Crazy Nines and Go Fish and other weird games we made up with cards. Early evenings sitting at the front door sipping tea, nights going over math homework and listening to them recite their Tamil reading or verses from the Qur’an. I felt so at home.

And so, naturally, leaving was challenging. The day crept up slowly and then quickly, and finally it was the morning that I had to wake up at 3 AM in order to get back to Colombo in time to catch my onward journey. I looked at the sleeping kids’ faces one last time, incredibly thankful for all the love they had shown me over the last couple of weeks. I quickly hugged my host mom, thanking her for everything and us both hoping our paths would cross again. My host dad and the oldest son would be joining me, ensuring that I made my train.

As with all transportation in South Asia, we were late. With just five minutes to spare, I sprinted into the train station and found my seat. As I caught my breath, I looked out the window and saw the father and son, smiling and waving. I wanted to say thank you, but, again, there was so little I could do or say for all they had given me. In the United States, we’re taught and shown that you must physically give to show your love. Presents and money are how we develop relationships. Yet, here was a family who had given me more than I can express, and that was something I will never forget. Focusing less on all the extra “stuff,” and more on love and kindness, I saw that we can have truly meaningful experiences after all.

I’ve always felt that my role in living sustainably could start and end with recycling and conserving water, but to truly have a stake in sustainability and living consciously, we must go beyond those basic steps. Through consciously examining how much we actually need to consume and obtain, we can minimize our footprint and live more sustainably. Living such a simple way of life also showed me how materialistic we can be, but also how that leads to a constant cycle of unhappiness. The more we focus on having things, the less easy it will be for us to find an inner calm because there will always be more things we can have. Focusing on how to make ourselves happy and healthy through relationships, as well as self-reflection and self-dependency, can build a more healthy way of life—physically and mentally.

Originally written for Earth Heir

Social Entrepreneurship and Earth Heir

Something that should come as a surprise to no one who knows me well is that I'm a bit of a workaholic. (That may also be a bit of an understatement.) One of the hardest parts of this fellowship has actually been the lack of a routine, the lack of work, and not being sure of what exactly I'm moving towards. As time went on, I was able to realize the incredible growth and knowledge that is occurring for me everyday, something that I'm very grateful for. But it was still difficult to continue on this journey that doesn't really have a set destination or path.

I started to love the surprises and the moving and became more comfortable with carrying my entire existence on my back in smelly busses and hot trains and dark taxis. But then—all of a sudden—I was half-way done. The crazy, scary, mysterious 8 months that I'd be spending abroad were already slipping away. From now on, each day would be moving closer to the U.S., a place that now seems a bit scary from afar, and further away from this wonderful journey and these beautiful places and people.

Maybe to find some reassurance or to find something familiar, I reverted back to workaholic Harleen. I found a job.

For the last two weeks, I've been working with Earth Heir, a social enterprise based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Earth Heir focuses on sustainability and ethical fashion, bridging the gap between artisans and those who want to appreciate the art and fashion they're creating. The organization works with artisans in five different countries, designing products that draw from traditional craftsmanship of that culture. Then—the cool part—they help the artisans sell these products and ensure that they receive the price they truly deserve for their work.

Beautiful, woven document cases by Earth Heir. My hand also makes its debut!

Beautiful, woven document cases by Earth Heir. My hand also makes its debut!

The last few weeks have flown by (as the rest of the trip), but it's been a blur of meetings and writing and photography and learning. Sustainability and ethical consumerism is, unfortunately, one aspect of public policy I never really experienced, and it's been really fascinating to slow down start that process now. Seeing how much ethical consumerism ties in to race, culture, social class, government, and so many other factors is just another reminder that, if we truly want to be socially conscious beings on this planet, we cannot pick and choose which issues and which people we want to stand up for. It's all interconnected.

One moment that still sticks out is when I was able to meet one of the artisans, Uncle Kl Ng, who crafts beautiful baskets, chairs, tables, and so many other things out of rattan. Below, you can check out a video of him working on the Earth Heir Nelly Bag. The way his hands moved so quickly and effortlessly captured my attention for minutes on end and I was in awe of how much he could make from so little. The way he intertwined pieces of rattan reminded me of all the thoughts and ideas in my head from the last few months, starting from strands and weaving together, one by one, to form this larger, beautiful idea. I think my process still needs a bit more work, however, before it looks as good as Uncle's rattan pieces.

Working with Earth Heir has been a fascinating journey, and I'm excited for all that I'll learn as I continue to work with them over the next couple weeks. Also, keep an eye on the Earth Heir blog, as I'll be writing some fun things for them, as well!