Family Matters

by Maggie Hart Issue: 2022 Special Issue on Identity

The mud smelled like shit. It was shit, partially, but it felt better to say it smelled like shit instead of admitting that I was, in fact, wading ankle deep in a chunky and slimy swamp of mud and trash and, yes, shit. Of both human and dog variety. I breathed through my mouth, telling myself that the twinge of bitter taste I got with every inhale was all in my head, and focused on trying to identify the objects that were floating around me. A mud-caked office chair. A little boot. More cardboard boxes than I could count. Chicken feathers, everywhere.

We had almost reached the steel-and-cardboard hut we were visiting when I felt a tug on my rolled-up pants. A little girl looked at me, holding her arms up, and waited. One of my companions, another teacher from the Children’s Development Centre (CDC) twenty minutes away from the village we were in, moved to pick up the girl, but I stopped her.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I can hold her.”

I hoisted her up a bit too quickly, having misjudged just how light she would be. I was terrified by how tiny and breakable she was as I shifted to balance her on my hip, acutely aware of how easily one of her little arms could be snapped in two. The ground underneath the quagmire seemed much slippier than before.

The hut rested on a pile of boxes and crates, raised above the swamp. There were no walls, just the elevated floor under a shabby roof. The man that greeted us lifted the girl from my arms so I could scramble up the makeshift lumber ramp and held her as I rinsed my shins and feet with a bucket of water. As soon as I sat cross-legged on the floor, he plopped her into my lap, where she curled up and rested her head against my once-white T-shirt. I felt her little breaths, her chest moving ever so slightly with every inhalation. She drifted off in a matter of minutes.

“Lin,” said the man, pointing at the girl. I nodded at him and began to gently run my fingers through Lin’s hair. Little Lin.

We’d arrived in the back of a pickup truck earlier in the afternoon. This village was built from trash and on trash, erected in the heart of the municipal waste center of Mae Sot. The garbage mountains of the landfill loom over the shacks, and throughout the village the smell of waste rotting in the sweltering tropical sun is so present it seems tangible, a physical presence more than just a sensory one. When we arrived, a young boy’s eyes widened and he darted towards an older man, his legs moving so awkwardly and quickly that his shorts slid off his body as he went. By the time he reached who I assumed to be his father, his shorts were crumpled and muddy around his ankles. His father paid it no mind, just tugged the boy’s shorts back into place and swept him up into his arms without a second thought, kissing him on the cheek. This man became our guide; he offered us umbrellas and to take us to the family we were looking for. The teachers I accompanied were here to talk to a family about a potential scholarship for CDC.

This village was built by migrants from Myanmar, also called Burma[1], who have illegally crossed the border into Thailand after decades of military rule in their home country destroyed their livelihood, safety, security, and well-being.[2] Compared to Burma, Thailand offers a more peaceful environment and more job opportunities, so beginning in the 1980s, thousands of Burmese people began crossing the border, hoping to escape conflict and poverty.

Most of these migrants are members of the Karen community, a collection of ethno-linguistic groups who share an identity “rooted in the pre-colonial past and in the often traumatic colonial experience.”[3] The Karen conflict, which has been described as one of the world’s longest running civil wars, began during the British colonial era. The British used the existing tension between Burmans and Karens to convince the Karen people to assist them during the Anglo-Burmese wars. The colonial era that followed was characterized by violence between two camps, both fighting for their vision of Burma. The first was a rightest camp, including the Karen army leadership, Karen Peace Guerillas, and the Karen National Defense Organization. The leftest camp was made up of local defense units, groups of Burmans within the government army, and the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League. Eventually, in 1949, the Karen National Union declared war with the Burmese government with Four Principles: Surrender is out of the question; recognition of the Karen State must be completed, Karen people will retain their arms, and they shall determine their destiny.[4]

This conflict has had detrimental effects on the population of Burma, including “forced displacement, pillaged food stores, injury from violence and forced labor.”[5] A preliminary ceasefire was signed in 2012, but experts say this has not led to a reduction in human rights violations. In 2011, 30.6% of households surveyed reported at least one violation, with forced labor being the most common (24.9%), followed by assault, including kidnapping, rape, torture and beating (1.4%).[6]

