Tag Archives: world

All the Way Home

March 23, 2020 found me at the Suvarnabhumi Airport trying to process the realization that I was leaving my home in Thailand for 4 1/2 months and going to my home in America. I knew this was the right thing to do at the time. What I didn’t know at that time was how hard it was going to be to get back. I naively thought that surely by the time August came around, travel would be back to normal. When June arrived and international travelers were still not able to return to Thailand, I started worrying. I’m sad to say it, but I did. A lot. Below is a summary of my journey back and some of the hurdles that needed to be cleared before I was allowed back. For those unfamiliar with any of the process of returning to Thailand, those who wish to return need to accomplish a checklist of things, mainly get a special insurance that covers Covid 19, reserve a special certified hotel for quarantine, get on a chartered repatriation flight, get full permission from the Embassy (CoE), submit a Fit to Fly Certificate and results of a Covid 19 test upon check in at the airport (Especially for readers who are planning their return to Thailand: stay tuned for another post that gives links to helpful websites and examples of documents needed). 

June 9—I call the Thai Chicago Consulate for the first time and am able to talk with someone. No Americans currently allowed back in, he says. But next month there’s sure to be good news. I hang up feeling strangely elated that I get to talk Thai to someone.

June 17, 2020: Journal Entry “Father, my prayer this morning again is let me get back into Thailand in August, on my ticket date. Perhaps I should have searched your will more when I bought that ticket. I don’t know. Father I pray that you would open the doors to let me back in. Your will be done.”

June 18: Journal Entry “Still no definite news on getting back to Thailand. I’m glad my departure date isn’t until August because hopefully by then the bottleneck of people reentering will have eased a bit. Father, I pray let me get back in time. Without spending thousands of dollars. Zachariah 8.”

June 21, 2020: Journal Entry “About 3 months ago already that I decided to come home. In some ways it’s gone so slowly, in other ways so fast. Jesus, getting back into Thailand looks harder and harder. Help me, Father, to wait for news. I think I should write a letter to the embassy but I don’t know what the best timing is. Lord, these things are in the future, yet you already know. At least Aug 9 gives me something to work for, even though I know it might change. ‘No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn.’” Isaiah 54:17

June 23: I email Payap, my university, about my dilemma, asking for advice. Not much advice comes.

June 26: Journal Entry: “Coming into Thailand looks slightly more hopeful, except for the possibility of the extension of the emergency decree. But I have seen students listed as possibilities to come back in.” I finish my letter to the embassy in Thai and send it to a Thai friend to edit.

June 29: I receive word that students were to be let into the country.

June 30: I receive the letter back from the friend. Send it to the Washington DC embassy. Main problem—what kind of documents do I need to apply for a Certificate of Entry (CoE, a special document required to enter Thailand during the Covid pandemic) as a student?

July 2: I call the Thai Consulate in Chicago. At first, I am told again, No Americans are allowed to reenter. But I have a student visa, I say. Oh! Well, then, go to the DC Thai Embassy website and go to the application for a CoE. Once I am able to check the website, there is no spot open yet for students to apply. The only visas types still able to apply are non-immigrant O and B, even if technically students are allowed.

July 6: I begin the arduous process of calling around to find a Covid19 testing center and a place to get my Fit to Fly issued. Within the course of the week I make close to 30 phone calls trying to find a place to get tested without symptoms and receive the results within 72 hours.

July 7: I receive an email reply from the Thai embassy saying that while students are now allowed into the country, the embassy is still waiting for the policy from Bangkok on how to proceed. Would I please continue to check the website for updates?

July 8: I contact AAinsure about getting my Covid19 insurance policy covering 100,000 USD.

July 13: I hear that people need to mail in their passport in order to get a COE stamp put into the passport after getting their Covid 19 test and Fit to Fly. How on earth am I to do that and get it back in the 72 hour time?

July 14: Desperate for information, I contact the embassy again, asking if they could give me a list of what students need. I find information later on other Thai Embassy websites. Jumping the gun, I contact my university, asking for the correct papers. The problem seems to be that it is not clear if the specifications on those websites are for students who already had visas or just for those without. Exactly what do I need? Worry and fear continue to circle my heart. It seems like a giant fist is clenched around me. I start contacting hotels about ASQ. I am now aiming to leave July 7 instead of July 9. This makes sense to me since I would have 4 working days before my departure, rather than leaving on a weekend and risking not having Covid testing places open or sending back results. ASQ hotels are getting full, fast. If I want one for those dates, I need to get it, even if I don’t like the price.

