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Maehongson Province, 2008
1. เข้าใจ (kao-jai, “enter-heart”). To understand. From Bangkok, it always takes me another two days to get here. Sitting in a bungalow in a rice field, listening. To fragile geckos trilling clicks, water buffaloes moaning, a creek slowly trickling, frogs croaking. The distant beats of trance music, the national anthem, the prayers of a mosque, the gongs and chants of a Buddhist temple, the silence of scarecrows. Always, two fans whirring.
I’ve been coming to northwestern Thailand to work with a small NGO working with Shan Burmese refugee children, for more than ten years, and still. To enter one’s heart is not necessarily to—
That ใจ (jai) signifies the “mind” as well as the “heart.” That which it is closest to is what it is not.
• • •
2. ปลุกใจ (plook-jai, “wake-heart”). To rouse, to hearten to action. R- and K-, both Thai, were running an informal, illicit school for refugee children in the area. Without pay, for two years. Attendance hovered near 100% every day.
Later, the District Office shut down the informal school. R- and K- surreptitiously got the kids into Thai schools. Now, they are social workers rather than teachers. Cleaning blood off benches, dealing in maxi pads, collecting first bras in the Wednesday market, distributing shoes and uniforms, procuring birth certificates from the District Office. The Officer retorts, “Did you know it is illegal to help someone who is not in your family?”
• • •
3. ซื้อใจ (seeuu-jai, “buy-heart”). To influence via money. (My power here unsettling. A university degree, a couple of successful grant proposals, but mostly, my passport. Discordant with how I look to the locals, so that they constantly point at my face and ask me where I’m from. Maybe I should work instead at “home,” or in Latin America, where I first grew up, even if they thought that I looked like I was actually from… Where I can speak their language, perhaps navigate at least some of the social situations.)
R- and K- are getting restless, ready to move on, but still they work, partly because of the grants we raise. I am a heartless heart-buyer. They say that we make it “a real NGO”; they’re the “normal workers helping the children.”
• • •
4. เกรงใจ (greng-jai, “dread-heart”). To be fearful in approach. I fear that my heart isn’t petrified enough. Yet. To heed endless songs of praise for greng-jai on pop radio, in shampoo commercials, in the guidebooks, in my language textbooks. To hold everyday experiences in an ineffable politics of fear and wonder.
A friend of mine visited Isaan, northeastern Thailand. It wasn’t until he left Isaan and arrived in Bangkok that he realized that he’d left his passport behind. The guesthouse owner took the 11 pm bus to arrive in Bangkok at 4 am with his passport, then took the 5 am bus to return to work.
Such awesome, dreadful hearts. From a murmured distance. When my friend visited Isaan again, months later, he learned that this guesthouse owner was abusive to her employees, especially the Cambodian refugee, and never paid her any wages. The employees plotted for months to help the refugee escape. Back to Cambodia. As they did so, they developed an ornate story about how she needed to leave in the middle of the night not to escape, but because of a convoluted “emergency,” lest the guesthouse owner lose face in town. To grasp a poetry of prosaic subjection.
• • •
5. ใจเย็น (jai-yen, “cool-heart”). To be equanimous. To answer, when we ask whether they had any problems with Burmese soldiers, No. When we ask again. Nah. So long as, they paid half of their meager earnings to the junta as levied taxes. Provided that, they portered weapons for them every year. On the condition that, rapes in neighboring villages haunted them only in their sleep.
To keep calm, to stay cool, to live without freezing. To have a say, to access, to share in one’s crops. To slash-and-burn one’s paradoxical haven. To suffer a tempered heart.
• • •
6. เข็ญใจ (ken-jai, “push-heart”). To be stranded in an improvised life without resources. To stand up straight, to not have spots on your teeth, to keep all of your fingers, to live to be old, or just older. To learn to read, to think out loud, to storm one’s brain. To be pulled as well as pushed.
To build a new hyper-flammable thatch hut each year and stay there, imbued by the sweet scent of defoliants, surrounded by fiery ants.
To walk farther each week, hunting rocks in the riverbed, carrying them to shore on your back, filling an entire truckbed every day. To pound them into powder, churn them into concrete, pour them into the foundation of a house for other people’s children. To weigh your worth in stones.
• • •
7. ใจร้อน (jai-rawn, “hot-heart”). To be hot-tempered. Like me, graceless here, unable to read subtle social signals, unable to maneuver even slow-moving buses. Passing by, a baby, her father, her grandmother, and a dog atop a motorbike, whirling around the corner, a cartful of chickens clucking behind.
Two weeks after his hut burned down, we asked whether anything bad happened that year, and he could not think of anything. After his wife “found a new husband,” after she walked for 5 days through the jungle only to land in jail for working without a permit, only a foreigner would bristle at such inconsequentials with a boiling heart. Let it dwell, and the heart will fracture a fever pitch (มีไข้ใจ, mi-kai-jai, “have-fever-heart”). To shatter with feeling.