These traumatic experiences, as well as the poor socio-economic situation of Burma and the hope for better opportunities abroad, have contributed to the mass migration of Burmese people into Thailand. Many ended up in the bordertown of Mae Sot, where I am halfway through a six-week stay. Mae Sot is a sensible choice for migrants—it’s close to the border and access to the town is as easy as joining the swarms of people crossing the Friendship Bridge every day.[7] Permanent relocation in Thailand is risky and illegal, and migrants face a host of new challenges when they arrive, but that hasn’t stopped those seeking refuge—in Mae Sot, Thais are outnumbered by undocumented Burmese migrants 1 to 3.[8] There are so many Burmese workers in the city that the local economy has come to rely on their labor, primarily in areas of seafood processing, domestic work, and factory work.[9] However, the mutual dependence of Burmese migrants and Thais—the migrants need the work and the Thais need the labor—doesn’t mean that relations between these groups are cordial. Thailand and Burma have a long history of conflict, distrust, and antipathy, so migrants are subject to harassment and workplace exploitation.[10] Employers in Thailand know Burmese people are desperate for work, so they pay them less and treat them worse—the official minimum daily wage in Tak Province is 135 baht (about $4.50), but most migrant workers are only earning 50-70 baht ($1.60-$2.30) a day and are housed in unsanitary and crowded conditions. To avoid legal trouble, many migrants have mastered the art of ‘acting Thai,’ by adjusting their mannerisms and clothing and avoiding moving with groups of Burmese.[11] Those who can afford to give bribes to local police, of which there are very few, do, and can be more openly Burmese, but always err on the side of caution. There were a few times I was out with my friend Arkar, riding carelessly throughout crowded Mae Sot streets on the back of his motorbike, when we’d have to abruptly turn around or take a different route to avoid police. I always felt, when I was with Arkar, that he owned the town—it seemed that he knew everybody, that everybody respected him, that he was The Man. It became fiercely clear to me in those moments, as we turned away from the police and Arkar tried to disguise his worry with humor and swagger, who really owned the town, and it wasn’t Arkar. It could never be him.

The mass migration of Burmese migrants into Mae Sot made the town a magnet for well-to-doers from all over the world—the city is swarming with NGO workers, doctors, and volunteers like myself, the town becoming a tangle of trajectories and causes. Distrust lingers beneath every interaction: The Burmese are trying to sniff out who might report them; some NGO workers are suspicious of competing NGO workers; Thais are apprehensive of the non-Thais crowding their restaurants and shops. After every interaction I have, unasked questions linger in the air: Who are you? and What are you doing here? and Can I trust you?

The village we traveled to is the target of many NGOs who come through Mae Sot, dropping off food or building materials or, in one case, piglets, and leaving just as quickly as they came. Some do even more harm by talking too loudly or to the wrong person—local police tend to turn a blind eye to migrant villages like these to avoid the hassle of deportation, but if foreigners talk too much or to the wrong person, police ransack the place, destroying the shacks and forcing crowds of people (mostly children) over the border.

They always come back, though, and rebuild their homes from the remains of their old ones, and the police ignore them until enough foreign workers talk too much again.

Lin’s mother emptied a packet of Nescafe into a mug, poured boiling water from a kettle over the powder, and stirred it with the wrapper. She handed the mug to me with a small smile and gently patted the top of Lin’s head. The teachers began chatting with Lin’s parents in Burmese. While they discussed, I sipped my coffee, which tasted surprisingly good and pooled into a warm puddle in my empty stomach, and looked around the hut. A small stack of clothes sat on top of a radio. A cup of chopsticks was next to a spine-cracked paperback—something by Dan Brown. A dirty teddy bear lay atop a mattress. The only mattress. It was small and congested and lived-in. It was homey.

When it was time for us to go, Lin’s father gently lifted her from my lap and laid her on the mattress. She sighed and curled into a tiny ball. “We are poor,” Lin’s father said out loud and in English, “but we are happy also. Many blessings.” He began to sing to her in Burmese, and after a moment, Lin’s mother joined him. The other teachers and I looked at one another and smiled. It was a moment so tender it felt breakable, so we sat still in silence for a while and listened. Minutes stumbled by, and the sun began to set, and I listened to Lin’s parents and their harmonious voices, his gravelly and hers clear and high, like clinking wine glasses.