July 15: Frustration. I need to know what papers I need from Payap. When I try to contact the embassy, they only reply saying I need to apply for a CoE. I KNOW that. Could you tell me what I need to have in order to apply? The application for CoE is not yet up for students, but I need to prepare my papers. The date I was hoping to apply by was July 17. My insurance is not finished yet. I contact them to see where it is. The company is overloaded with requests and is working on it as fast as possible. I contact my travel agency. Rather than change my Eva air Flight to match the dates I need my Alternative State Quarantine (ASQ), I get my travel agency to reserve a Qatar flight without paying for it. I can now reserve my ASQ for arriving in Thailand August 9, leaving August 7. Now the decision remains—to I try to keep this ticket? Will commercial flights be allowed? Or should I let it go and get a repatriation flight. No repatriation flights are scheduled yet for August. I stay up late, communicating with the ASQ hotels about payment details.

July 16: Relief. I am able to talk with a live man at the Chicago consulate. He refers me to another number, a man who is extremely helpful and friendly. He is surprised that I got his phone number, since it is usually for emergencies.  I ask him what papers I need. He says if I already have a visa, all I need is a letter of confirmation from my university. Nothing else. He says to call him any time I have any questions. I am comforted beyond words. Later that day, I’m struggling again, feeling heaviness, fear, worry. I cry out to God. Five minutes later, my phone rings. Its my boss. It seems I mislaid the keys for a company van and they can’t find them. I rake my brain for any clue where they might be. It seems like one more thing on top of everything I’m wrestling with. God, why this now? Can’t you tell me where they might be?! Something as small as this—if you could just tell me where I left those keys, I feel like I could trust you more with this whole Thailand thing.

July 17: Still struggling with a cold/allergies/cough that started way back in June. Praying for healing. Waiting for insurance papers, papers from my university, and for the application to be available for students. We go camping at the lake overnight and I take the night to relax and try to forget everything.

July 18: I suddenly remember where I probably put the keys. I text my boss and tell him. They are found! It feels like confirmation that God really does care!

July 20: Early in the morning I receive the certificate of enrollment from my university. The application for the CoE is up and ready for me to apply, but I do not have a repatriation flight. Now they are saying, buy a repat flight, and get your ASQ before applying. After you get the CoE, you can then get your Covid test done and fit to fly. Also, the CoE is emailed to you. No stamp in the passport. Things are being streamlined.

July 21: I call the Consulate in Chicago about applying since I have no repatriation flight yet and no August flights are available. He tells me to go ahead and put in any flight itinerary when it asks for a repat flight. This way, he says, I would be in the system. I apply that afternoon. I do not have my insurance letter yet, but there is nothing on the application that asks for it. After submitting, I feel a tremendous relief. Finally, something is done. I do receive an email a few hours later, telling me I needed to submit proof of insurance. I contact the insurance company again to see what is happening.

July 22: I stay up during the night communicating with the broker of the Thai insurance company, replying to questions about my health and arranging payment. I then fall asleep and miss checking my email for one last one in which I could have received the paper I needed.

July 23: Insurance letter stating I am covered for Covid19 received and uploaded. Now waiting for the flights to be released. I contact a friend about arranging for my school tuition to be paid, since I feel like I might need a receipt of payment as proof that I am enrolled for this next semester. I upload a picture of the receipt to my application as well.

July 27: flights for August released! I reserve a flight without paying through Hanatour which coordinates the Korean Air flights.

July 28: Early morning I am able to upload the flight documents to my CoE application

July 29: Waiting all day. My imagination runs away from me and I review all sorts of scenarios in my mind. After 5 that evening, I receive my CoE, and scare my mom half to death with my yells. She thinks something is on fire somewhere. I immediately pay for my Korean flight.

Coe

July 30: One of the hardest days. I contact the place that had told me several weeks ago that they could give me a Covid 19 test. I need to make an appointment. They tell me this time it is not possible to do it there without any symptoms. I crash. After calling several places, Pratt Regional Medical Center tells me that I can do it there with a doctor’s order. But I have no doctor. After calling several clinics to see if they could take me, I am still at a dead end. Finally, I contact a friend who works as a nurse at a clinic. She tells me that they’ll take me there as an outpatient and give me the doctor’s order. Pratt says they can give me the Covid test that has results between 24-72 hours. I end the day exhausted.

