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Wednesday, October 26, 2011


The rush of traffic on North Indian Creek mirrors the pulsing anxiety in my chest as I scan the pavement and grass for my keys. I retrace the steps of my morning walk in the opposite direction. As I turn the corner onto quiet Rowland Street, the fallen auburn leaves in the gutter crunch beneath my feat and I imagine the millions of places my keys might be hiding. The beaten dirt path alongside Jolly Avenue not surprisingly reveals nothing. If my keys fell out of my coat pocket along the cracked asphalt of Debelle Street, I doubt they would still be there. My searching is in vain.
I return to the apartment and open the unlocked door, pacing around the kitchen one more time, lifting up bags on the floor and dirty dishes on the counter. Fuming with frustration, I storm into my bedroom and feel around in my coat pockets for the tenth or eleventh time. My bed stands before me with a plethora of hiding places in the bags and shoes stored underneath. I seethe for a moment before flipping up the mattress and hauling it to the other side of the room followed by the bed frame. Rummaging through the bags reveals nothing. I need to take a Karen woman and her daughter to collect forms from DFCS and the Labor Department to apply for financial assistance for a $1500 medical bill at Grady Hospital, yet after an hour of looking, I cannot find my keys. I retrieve my spare car key and call Lay Moo and Aye Be Wah to see if they can watch the apartment while I am gone, since everyone else left already to apply for their green cards.

Ya thaw ta oh bah, bah hsa ya ga bah leh ta. Thoo gwa pa duh thayahh?—I don’t have my key, but I need to go somewhere. Can you watch our house?”
“…thay thay—We can.”

I cannot understand about 90% of what he says but hope that these two syllables mean that the apartment will not be burglarized while I am gone. I rush out of the door and hop in my car, annoyed that I cannot remotely unlock it.

Many Karen people upon their arrival in this country are surprised to find that they feel less free than they did in the camps in Thailand. While they have access to employment, wealth, and services that were unavailable in the refugee camps, the bureaucracy of everything, the stifling urban landscape, and plethora of anal regulations offer little of the freedom to live the simple life many desire. While Baw Baw and others have told me that they are very grateful to be in this country and never think about turning back, many people easily slide into depression and wish they could return to life in Thailand.
The stories I hear about Karen State before the arrival of the Burmese army paint it as paradise. People lived in friendly villages in the mountains where they were free to build and cultivate the land to their desire. Everyone would help each other with farm and construction work regardless of differences in religion or background. There was abundant tropical fruit to forage in the forest. And the fish paste in Gaw Thoo Leh was very pungent, but so delicious that even someone who did not normally like fish paste would find it very beh.
If all goes according to plan, Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw’s family will soon relocate to rural Comer, Georgia—the same town where Jubilee Partners is located. It is about one hour closer to Hei Nay Htoo’s workplace, the cost of living is a bit lower, and the quality of life much higher, with quiet and safe outdoor spaces for the kids to play and the opportunity to grow food. More and more Karen people are moving to this rural area because the landscape reminds them of their homeland. There is a Karen children’s song that goes; “Hsaw pah oh oh gaw geh ray goh, gaw geh ray goh—The rooster crows cock-a-doodle-doo, cock-a-doodle-doo.” In Clarkston, Lay Moo and Hei Nay Htoo often sing a parody of this: “9-1-1 oh oh gaw geh ray goh, gaw geh ray goh,” lamenting the replacement of roosters with sirens.
The Georgia Department of Labor is full of people. We are lucky to find three seats after checking in with the receptionist. The older Karen woman I am accompanying looks wearily at me as she leads her disabled daughter to the chairs, “Pwa ga nyaw oh ah ah—There are many people here.” We brace ourselves for a long wait, ears attuned for a mispronounced name. As we wait, they call for anyone filing for unemployment insurance. At least half of the people in the sterile waiting room rise to their feet and walk to the back. They call us to the desk and we quickly receive the paperwork and then depart for the Department of Family and Child Services. The DFCS customer service office is filled with three unmoving lines of people standing and waiting to be served. We stand there helpless knowing that once we acquire the necessary documents we are only going to have to wait in another waiting room another day. We squat on the floor and I pull out my Karen-English flash cards to pass the time. “Gaw la wah ah baw may luh hsay naw oh koh ah ah a hko—Americans are fat because they sit and wait a lot,” I tell them.
It is strange helping people to navigate this system, which offers support they might not otherwise receive, yet feels like it drains the essence out of life. What is the generative result of all of this paperwork, all of these people waiting? What hope is instilled, what will to live? I have the bureaucratic fluency to walk through all of these obstacles, yet I cannot help but wonder whom is being served by these tasks which no one seems to find life giving. I am assisting people to live in a world I myself do not want to live in. What is the legitimate reason to defer our dreams of Gaw Thoo Leh, of Eden?
I return to the apartment exhausted after four hours of waiting in offices and lounge on the floor. Wonderful reclines his head on my outstretched arm. Baw Baw, also weary from filing the family’s applications for green cards, hands me my keys.
“I find under Paw Ga Pu Blay’s diaper box in the room. I think she take,” she says. We both laugh as I remember the absurd frustration of my morning. I walk out to the balcony where two-year-old Paw Ga Pu Blay is squatting, drinking from a juice box. Her big eyes glance up casually at me, towering above her.
Ga puuhh, ya tha htaw daw na!—Ga Pu, I am angry with you!” I say. Her brothers and sister laugh and she breaks out into a smile as I bend down and plant a kiss on her forehead.