The noises of the village began to dim. Fewer children’s bare feet slapped against the dirt roads, the teenagers’ muddy soccer game ended, and even the chickens quieted their clucking. My companions and I slid down the ramp as gently as possible, so as not to disturb the family we were leaving behind, and submerged our feet and shins back into the sludge. The entire way home—through the mud mixture, down the footpath amongst the makeshift shacks, in the back of a rusty pickup truck, and on my familiar bike route from the school to my guesthouse—Lin’s parents’ lullaby played through my head. I heard them singing as I cycled past yellow flickering lights and multilingual signs and waved to the food cart sellers bagging their unsold fruits and feeding chunks of meat from skewers to stray dogs.

I thought of their closeness—their physical proximity to each other in that little space under a decaying roof, the emotional intimacy present in their lullaby. I felt, for the first time since I’d left the United States weeks ago, like I really was a world away from my family. I felt distant. Now, I am back in the same country as them, and I still feel just as far away as I did then, twelve hours ahead of them and 8,300ish miles apart. I don’t know if this is a fault of theirs or mine. I don’t know if it’s anyone’s fault at all.

Happiness, like everything else, is embedded in particular cultural contexts, and varies in amount, extent, or degree in different areas of the world. In collectivist cultures, like those found throughout Asia, happiness depends on the evaluations of relationships with others, including families, colleagues, and neighbors.[12] Family in particular is an important institution in Asia, where the “bonding or the unity of the family members contributes significantly to improving the life satisfaction and happiness of an individual.”[13] I imagine Lin’s father’s sentiment—that they were happy and had “many blessings” even though they were living in challenging circumstances in a country that is not legally their own—had everything to do with the fact that they were, remarkably, still together as a family. All the migrants in the village, and in all of Mae Sot, are in limbo between Burma and Thailand: they are unable to reap citizenship benefits in either country but are subjected to the stress and conflict of both. They are repeatedly underpaid and overworked and mistreated. But still, there is still happiness to be found, especially for those who have their families, those who may not have a home country but do have a home.

Not all are so fortunate. Some, like my friend Nway, have been forced away from their family by their circumstances, and the various ways they find the means to survive.

Nway, like my newfound friend group and me, was a Friday night regular at Woodstock. Woodstock (the third ‘o’ is a peace sign) Music Bar & Restaurant cannot really be considered a bar—you can’t legally buy alcohol there (but if you chat with the bartender long enough and slide him some bahts he’ll grab a bottle of room temperature Chang from underneath the bar). Still, every weekend, nearly every expat, volunteer, and Mae Sot resident under the age of thirty shoves themselves into Woodstock’s tiny space to listen to the band play acoustic covers of 2000s punk rock songs.

I first met Nway my second weekend in Mae Sot. There isn’t a dance floor in Woodstock, but that didn’t stop her: she stood in the narrow entrance, barely through the doorway, and swayed to the music with her long, thin arms above her head and eyes closed. I accidentally bumped into her when my friends and I swung the door open.

“I’m so sorry!” I yelled over the drums.

Nway didn’t say anything; just grabbed my hands and moved my arms around with hers. We danced together for a bit, and soon enough, my friends joined, and then strangers, and then most people in the building were dancing, either with us or at their seats. When the band was done playing (at midnight exactly) she pulled me into a hug.

“Nway!” She said over the buzz of people laughing and gathering their things.

“Maggie!”

An older man stooped and whispered something into Nway’s ear. She nodded, squeezed my hand, and left with him without saying another word.

The next Friday, she was in the same place—swaying in the entrance, seemingly entranced. When she saw me this time, instead of making me dance, she led me back out the door and to one of the picnic tables outside.

“Hello again,” she said as she lit two cigarettes, plucking the first from her pucker and handing it to me.

“Hi.”

“You are a good dancer.”

I laughed and shook my head. “I’m not a good dancer at all.”