July 31: I head to my friend’s clinic. The nurse practitioner there sends the doctor’s order to Pratt. She also gives me a physical for my Fit to Fly certificate. Bring the papers down next week, 72 hours before you fly, and we can finish everything up for you, she says.

August 3: Monday morning I head to Pratt. Before they test me, they ask, are you staying in town for the results? What, I ask? Doesn’t it take 24-72 hours? Oh, they say, the doctor said that you need it 72 hours before you fly, so we’ll give you the Bio-Fire test, which gives the results in about 2 hours. (This is the test usually allowed only for first responders and emergency personnel.) In that case, I say, can I come back on Wednesday? The 72 hour window is not open yet. Sure, they say. I walk out, relieved but a little shaken. This would be helpful since I would not longer have to worry about the results coming in too early or late. But how often will my plans be changed? Once I reach home, I tell my dad I am not sure what to think about, since I don’t think I have anything to worry about right now.

August 4: Another monkey wrench. The Fit to Fly certificate has to be signed by a doctor, not a nurse practitioner. There is a chance that they would let it go, but I am not about to take chances. I call around. My friend at the clinic makes an appointment with their “mother clinic” where there is a doctor. This clinic is about 45 minutes away in McPherson. My appointment is for the next day.

August 5: Covid test taken. Extremely uncomfortable and undignified. We shop at Walmart and a second hand store while waiting for results. I go back to pick up the results. They are negative, but the paper says nothing that it was done with RT PCR testing method (even though it is that method). I ask about it, and soon there are a group of people around me, discussing this. They say they can’t change it. Finally, I call the embassy and miracle of miracles, talk with a live person. He assures me its ok, that as long as I have the results in the 72 hour window I am fine. I shed tears of relief. The head lab tech is very kind and wishes me safe travels. Later in the afternoon, I go to McPherson for my Fit to Fly certificate. All goes smoothly.

August 6: Wrapping things up. Final goodbyes. No more monkey wrenches, even though I am still a little nervous about my Covid Test.

August 7: I leave home at 5 AM in the morning. I am no longer emotional at all, and although I shed tears the evening before about leaving, I am too much on edge to even realize what it means to be leaving home again. My flight out of Wichita to Chicago is on time, an answer to prayer. I get to ride first class, for the first time in my life. This is because my ticket to Chicago was bought using credit from a canceled United flight. I am very grateful for the first class seat since it doesn’t take long for me to get off and get my luggage. I wait in a long line to check in to my Korean flight. This is where my documents will be examined for the first time. I am amazingly calm at the counter. They ask me questions about my visa, and some of the other documents, but only scan the Covid test. Once I get my boarding passes, I grin all the way back to my gate. It actually WORKED! The flight to Seoul is rough with hours of turbulence. My seatmate and I become good friends. Both of us are/were students, and she is a recent new Thai believer nervous about going home to her family.

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August 8: My flight lands in Bangkok. I am one of the last ones off the plane and herded through various checkpoints by people in full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). My papers are inspected several times, I am given an ASQ tag, moved from place to place. There is no way I could leave if I wanted to. Soldiers are on guard, as well as immigration police. It is probably close to an hour by the time I get through all the health checkpoints and immigration and out the door where my ASQ driver waits for me. Once we reach the hotel, I am checked out thoroughly again and do some paperwork for the hospital that is in charge of my quarantine. I get to bed around 1:30 AM Sunday morning, tired but grateful. I will be in this hotel quarantine for the next 14 days. (below: waiting at the airport for inspection and the view from my quarantine hotel)

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Tiny

The grasshoppers have come now

Gold, green, brown and bronze they fleck the barn walls

Every evening as I wash down.

Tonight, a grasshopper perches precariously beside the drain

One little nudge and he would be gone,

Washed away in a torrent of water.

 

This is my favorite part

When the cows have gone

And I wield the hose in vengeance

Scourging the dirt from the walls and concrete floors;

Giving way to some kind of rage that has built up from regulations

And uncertainties and helplessness at the way

Turmoil sweeps around me and I am tossed

From one phone call to the next,

Email after email,

Document after document.

 

The rush of water sweeps the dirt to the drain,

This is my kingdom.

This is my victory.

 

The grasshopper sits by the drain.

Only a nudge and—

I move the hose away.

 

I too am a grasshopper.

Of Stories

I love languages. One of the fascinating things I have found about languages is how after a period of time, some languages lapse into your subconsciousness until one day they randomly poke up without being asked to.

