Jun 20, 2014

Interaction with the Amish

My first encounter with an Amish person was at a departmental store. I saw a black horse, standing where cars should be parked. It stood perfectly still like a statue.

“Is it real, do you think?” I asked my friend who had lived in the small town in Western Illinois, the US, longer than me. “Why don’t you find out?” he laughed. I walked over, and found that it was as real as me. Not only that, but it had an owner too, who had come walking behind me and was now looking at me quizzically as I stroked the horse. He was as out of place in the parking lot as the horse: he was wearing a top hat—the kind Abraham Lincoln wears in pictures, had a bushy white beard, and wore a very conservative black three-piece suit.

The man trotted away on his horse, and later I saw more and more people like him around town. Men wearing the conservative suits, women wearing floor-length monochrome gowns — dark green or navy blue — and bonnets of the type worn by Jane Austen. More often than not, they were traveling on horse carriages. They were the Amish people, who had chosen to shun modernity and live a lifestyle handed down to them since historical times.

Here and there I would here whispers about them. Two of my colleagues were discussing where they could get the best patchwork quilt, when a third suggested the Amish as renowned craftsmen. While one person praised their organic gardening, another criticized their lack of hygiene and said they would never eat anything an Amish baked. Jokes abounded about them: someone pointed out an abacus and exclaimed that this was an Amish computer. My curiosity about these peculiar people grew.

Finally, at a farmers’ market, I struck up a conversation with an Amish gentleman who was manning a stall. “How do you travel when you have to go far and your horse carriage cannot take you?” I asked.

“We are allowed to go on trains but no planes. And if someplace is too far to go on buggies, we can hire someone with a van to take us,” he replied. He then added that horses were used not just for traveling, but also for farming. They may use chainsaws and some machines for threshing, but these machines have to be powered by horses. All their cooking was done on wood stoves, wood fires warmed their houses in winter. This must not have been easy, because the region where they lived got at least two feet of snow every year.

Just then, the man pulled out a watch from his pocket to check the time. “That’s a machine,” I pointed out.

“Yes,” he grinned sheepishly, “we are allowed that.” Even then, the watch was the old fashioned kind that you carried in your pocket, it did not have a strap.

He went on to tell me the Amish were simple people who did not like to draw attention, and thus stuck to colors like blue and green in their clothes. They bought the fabrics and made their own dresses. Even in weddings the women wore the same kind of pleated dresses, but were allowed to have a little white embroidery. And they only married within the community.

“If anyone wants to marry the English, they are excommunicated,” he informed.
“The English?” I was confused, since we were in the middle of America.
“People like you folks,” he explained.
“I am not English,” I laughed.
“But that’s what we call you folks,” he seemed to be wondering why I was so slow to understand.

They practiced monogamy, and did not believe in contraceptives. They would have as many children as possible. The children grew up to make their living either by farming and cattle raising, or through crafts like carpentry, tailoring, etc, which they did for outsiders too. If their health went wrong, they went to the doctor and took medicines, but tried to stay as natural as possible. They grew their own food, churned their own butter.

But despite their efforts, sometimes they were forced to purchase from the outside world. For example, they did not make their own shoes. But when they bought shoes, they only chose plain ones.

“You won’t find us wearing no tennis shoes,” the man smiled. That led the conversation to games. He told me they played traditional games for fun. For music they played the harmonica, anything more modern than that, like the guitar, was a no-no.

They had a phone booth at their community, but no cell phones. They used no electricity, no radio, no TV, and no internet. “We have been asked a lot if we miss these things,” he confessed, “but we are so used to it that we don’t even think about it.”  

I wondered if the children and younger generation was as complacent, and if they ever wanted to do things that normal Americans did. “They don’t know any better,” he replied coolly. “They don’t grow up with all these things, so they don’t know what it does.”

The Amish had their own schools, their own curricula: they did not follow government textbooks. Children of both sexes were educated up to the eighth grade in these schools, no more. Nobody went to college. “That never happens,” he confirmed. If any youngster wanted to go to college, or do something drastic like live an “English” lifestyle, they would be excommunicated. The Amish way of life was protected by the government, they were legally allowed to have their own schools and had a host of other legal concessions.

I asked for the man’s name, I knew I wanted to write about him at some point. He declined on grounds of modesty, saying the Amish people did not like to publicize themselves. I desperately wanted a photo of him, but that was out of the question. I walked out with my purchases: the freshest strawberries and the best rhubarb pie I had ever had.

My later research told me that small groups of Amish people were found in many parts of the US. They derived their way of life from an ancient Swiss brotherhood of reformist Christians, and many groups of Amish in the US still spoke German and Dutch. Maybe that was why they called everyone else “English”. Though their customs, rules and dresses varied from community to community, they shared the core values of simplicity, humility, and rejection of modernity.

Some communities let their children go out into the wider world when they were sixteen, and had them make a choice at the end of the year. Most youngsters chose to go back to the Amish community, because outside of it they had few close people.

Here in Nepal, we would call this inward-looking mentality–that shuns knowledge and exposure—“backward” and do everything to bring them into “mainstream” society. In the US, while most people made fun of them, there were some “English” people who romanticized them, believing the Amish life to be uncomplicated and self-sufficient. Only time will tell if the Amish people can continue to hold on to their unique customs, or are forced to embrace modernity like the rest of the world.

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