• • •
8. กินแหนงแคลงใจ (gin-naeng-kleng-jai, “use/eat-suspect-doubt-heart”). To be mutually suspicious. To cherish what is clearly a middle-income country. Malaria eradicated, HIV/ AIDS under control. The hushed, gleaming metro whooshes past. The ice in outdoor market guava shakes is o, so fine.
To struggle in a political economy where hairstyle magazines feature primers on currency devaluation, and 7-11 clerks banter about NGOs. Where lesbian women call themselves ทอมดี้ (tom-dee, “tomboy-lady”) because “lesbian” now signifies “girl-on-girl action” for sex-pats. Where street food stalls announce “IMF” as code for “austerity,” for “bargain”: ไก่ทอดIMF! (gai-tawt-IMF, “IMF fried chicken!”) Through microcredit, the power of the market, the promise of a franchise.
• • •
9. หัวใจ (hua-jai, “essential/brain-heart”). The anatomical heart. To flinch at the structural violence, the “noncompliance” of mothers in getting their babies vaccinated. The refugees’ most common afflictions, broken backs, pterygium (sun-scarred eyes), stunting from malnutrition, severed fingers and phantom pain. To leave the medical technology to the farang; it was theirs in the first place.
To maintain a right-sized heart. To be น้อย (noy, “small”) is to nurse grudges, to be ยักษ์ (yak, “giant”) is to turn brutal. But to be ใหญ (yai, “big”) is merely tawdry, ostentatious.
To stand on the right side of the tempestuous border. In Laos, with plenty of leftover American bombshells to use as plant pots, lining restaurants, carpeting gardens. In Cambodia, where the blue beret United Nations soldiers who, we are told, transitioned the country to democracy in the 1990s now stand still, holding onto sex workers in wax.
• • •
10. ใจดี (jai-di, “good-heart”). To be kind. ดีใจ (di-jai, “heart-good/well”). To be happy. An inversion of goodness, happiness. Teen pregnancy, drug abuse, gambling. To be pathologically social, playing with fate for a welling heart.
เห็นใจ (hen-jai, “see-heart”). To commiserate. To rewrite in translation. Not via seemingly seamless integration or romanticized pleasantries. To simultaneously disappear and paper my state of being—decoupage in the context of undocumented statelessness: As if haven were either literal or metaphorical, solace just begging for doctrine. To question legibility, whether what I wrote was what they read: My shirts have no colors. The tops of my ashen knees covered by dirt, as if this place could seep into my skin— Each coup or president or teacher calling our names, bringing me to the front of the class, rendering me an exhibit of—Those emblems that cannot be torn apart, co-opted, fucked and passed on, even with the beauty of half-blood.
• • •
11. ประหลาดใจ (praelad-jai, “strange heart). To be surprised. My heart has normalized; it has cooled.
Really? จริงๆไหม? Jing jing mai? For Kamloo, Pao, Sangkor, Pai, Swaymud, Amporn, Taworn, who wrote. จริงใจ (jing-jai, “real heart”). To be sincere. To answer a thousand questions, we created new ones: About juntas on blurred-together days and rebel armies on blurry-eyed nights, about the theft of fears. About kicking sepak balls high into the air, wandering at night to peer at her secret burials of “lost” memories, the age called “eleven.”
(The tickets were so expensive, 3,000 baht a person. So we walked for five days and five nights. In the jungle, two camouflaged giants gave us three balls of rice. My sister waiting patiently for her 8th birthday, for her turn to go to Bangkok, to join my aunt, to work—)
Each parenthetical a haunting sour stuck inside my mouth, tucked under my tongue, almost masked by the saccharine taste of pesticides from the garlic fields.
(My father was picking bamboo and feeding the buffaloes, but after two years we crossed to Thailand again when the soldiers shot people near my— My mother is still ill, so she cannot touch rain water. And when these work permits run out, will we leave, will we go back to the border, will we live in a space between, drift alongside, vanish into a line we must cross again, and again, and.)
A model citizen, at age 5. (When I grow up, I will become a Thai soldier, and I will arrest the Burmese migrant drug dealers, but their mothers will be very, very. With their sons in prison, because they cannot see them, for they are not evil.)
• • •
(I dream of growing watermelons.)
Celina Su is the Marilyn J. Gittell Chair in Urban Studies and a Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York. Her publications include Streetwise for Book Smarts: Grassroots Organizing and Education Reform in the Bronx, a book of poetry entitled Landia, and pieces in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, n+1, and elsewhere. Her work focuses on everyday struggles for collective governance, centering economic democracy and racial justice.
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