I’ve noticed this with both Pennsylvania Dutch and Thai. At first when I move into an English-speaking only environment, my brain is alert. I speak English clearly and choose my vocabulary carefully. After a few weeks, however, my mind becomes relaxed and suddenly a PA Dutch word or a Thai word will pop out in the middle of a sentence, leaving me apologizing to my listener, especially if they cannot speak the language.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon of knowledge diving into my subconsciousness in more than one way. A few weeks ago, I moved back from Thailand on short notice for about 4 and ½ months to wait out the Covid-19 crisis until my university can open again in August. At first driving on the right side of the road was no problem. As I grew more relaxed, however, I found myself struggling with remembering which side of the road to drive, and made several mistakes because of it. Also, the longer I am home, the more I find myself randomly wanting to “wai” people when I greet them or thank them. (The wai is a greeting in Thailand done by pressing your hands together like you are praying and lifting your hands to face level). It’s like you can stuff those languages and habits into your subconsciousness for a certain amount of time until suddenly they come popping out again.

This, I think, is the same way with stories. Coming home, my world changed drastically. Now that I am back in the states, living like a “normal” American, every now and then memories coming rushing at me unexpectedly. It’s as if my brain stores snapshots of life and then in my subconscious moments flashes them across my mind. The longer I am here in the states, the more they pop up. Sometimes I come to myself, realizing that I have been staring out of the window for the past few minutes, halfway across the world. Some of those memories are hard, hard memories. Others are ones I can laugh at. But all of them bring to me the scent of a country that I love.

How do I share those stories? Stories that seem somehow sacred?

Starting last July, I began working as a volunteer translator at the Mueng Chiang Mai Police station helping with communication between foreign tourists or expats and the Thai police. One day a week of volunteering became two days a week, sometimes three or even four. My time there changed my life more than I imagined it ever would and now many of those stories are submerged in my sub-consciousness. Between this, school, and the teaching ministry on the side, the stories are abundant. Eventually, many of them burrow into my mind, becoming a part of me.

I developed friendships with many new people, some of who I admire and respect wholeheartedly, and others who I love but cannot admire because of some of the things they are involved in.

I sat across from a fourteen-year-old girl, asking her to consider not getting married the next month to her fourteen-year-old boyfriend, and instead finish at least two more years of school, which would get her at least into the 4th grade.

I sat with a man who had found his young friend dead in his bedroom of a suspected drug overdose. I listened and translated for him as his voice cracked with grief as he described the details of walking into the room and finding him dead on his bed. I listened as he talked with his friend’s girlfriend on the phone, beside herself with grief.

I communicated with a British man whose brother committed suicide in Thailand, trying to figure out the complicated details of funeral arrangements. The police report gave details of the death, but it was all in Thai. That was the saddest piece of written translation that I ever did.

I went to court. The first time in my life. My job was to translate for a European man who had tried to pickpocket another foreigner in broad daylight, since he was running out of money. I stood on very shaky legs and translated for him as he received his six-month sentence to a Thai prison. I also got warned twice by court police for sitting with my legs crossed.

I translated for a case in which a girl walked into a supermarket and randomly stole a fruit knife, attempting to carry it out with her as she left. The evening was filled with moments of tension, hilarious laughter, and an odd feeling of camaraderie with both her and the officer, as well as the supermarket employees.

I sat across from a fellow American from a state not too far from my own, and listened to him as in obvious shock, he told me how he found his wife lying lifeless in the kitchen. His beautiful 5 year-old daughter watched him uncomprehendingly as he sobbed. Tears flooded my own eyes when one of the older officers at the station put his hand on the American’s shoulder and tried to comfort him in a language he couldn’t understand.

I sat in the waiting room office of the prosecuting attorney with a Canadian hippie and a Russian lady and listened as they quoted poetry and waited for papers that needed to be signed.

I went with an immigration official and a foreigner who was being deported for having possession of marijuana, a grave mistake in the Kingdom of Thailand.

There are so many, many more stories, many that impacted me deeply, and some that I am not at liberty to share. Tears push my eyelids as I think of them. So many small memories, like the coffee that one officer would offer me whenever he saw me. Or the time I accidentally erased the video games off one of my “uncle’s” computer while trying to help him free up space, much to his chagrin. Or the time I joined my friends in their small flat for a delicious meal and a rousing discussion of the latest police news, the same friends who accompanied me to the airport to see me off in March.

These are the stories that God has given me, and yet they are more than stories. I share them, not to boast about my experiences, but because they so much a part of me and who I have become. They are people, lives, friends, souls. Some people I see only once, for a few fleeting minutes or hours. I have failed many times in reaching out to them, but I pray that the presence of Jesus inside of me will give them an awareness of God as they leave.