Becoming Karen

“When something like this happen, Karen people boil this one…” Baw Baw holds up a dried brown pod from her dresser drawer.
“Bean” I say, handing her the word.
“Yes, bean,” she repeats, “together with yellow, not powder… root. Then washing your hair.”
“Turmeric? You wash your hair with boiled beans and turmeric root?” I look at her in disbelief.
Uh. Will you do together us?” Baw Baw inquires.

Sometimes I forget that we come from completely different worlds. The reality of my house washes over me suddenly like an indigenous cleansing ritual. Language is a small barrier to communication and cohabitation. There are always creative alternatives: acting, facial expressions, and shared meals are perhaps even more effective in evoking a common understanding than a dialogical conversation. But here we stand at the gulf, where the empire of reason encounters a world animated by spirits.
 “Umm,” I say barely holding back uncomfortable laughter, “Ya ga gwa hso ga mo luh a ghay—I will think about it.” The features of her familiar freckled face suddenly seem harsh and primitive. I imagine a concoction boiling over a fire on muddy earth next to a bamboo house, a woman in a colorful sarong with horizontal stripes squatting next to it, stirring. The steam rises like a dancing ghost.

There are currently three fifty-pound bags of Eagle Brand jasmine rice stored in my closet, as it is now the primary component of my diet. Most days I keep to oatmeal, grits, or something else bland and Western for breakfast, but the rest of my meals are thoroughly Karen. Occasionally I will prepare pizza, pasta, or some kind of soup for dinner, but usually I am the only one who will touch it and so my motivation to cook is rapidly waning. The typical Karen meal consists of some form of deep fried or stewed meat possibly including organs and bone shards, broth, leafy greens, pounded chilies or spicy fish paste water, and sometimes fried eggs or vegetables, all of which are served over rice like condiments by American standards.
The Karen diet appeals to me because of its stability. I know what to expect when I sit down at a meal. Food in American culture is so sporadic it leaves your stomach confused just thinking about it: rice one night, pasta the next, bread the next. We are eating ourselves into cultural oblivion. My friend Angela tells me that we are supposed to eat the foods that are traditional to our region; our bodies are wired to thrive on these foods. If we are immigrants, which most of us in this country are, we should be eating a combination of the foods native to our homeland and to our locale. However, I have not yet migrated to a diet of sauerkraut and boiled peanuts.
To eat is to remember, as in the Seder meal and the Eucharist. We remember our journey, our sufferings, our joy, and ingest our identity. Yet who is able to partake? Where are the boundaries? They are certainly porous, permeated by proximity, yet must be drawn for the sake of subsistence. To forget is to spiritually starve, to slip into cultural depression. I need to eat cheese, not only to pay tribute to the rich European traditions of cheese making but also to remember who I am, to move forward in the world.
To partake of fish paste for breakfast is to enter the idyllic mountains of Karen State, to remember a painful and terrifying journey through the jungle, and to live in the hope of life in America. As I eat rice with my hands, I partake of foreign food. I am brought to face with a concrete suffering I cannot understand. Like a defiant protestant at Catholic Mass, I go forward anyway. I pray with my right hand resting on the steaming rice piled on the plate, and in the recognition of difference, renew my membership in the cult of humanity.

I arrive at Lay Moo’s house one evening to use the open wireless network in his building. Erin emerges from her room after I sit down.
“I need to tell you what happened last night,” she says. “I woke up in the middle of the night and there was this darkness. I don’t generally think much of that sort of thing, but I had this strong feeling of something bad in the house. I went to the door of the room and Aye Be Wah was standing right there, also looking scared. I later found out that she had been on the phone with someone and wasn’t sure who it was, and it left her feeling scared. Then several hours later I got up to go to the bathroom and felt the same darkness and then as I was in the hall walking back to the bedroom I heard a loud voice shout, ‘DIE!!!’ I quickly ran into my room and shut the door and heard Wah Lay Soe start crying.”
I stare at her in disbelief. “Was it a man’s voice?” I ask.
“Yes, definitely,” she replies.
“And it wasn’t Lay Moo?” I ask, barely able to imagine this as a possibility.
“He was at work.”
“Oh. Of course,” I say remembering his night shift. “I am pretty skeptical of this kind of thing also,” I tell her, trying to excuse my facial expression.

As a child, I remember cooking mud soup in the backyard. I would forage for nuts, sticks, leaves, and other precious ingredients in the woods, collecting them in a red bucket, mixing them with city water from the garden hose, and then stirring with a branch. At some point I learned that this was useless play.