“You are! Most people ignore me when I want them to dance with me.” She took a drag of her cigarette. “What are you doing here?” Her mouth opened and the smoke poured out, twisting around her pale face in coils.

“I’m teaching at CDC,” I said. “English and civics.”

She nodded and took a sip of her drink. Through the window, I saw the man who she’d left with last weekend. He was staring at us. At her.

“Is that your husband?” I asked, gesturing to him. She didn’t turn to look.

“My husband isn’t here. He is in Burma. My kids, too.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

Inside, the band began to play a Green Day cover—” Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Nway and I listen for a bit. Then she said, quietly, “I love them very much. That’s why I do what I do.”

“What do you do?”

She gestured to the man from the weekend before, who was still staring. “He is a customer.”

I caught on quickly. Because the pay for Burmese migrants is so poor, many women become prostitutes at one of the over twenty brothels in Mae Sot, or at one of the karaoke bars or restaurants that double as prostitution outlets. After paying for their living expenses, prostitutes can make somewhere between 6,000 to 10,000 baht a month ($198-$331), whereas a well-paid migrant factory worker only brings home about 3,000 baht ($100).[14]

Nway talked about her family for the rest of the night, her love for them increasingly evident and exuberant as she continued.

“I am a hard worker. I want my daughters to be able to do whatever they want,” she said. “My husband and me, we will never be rich. But I want money to send them somewhere else where they can have dreams. Maybe to your country, to America. [15] They make me so happy, I want them to feel the same happiness.”

Inside, the band announced that they were to play their final song of the night. Everyone awwed in unison. “Come on!” Nway exclaimed, tugging me by the arm back inside, where we danced until the song ended and a man appeared and pulled Nway away for another night of work, another small amount of money she could send to her daughters. She smiled as she left.

Even in individualistic countries, like those in the West, positive family connections benefit well-being: these relationships can “help an individual cope with stress, engage in healthier behaviors, and enhance self-esteem.”[16] Therefore, those who hope to find happiness in starting a family aren’t necessarily off-course: in fact, in the United States, people who are married tend to be happier than those who are not, and parents report being happier and more satisfied with their lives than nonparents. [17]

There is less research on what effect not-so-positive family relationships have on well-being, although from my experience I can say that the opposite becomes true—that individuals become more stressed, engage in unhealthy behaviors, and their self-esteem goes in the shitter.

I love my family. They love me, too. A lack of love is not the problem. 

After I arrived back at my guesthouse the night we visited Lin’s family, as I snuck past the sleeping old man who’s meant to guard the gate but just sleeps by it instead, I tried to think of a moment with my own family that was as tender as that moment with Lin’s. I felt an overwhelming disappointment when I couldn’t. “Many blessings,” Lin’s father had said, and it was true. They were, and I hope so badly that they still are, blessed to be with each other.

I have many blessings too—of course I do. I was born in a country that accepted my parents and me as its citizens, where my parents were paid fairly for their work so they could provide for my siblings and me as we grew up, where I don’t have to worry about violence or mistreatment because of my ethnicity, where I live in housing with walls and plumbing and electricity. It feels silly and out-of-touch and almost blasphemous to even attempt to compare the two experiences, or to compare my experience with Nway’s, so I won’t. I will never know the intense, dangerous reality of being a member of the Karen community, rejected from their home country and unaccepted in their refuge country. I will never know what it's like to raise a child on a city dump or using money made from selling my body. I will never know what it’s like to build a home, or a life, that is always at risk of being demolished by police no longer willing to turn a blind eye. I will never know what it’s like to have to depend on the fickleness of blind eyes.

Maybe Lin’s parents and Nway cling to the happiness their families provide because their tumultuous circumstances provide them nothing else to hold on to. Maybe I am looking at this all wrong—I shouldn’t feel disappointed in my distant relationship with my family, but relieved that I have something else to turn towards, that my circumstances have allowed other sources of comfort and stress relief and encouragement and love. Is this the lesson I’m meant to learn? Am I even meant to be thinking of one of the world’s longest running civil wars, between the Karen and the armed forces of Myanmar, in terms of lessons learned or not learned?