The pain of loving and losing is intense, but I am richer for it.

Souvenirs

Do not tell me, please,

That I have memories left to be my souvenirs

These are not souvenirs.

Souvenirs you put in a box on the top shelf of the closet behind the winter blankets

Where ten years later you pull them out and dust them off

To laugh over and touch and remember

And perhaps

Shed a tear or two.

 

Do not tell me, please,

To be glad for the memories.

Memories are good, but these, these!

These are not just leftover scraps of life,

But pulsing, moving, breathing

Faces and names and lives and places

Woven into the fabric of my being.

No, they cannot be boxed up

Or fitted into photos,

Slotted into albums,

And then stored away and lost

Like the postcards in the greeting card boxes

Buried behind the 4th grade A Beka math book.

 

Do not tell me, please,

To forget the past

And simply move on.

Five and a one-half years of life

Lived unstopped and unfettered

Are not just old scribbled journals

Or letters from some forgotten lover

To be conveniently shelved in the attics of memory,

Put out of harm’s way and where they can do no harm

Not even for only 5 months on this side of the Pacific.

 

No, that would be shelving me

And I am not a souvenir

Black and White (and Gray all Over)

It feels odd to be alive at a time like this. The streets continue to get emptier and emptier after an order to shut down universities and schools, large tourist markets, entertainment venues and sporting events in an effort to stop the spread of Covid19.

The city lies cloaked in gray. Smog blankets the mountains, hiding the sun that should come out in blazing heat. The Air Quality Index shows the PM 2.5 to be over 360, at dangerous levels.

Our worlds have been uprooted, our safe schedules in upheaval. The ground beneath us is shaky, the sky above us is shrouded, the road before us is blurred with confusion.

Through it all hovers a brooding heaviness. Fear. Fear, waiting to latch its teeth into us when we read the news, when we discuss the crisis with friends, when we see the city streets emptying.

In a time like this, it feels sometimes like the distinct black and white lines that we like to draw are blurred and shaky, smudged into gray, like the sky above.

Life has felt like this for me in the past week. Selfishness seems to be the norm in cases I meet at my work as a translator. Anger flares over the smallest things. Hope seems to be ebbing low. Some of the kindest people I know are said to be the most corrupt. My own future and the dreams I’ve cherished are vague and unreal and look impossible. My school and internship plans for the next 5 months have been totally changed. Sometimes the things you believe with your mind don’t feel right with your heart.

It’s easy to let these things carry into my life, to begin carrying a heaviness that was not mine to carry. It’s easy to let the unknowns and gray matters and smog of life soak into my soul.

But when I stop and think of it, I can still trace some of the lines and truths. Through the gray, I can still see color. I can still see truth.

It is still right to be kind.

It is still right to be just, even in the face of injustice and corruption.

Being humbly truthful is still the best thing.

Unselfishness still speaks as loudly as selfishness.

Prayer is still the best response to an unknown future.

Practicing generosity is still one of the kindest and unselfish things you can do.

God is still in control.

God still keeps his promises.

God still loves this world.

And donuts still taste really, really good.

Child Bride

I asked her if she loved him. She said yes,

Her nut-brown hands clasped in her lap

Hands that instead of scratching sums and wiping

Chalkboards of the second-grade classroom

Would soon be cradling sons and daughters and

Threading flowers to sell at the intersection

On smoggy March days

 

She asked me if I had someone. I said no,

But I didn’t tell her of the cloud of pain that

Hovered over me or the knife that still pricked my heart

She wouldn’t understand why anyone would put

A knife into their own heart

 

I wondered if she knew what love was. But I didn’t ask,

She felt sorry for me that at 29, more than twice as old as her

I did not yet know love as she did

(What she did not know was that I knew love,

But only the kind you let go

Even if it meant turning the point of the knife)

 

We wondered what the other was thinking. But we didn’t ask,

The table and a world between us,

The dirt floor swept clean

Open windows, a motorbike droning somewhere,

Smoke from a fire wafting through the room

Time frozen

Only a smudge caught in the air

 

January 28, 2020

The Chiang Mai Expat Dictionary (Specifically Conservative Anabaptist Oriented)

Sometimes we experience things that we simply have no name for. Craig Thompson, who blogs at Clearing Customs, wrote about “In-flightisms.” This inspired me to come up with my own lexicon of words that describe specific people, places or things in Chiang Mai. Here are seven new words I have coined.