With a sudden wave of certainty, and a faint laugh at the thought I say, “I know exactly what we need to do. We need to boil beans and turmeric root and wash our hair with it.”

Monday, October 10, 2011


The quiet desperation in his eyes paralyzes my tongue. Lay Moo just spoke the clearest English I have ever heard from him, yet I offer him a perplexed look, as though I am unable to comprehend. He sits cross-legged with sudden vigilance, perched at the foot of the green cotton covered mattress, his long black hair clinging to his forehead. The heart monitor, with its green lines jumping above us, beeps with increasing rapidity. My cell phone sits idly on the bed next to him.

“Call 911,” he tells me.
My face falls and I offer him an anguished look, “No, we can’t.”
Ya tha law gay su duh keh ee—I want to go home now.”
Na oh hsoo taw gay leeahh?—Are you feeling better already?”
The piercing phone call seemed to rehabilitate him from his previous state of lethargy to alarm, his symptoms apparently deriving from uncertainty.
Pa ga bah oh koh luh ga thee tha ra—We have to wait for the doctor.”

Theologians and philosophers have debated for centuries whether something is good because it is loved by God or is loved by God because it is good. In my journeys through doubt, the imagined absence of a loving God emptied my life of goodness and left me falling through to despair. Questioning the existence of God was questioning the value of myself.
Questions are the lifeblood of religious thought, and yet left unchecked lead to paralysis, the inability to love or be loved. I found myself on this intellectual religious obsession with truth and certainty: something I could articulate and know I was in the right. Yet on this mission, brain was devouring body. G. K. Chesterton writes: “Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth… For the old humility made a man doubtful of his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”
It is good to struggle with faith, because God loves us in the disarray of our lives, yet the struggle itself is not the truth. Without knowing love we lose touch with our inherent goodness, our divine agency remains unawakened. Even in the depths of despair, where everything good no longer brings delight, there is a quiet certainty, inexpressible in words, which emerges of its own volition. Chesterton writes: “It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle.”

I call Baw Baw, in an attempt to understand what is happening at the apartment complex. She affirms my understanding of the situation and the few alarming words I was able to pick out from the initial phone call.

“Are you see Lay Moo? You need to see him,” she tells me before hanging up the phone, each of us returning to our respective confusion.

Wonderful Mo te ma nu leh?—What did Baw Baw say?” he asks with haste.
I repeat her words first in English then piecing together any Karen fragments of meaning I can muster. He gazes back at me in defense.

Ta blaw ta kaw, ya hso ga mo dee nay. Ywa ta eh pwa bah, ywa ta oh bah, bah hsa ta may bah. Ywa oh, eh pwa—Sometimes I think like that: there is no God, he doesn’t love us, but that is not true, God is and loves us,”

I am flushed with memories of depression, the immanent realization that I cannot trust my own mind, that I cannot trust myself, but must defer to such an impossible God. Yet how these words would bring red to my face if I were speaking them in my native tongue.  I profess a faith I cannot articulate.

I drape my long gaw la wah arms around his small frame. My limbs could form a double layer canopy around him. He remains unmoving beneath my embrace. I return to my stool beside his bed, and flip through my Karen dictionary to the word for pray: bah tu ga pah.

Na tha law bah tu ga paahh—Do you want to pray?
Bah tu ga pah thay—We can.”

In a sudden burst of naiveté, prayer pours from my mouth and I remain bowed until the end of his silence. We sit in the Emergency Room waiting for something to happen, someone to connect his IV, escort him for another X-Ray, release us back into the world, something to break the stillness. The green line slows its dance to a moderate tempo.
A vague smile comes across his face and he tells me how he will live in his crumpling world. Only three months in this new country and already he is called upon to re-imagine his existence. He speaks himself into confidence, plotting his new strategy, inviting me to journey with him.

Later in the evening, I listen as Lay Moo plays the guitar and Hei Nay Htoo sings harmony, swaying with familiarity. A six-pack of Guinness sits mostly exhausted on the dirty beige carpet. Hei Nay Htoo and I will sleep here at Lay Moo’s apartment tonight.
I lounge on the floor with a sofa cushion behind my neck, waiting for sleep to clear the chaos of the day. Time passes slowly and rest comes with the feeling of never losing consciousness. I wake up around midnight to find the living room empty and open the front door of the apartment to see four figures squatting in conversation by the stairs. Baw Baw calls something to me from the huddle and all of them laugh. I rub my eyes, and mutter something about waking up and not seeing anyone, close the door, and return to my pallet on the floor.
I am jolted awake by the entrance of all four and the surprising invitation from Baw Baw, “Let’s go home.” I prepare to leave the apartment as they continue to talk in Karen.
“Lay Moo is scary somebody come in the house, kill him,” Baw Baw says with a laugh. I roll my eyes at the absurdity of his fear, completely disconnected from the reality of the day.
Bah hsa pwa tha uh may he nu, ya hkay ta oh bah, te ga htah—But if a bad person comes in, I don’t have my machete, only a guitar,” I reply, picking up the guitar and making a smashing motion with it. I lie down on the floor again and prepare for a restless night of fighting off demons.