After possibly the longest shower of my life, where I tried to scrub the grime and scent of the mud mixture away and felt guilty about my ability to do so, I laid in my bed and struggled to fall asleep. I thought of the Karen people I’d met, everyone in Lin’s village and Arkar and Nway and others, and my chest squeezed into a knot. I felt a pang of longing for my family that I’d never experienced before, even after years of living apart from them. I wanted so badly to see my mom’s face, but I didn’t even try to call her. She was probably at work, and she’d never learned how to FaceTime.

I can’t remember my parents ever singing to me, and I’d never wanted them to. Until then.

 


[1] The military government changed the name from Burma to the Union of Myanmar in 1989, and the name changed again to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar in 2008. While most countries officially recognize the new name, some countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, do not. They argue that because the military government made this change without the consent of the people, it is illegitimate. The military government argues that the new name encompasses all who live in the country, not just those of the Burmese ethnic identity. I am aware of and sensitive to the significance that names hold. Here, I choose to use “Burma” and “Burmese,” because those I interacted with were Burmese, identified themselves as such, and referred to their home country as “Burma.”

[2] Christina Fink, “Burmese Sanctuary-Seekers and Migrants in Thailand: Policies, Experiences, and Prospects,” in Trauma and Recovery on the War’s Border: A Guide for Global Health Workers, eds. Nancy Murakami and Kathleen Allden (Hanover, New Hampshire: Cornell University Press, 2014), 24.

[3] Ashley South, “Conflict and Displacement in Burma/Myanmar,” in Myanmar: The State, Community, and the Environment, eds. Skidmore Monique and Wilson Trevor (Canberra: ANU Press, 2007): 59.

[4] Ibid.

[5] William W. Davis, Luke C. Mullany, Eh Kalu Shwe Oo, Adam K. Richards, Vincent Iacopino, and Chris Beyrer, “Health and Human Rights in Karen State, Eastern Myanmar,” PLoS One 10, no. 8 (2015): 2.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Lee Sang Kook, “State in a State: Administration and Governance in a Thailand-Burma Border Town,” Asian Journal of Social Science 26, no. 2 (2008): 189.

[8] Matthew Clarke, “Over the Border and Under the Radar: Can Illegal Migrants Be Active Citizens?” Development in Practice 19, no. 8 (November 2009): 1070.

[9] Dennis Arnold and Kevin Hewison, “Exploitation in Global Supply Chains: Burmese Workers in Mae Sot,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 35, no. 3 (2005): 319.

[10] Clarke, “Over the Border and Under the Radar,” 1071.

[11] Frida Bjorneseth, “Vision, Visibility, and ‘the Art of Acting Thai’: Migrants’ Navigation of the Thai-Burmese Borderlands,” Etnofoor 29, no. 1 (2017): 54.

[12] Ye Dezhu, Yew-Kwang Ng, and Yujun Lian, “Culture and Happiness,” Social Indicators Research 123, no. 2 (2015): 520.

[13] Yee Ting Ngoo, Nai Peng Tey, and Eu Chye Tan, “Determinants of Life Satisfaction in Asia,” Social Indicators Research 124, no. 1 (2015): 153.

[14] Kevin R. Manning, Wooing Women Workers, The Irawaddy, Ocober 2003.

[15] Ah, yes, the American Dream. For immigrants. Another essay for another time.

[16] Patricia A. Thomas, Hui Liu, and Debra Umberson, “Family Relationships and Well-Being,” Innovation in Aging 1, no. 3 (2017).

[17] S. Katherine Nelson, Kostadin Kushley, Tammy English, Elizabeth W. Dunn, and Sonja Lyubomirsky, “In Defense of Parenthood: Children Are Associated with More Joy Than Misery,” Psychological Science 24, no. 1 (2013): 6. And this is despite the lack of sleep and financial strain that accompanies parenthood...not to mention the diapers and potty training and help with math homework and—anyway, it’s safe to say that I won’t be seeking happiness in this way, at least for a (long) while.

 



Maggie Hart

Maggie Hart (she/her) is a writer, bartender, and globe trotter from Colorado Springs. She studied history and writing at Coe College in Iowa and is now pursuing a Master's of English with an emphasis in Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Her work can be found in Little Village Magazine, The Coe Review, and Glass Mountain.