  1. Farangogation: the interrogation that occurs on the first meeting of a Thai person and a Farang. “Can you speak Thai?” is usually the first question asked. If the answer is yes, and usually only then, the interrogation proceeds. How many questions are asked is usually dependent on the Farang’s Thai speaking ability. The more they are able to answer clearly, the more questions are asked. If the first questions bring undesirable results, the last questions are usually left unasked.
    1. Where are you from?
    2. How long have you lived in Thailand?
    3. Where do you live in Chiang Mai?
    4. Can you speak Northern Thai?
    5. What kind of job do you have?
    6. Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend?
    7. How much do you pay for rent?
    8. Do you teach English?
    9. Can you eat Laab? (substitute Laab for Somtam or another very spicy food)
    10. Are you half-Thai?

Questions in a farangogation are usually directed by a group of Thai people at one farang. Questions are asked in rapid-fire succession, leaving the foreigner little breath to answer. A farangogation is usually held in order for Thai people to be able to analyze the farang’s “expatnicity” or in some cases “foreignicity.”  Farangogations can occur anywhere without previous notice, for example, at police checkpoints, at fruit stands, at gas stations.

2. Foreignicity: The type of foreigner in Thailand. Usually foreignicity can be divided into two categories: expats and tourists. The most common identifying factors are noticed while driving the roads of Chiang Mai. Characteristics of tourists will be as follows: sleeveless shirts and short shorts, shiny, smooth helmets with the names of rental shops, riders holding smartphones or selfie sticks, and lots of white skin and long legs.

3. Expatnicity: This is similar to foreignicity, but differs in that expatnicity concerns foreigners who live in Thailand for an extended period of time. Examples of different types of expatnicity may be but are not exclusive to: Old white men with young Thai girlfriends, rich retired divers, homeschooling missionaries driving Avanzas, young, single English teachers, university students seeking an experience, restaurant operators and more.

4. Whistutter: A quiet, almost inaudible type of voice employed by busy English teachers when asked in public what their job is. The whistutter is used in case someone with children wanting to study English privately is in earshot. The whistutter rarely works.

5. Mennusters: Not to be confused with clusters of men, this is what you call the group of Mennonites that gather at the Chiang Mai International Airport to say goodbye to staff leaving permanently. These Mennusters form long before boarding time and disintegrate in trickles. They can be identified by the long dresses and head veilings the ladies wear, as well as  cameras, forlorn looks, groups posing for pictures, and farewell cards.

6. Terrapinack: A unique kind of backpack used by teachers who commute to their job by motorbike. This backpack is classified only as a terrapinack when it used to transport everything that is essential to the teacher’s life. Certain items stay in the terrapinack permanently, for example eye drops, billfold, phone, pens, socks, tissues, Thai vocabulary lists, planners, and sunglasses. The terrapinack is so called because it is similar to that of a turtle’s shell—it goes everywhere the teacher does. When terrapinacks are lost, teachers may automatically go into a frenzy of anxiety, exude excessive sweat or completely faint away.

7. Tingutch: A form of language that has evolved among speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch who currently reside in Chiang Mai. The language contains structures and similarities of Pennsylvania Dutch, English and Thai. One sentence can contain words or structures from 2 or 3 of these languages. An example of a sentence may be: “Ich bin puuting pasa English and you still can’t versteh me!” (I am speaking English and you still can’t understand me!) According to Ethnologue, linguists predict that in approximately 20 years, the language will be established in Chiang Mai as a language of its own.

Shoes

This past semester I took one of my favorite classes ever, Intercultural Communication. Some of the themes we studied in the first part of the semester were communication, identity, and culture; later we delved into issues such as child soldiers, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, child marriage, and genocide. As a part of the class, we each came up with a creative project or reflection on what we had learned, since a lot of the material was heavy and dark. Since I love poetry, I took the chance to come up with my own spoken word poetry piece and performed it. I pulled from the theme of identity that we had studied in the first half and combined it with some of the issues of the second half, using the metaphor of shoes to describe how we can empathize with the oppressed. Below is the poem that I wrote and performed as spoken word. (photo credit above: pixabay.com)

 

You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their feet.

But you can never really know a person until you walk a mile in their shoes.

