Conversation with a Refugee
Mae Sot, Thailand
Refugee camps dot the Thailand/Myanmar border. One such border town is Mae Sot in Thailand's Tak province. There are an estimated 180,000 refugees living and working in Tak Province alone. Wandering the streets of Mae Sot is an interesting ethnic mixture of Burmese men in their longyi (sarongs), Hmong and Karen women in traditional hill-tribe dress, bearded Indo-Burmese Muslim men and Thai border patrol agents. The Thai border patrol is on constant watch for Burmese refugees without official documents or work permits, which can result in detention and deportation if the “unofficial” fee is not paid. I visited Mae Sot to taste a small slice of Burmese life. That slice was bitter sweet.
My stay in Mae Sot coincided with the World Cup games between Togo vs. Sweden, Australia vs. Japan and Spain vs. Brazil. The day market was a wash with mangos, raw fish, tamarind and Brazilian football jerseys. I was strolling in the side alleys of the Phacharoen day market when a familiar call in Asia caught my ear, “Hello! Where you come from?”
I replied with my usual twisted response, “Jamaica,” and kept on strolling.
“Germany? World Cup in your…”
“No, no. Ja May Ka.” I stopped across the alley.
“Ohh, okay.” A look of bewilderment was on his face. He was standing in front of his day shop which overflowed onto the street with Burmese goods: Betel nut, hand-rolled cigarettes, vibrant spices, skin smoothing tree sap, fermented tea leaves, and the usual chicken skin oil in plastic baggies. With short, thick hair, dark, Indian features, and eyes the color of butterscotch Mr. Mg Mg Lay (pronounced MaoMaoLay) offered me cold water, hot tea, and lunch with his family, all before he even knew my name.
I spent the afternoon in his shop and we exchanged information about Burma and Jamaica and their respective situations. He told me how the Burmese are forced to be porters by the military; I told him about Jamaica's lack of good national health care (I could be wrong since I am not from Jamaica). As he helped customers with their purchases he told me about his father, mother, three brothers, and sister that reside in the refugee camp just north of the city and his own life as a refugee. He has spent 10 years living in Mae Sot and working at his uncle's shop. He studies English with volunteer groups from the US, and worries about the desperate situation in Burma. I asked him question upon question, which only led to more questions. This was the first time I had a firsthand report of the atrocities in Burma. He did the best he could with his limited English ability (although the best I had heard in weeks) to juggle my rapid-fire questions. Once he realized that my curiosity could not be quenched he told me to, “Sit, wait here for me, I be back.” Mg Mg Lay returned with a book the size of an encyclopedia published by Human Rights Documentation Unit based out of Thailand. It details the human rights abuses taking place in Burma and he pressed it into my hands with the same reverence and urgency that a holy book is given saying, “This will answer all of your questions”. (Read excerpts from The Human Rights Yearbook.) Once the question of Human Rights was out of the way, we got down to the important issue of why some Burmese have blood-red stained mouths and teeth that seem to have been transplanted from a corpse. He smiled widely and asked, “You want to try?”
I only hesitated for a second saying, “Uhh, no, no, I…OK!”
His cousin took a piece of beetle nut from a bushel that was for sale. Using something like a cigar-cutter with a giant blade, she sliced through the acorn-sized nut to cut four slivers for me. She spread a thin white paste onto a banana leaf and laid the four beetle nut slices inside. Next, she folded it down into a square that I could pop into my mouth. I took it eagerly, examined the square for a moment and then, in it went! I started to chew through the soft banana leaf until I felt the crunch of the beetle nut between my teeth. I must have chewed for about five seconds before I felt the need to go spit; my mouth was so full of saliva. This presented a dilemma as there was no where in their shop or even right outside I felt comfortable unloading a mouthful of spit. I excused myself, ran across the alley and spat next to a truck. I had seen red spit throughout the markets and on the streets and when I spat the truck tire stained crimson. It was my first beetle nut spit. I returned to the store and was unable to rejoin the conversation. My mouth was already filling with saliva and seconds later, I had to spit again. Across the alley I added to the stain on the truck tire then ran back to the store. By my third trip, I realized only a season beetle nut chewer could keep up a conversation and chew the nut at the same time. My third spit was my last, but now I could say I'd chewed the nut.
Mg Mg Lay's entire family had gathered to watch this crazy foreigner chewing beetle nut and when I could speak again, his aunt launched into me about my age, marital status and religion. Twenty-six. Single. None. All answers except the last seemed to please her. She screwed up her face and wondered if you have no religion, what happens when you die? I told her I guessed I would just die. She seemed willing to let the religion issue pass and made it clear that if I wanted to marry someone, she knew a few single girls in the village. There's nothing like the sound of marriage bells to send a young man quickly on his way and I decided it was time to take my leave. Mg Mg Lay shook my hand and as I left Mae Sot, the world's attention shifted to Spain and Brazil as they took each other on in Germany. But even religion-free people can say a prayer that some day the world's attention will be on Burma and Mg Mg Lay will be able to cross the border back into his own country without fear of its government.