 

My father’s boots were tall and strong

Like him

Made to stride through the mud to spread straw for cows on cold winter mornings

Or through tall prairie grasses to hunt for the stray calf lost in the wheatgrass

On sunny spring mornings when the swallow swooped over dewy meadows

 

My mother’s shoes were tiny and timid

Like her

Black and trimmed with tucked-in edges that she wore for Sunday church

Her shoes fit in with all the other women’s shoes

When lined in a row when sitting on the backless benches

Except hers couldn’t touch the floor

 

My ancestor’s shoes were rough and rugged

Like them

They trod the hill paths of Germany

Slipping through the forests silently, stealthily

Stealing through the starlight to meet in caves

By underground rivers in the dead of night to be rebaptized–

Radicals and reformers.

Their shoes took them to the courts of Zurich, preaching and persuading

And some to their deaths

To burning at stake, drowning in the Lammat River

 

My ancestor’s shoes carried them onto boats

Fleeing on boats coming across wide, wild waters

Where they became a band of bewildered immigrants

In a nation and a tongue not their own

The words they spoke became heavy on their Swiss German tongues

And their fear of facing the fires again

Closed their mouths;

The firebrands and reformers became the silent in the land

Die Stille im Land.

 

Their shoes changed from strong mountain shoes

And religious rebel shoes

To quiet and capable shoes

Plowing the land and planting corn,

Until the East became too crowded

Then they pulled on their traveling shoes,

Their plain pioneer shoes

Boarded wagons and trains and boats

And staring into the setting sun, braved the dust, and

Gritting their teeth against the drought,

They lost their children to the prairies’ grip

Grimly facing the taunts of neighbors who called them “those Germans”

When to be German was to be a Nazi

While their accents never fit in

Just like their shoes.

 

What kind of shoes do you wear?

What kind of shoes did your father wear?

What kind of shoes did your grandmother wear?

I want to know.

 

Some people wear ballerinas and brogues, bast shoes and brogans

Others trod in trainers, Tsarouhis, tiger head shoes, and toe shoes

Pampooties, peeptoe shoes, peranakans, peshaawaris, platform shoes, pointininis

And still others wear silver shoes, slingbacks, slip on shoes, slippers,

Sneakers, snow shoes, spool heels, stiletto heels, sailing shoes.

Moccasins and winklepickers, Mojaris and wellingtons, Mules and wedges

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Some people wear moccasins that have seen the dust of trails

And the tears of those trails where millions died while weeping and walking

A convenient quiet massacre

 

Some little girls wear red leather tarkasin on their wedding day

Feet curling with fear  while they say yes to a man three times their age

Who steals their past and their present and their future

 

Some people do not wear any shoes as they run

Panting and gasping through the jungle at night

While flames tongue the sky and gunshots pierce the silence

 

Some children wear crude heavy army boots

Whose marching beats out

Power

And plunder

And pain

And march them to destroy the ones who love them most

And themselves

 

Some children do not wear any shoes at all,

Since the explosion of the land mine that stole their father’s lives

Took their own feet as well

 

Some people took off their shoes before they stepped into the shower

The shower that stole the breaths of their shaved and shorn and shattered bodies

And all that was left was—

Shoes

 

Some babies wore tiny soft shoes, wrapped onto tiny soft feet

When under an Eastern moon their skulls were bashed against the tree

The Killing Tree, they called it

By soldiers with hearts of rubber wearing shoes of rubber tires.

Destroy them by their roots, they said.

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What kind of shoes do you wear?

What kind of shoes did your father wear?

What kind of shoes did your grandmother wear?

I want to know.

 

Can I wear your shoes?

 

I cannot wear your shoes

They were not made for me.

 

But I can wear my mother and my father’s shoes

I can wear my ancestors’ shoes

And when I wear their shoes, I can know a little bit

A little bit

Of what it means to be invisible on the margin, the edge

To be born inconveniently.

To dread the knock on the door in the middle of the night

To lie haggard and hungry on a boat adrift

To live in a land where tongues cannot curl around strange sounds

And the name carried is synonymous with enemy.

To have fathers turn upon daughters and sons turn upon mothers

To bury children under a scorching sky

In a strange land

 

Perhaps I can know,

A little bit

When I wear their shoes

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Lines

Even after five years, sometimes I feel like I am lost in a tangle of language, culture, traditions, national borders.

Why was I born on this side of white and you were born on that side of brown?

The river of words that runs in my heart is not the same as the river of words that runs in your heart, though there are times the rivers mingle, when languages come together.

Why are you called Vietnamese and I am called American? Why are you called Thai and I am called “Farang?” Why are you called Karen and I am called Caucasian?

Why was I born where the world was bright and hope sprang unbidden in my heart and you felt only the crushing of loneliness and the thwarting of choices from the day you were born?

Why was I born with the weight of a culture on my shoulders I feel obliged to carry, a weight that is different from the weight you carry? And perhaps you feel no obligation to carry?

Why are you the other, and I am the one? Or I am the other and you are the one?

Why are our worlds dictated by the little books in our pockets that we call passports, that identify us?

Or do they?

Where are the lines where spirit surpasses language, where kindness goes beyond cultural borders, where hope speaks across lines enforced by countries?

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 (ESV)

What exactly does this mean? Five years ago I had more answers than I do now.

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Close to a year ago, I wrote a poem about my world being on my desk, here. This is a similar poem, now a year later, and this time, it’s in my backpack. 

Photo credit: Pexel

 

My world is in my backpack

Stuffed into pockets and corners and zipped compartments

Crammed until I can hardly close it.

 

Every now and long forgotten items surface

Like the chicken bones my friend found in a pocket one day

Or the little bag of sticky rice I forgot for weeks,

Not unlike the skeletons in the proverbial closet.

 

My world is in my backpack, or at least a ¾ part of it.

 

Crumpled on the bottom is the linguistics quiz

With the mysterious .5 marked off of it,

Several baht coins scattered about unceremoniously

With one lone Abraham Lincoln penny still holding its ground;

Flashcards from aforesaid linguistics prep,

Harmonica that helps release the ache on lonely moonlit nights,

And a long-forgotten packet of fisherman’s friend lozenges;

Socks for when the air-conditioning becomes too much for me

(And when I need the comfort of something cozy again).

Notes from doing a movie analysis needed for my final paper,

And my faithful Kindle which is to me what Friday was to Crusoe;

Crumpled up paper about faith with a chocolate smudge

With a list of children’s names on the back from VBS, reminding me that yes, I was at home this summer.

Breathsavers that I think must have come from my sister’s dresser drawer

From back home in that creaky second story that turns frigid on cold winter nights

(And I really should give them back to her because I completely forgot I had them.)

A crumpled-up business card for a souvenir shop that I can only think came from that Thai lady

The one I met at the airport in China when my flight home was canceled

And she made me cry with her kindness  when we heard the news at 2 AM.

My phone, my key ring that holds 7 keys (of which only 2 I use),

2 USB sticks, eyedrops for when the long drives on my bike are too much;

A receipt for a latte at Start Up café, and at the same time, one crumpled up receipt from

Dunkin Donuts at the Dwight D. Eisenhower airport in Wichita

When I bought a latte on my way back and drank it while reading the card from my mom,

And crying while I ate the cookies that the little blonde boy brought over for me

Just before I left, and he asked me matter of factly,

When the airplane was coming to pick me up?

A lone key that used to be for the old lock on the gate,

A leftover paper from English class with a list on the back

Of items I need for my residency papers.

A flashlight, a pencil a friend gave me just before exams

And a post card my Japanese friend gave to me of a cityscape from her trip to Hungary.

A scissors, a set of watercolor pencils, and a pad of watercolor paper

Just in case, you know, I ever find myself somewhere with nothing to do.

Sunglasses for those long drives to IGo at 5:15 PM,

And two energy bars to sneakily eat at coffee shops when I am too stingy to buy food with my coffee;

Two packs of cards to play games with my English students;

Crumpled and folded and fingered notes from the presentation on nonverbal communication,

When I bent and crushed the papers in my hand, no, not nervous at all.

The planner my friend gave to me at Christmas

That says “The Best Year Ever,” and I think I believe it

Even though the year has been thrown into a backpack

And juggled around through customs and airports and classes

From farm world to city world, from one life to the other.

 

My billfold with 3 different drivers licenses, 2 Thai and one American,

My blood donor card I haven’t used for years,

Along with my student ID and my Bangkok Bank card

And about 10 others I rarely use.

My little catch all bag from a Thai friend for Christmas, full of pens

And a spinner, and highlighters and pencil sharpeners and sticky notes,

With the keychain that has the word “Jesus” on it,

From my friend who has left for the cornfields of Indiana;

A paper left over from Aj. Tony’s survey about how many languages we speak

(And I still can’t decide how many it actually is);

 

Then finally the little miniature airplane I made out of the gold foil

That wrapped the chocolate my friend from Ho Chi Minh City gave me last weekend.

I finger it and lift it up, give it a whirl,

Watch it glimmer,

And wonder.