Last week, several of our friends visited the Islamic Center of Bellingham as an effort to build community across faiths. Matt Dowling compiled reflections of those visiting the center. Their words were beautiful and inspiring. I was particularly struck by the following said by a congregant of the mosque:
“We may not be able to connect through our faith, but we can certainly connect through our humanity.”
– Josh, a member of Islamic Center of Bellingham
Simple, true, and deep. I call it “people are people.” Last week we experienced exactly that on a predominantly Muslim island in Southern Thailand.
The island of Sriboya
Picture a volleyball net strung between two sturdy metal poles. Poles are driven firmly into the ground. Solid, permanent, meant for game after game, season after season, maybe generation after generation. Lines of the court are nylon cord, stretched taut, the corners nailed square. The floor is a mix of gravel, dirt, and grass, ground up by countless barefoot lunges. The only ceiling is the sky.
The players are arranged in teams of six, twelve players in all. Nine are Thai women – mothers mostly, wearing a mix of hijabs, sarongs, flip-flops and crocs. There are two farangs (Keri Bean and I), a young boy, and a tall lanky gender ambiguous player.
The play was excellent, spirited, and competitive. It was mesmerizing to see these women crush serves, bump, set and spike, while their colorful scarves remained fixed in place, tighter than a French braid. It was less mesmerizing, more like panic-inducing, when one of their serves blasted into my outstretched arms, clamped together like I was in secular prayer, hoping for a good return of serve.
No need for translation here: Boom – Chesbrough receives the serve. A mini-calamity erupts as the ball ricochets wildly, my hands flail, and welts appear on my wrists. “Ouuuwwww! sorry, sorry.” Peels of subdued laughter. I am served at again and again. These women played for real.
And they played for fun. Big smiles, little verbal whoops, lots of chatter – like birdsong floating through the trees and across the net. But curiously, no high-fives. Physical touch seems less easy in this culture. The only western-style hand-slap I saw was when the tall, lanky Thai blocked my “spike.” Afterwards, she (he? and I mean this respectfully) smiled sheepishly at me. I immediately said “nice one,” and offered a congratulatory hand under the net. She understood the offering, and slapped my hand in return, in mutual appreciation for the universality of sport. We have been told, and have experienced, that Thailand has an admirable acceptance of gender fluidity.
We are staying on an island in the South of Thailand, called Sriboya. It is not a tourist destination, even though it is surrounded by the famous beaches of Ko Phi Phi, Krabi and Phuket. The island is mostly rubber tree farms and fishing villages, but there are other businesses – little shops, two table restaurants, and motor repair shops (where I tried to pay 20 Baht to pump up a tire, but the guy only accepted 5). Ant and I even stumbled into a boat-building yard, where a craftsman was using only a few tools to build three classic Thai “long-tail” wooden boats. His property was right on the water, his workshop shaded by old-growth (teak?) trees, his boats carried a look of pride.
The people of the island seem contented: there is food, fuel, activity, energy, and lots of family. They are curious, and inviting. They are hospitable. They are Muslim. Above all, they are human. People are people. Here are few of their stories:
We were on Sriboya because of our friends Ant and Keri. Keri’s brother, Kirby, met his wife, Da, several years ago while traveling Asia. He and Da were married on the island, and they have a son, Kaden. Da seems to be related to about 80% of the islanders. Every time we went somewhere, including off island, we met a new aunt, cousin, uncle or “son of my mother’s sister.” Da’s family embraced us, and showed us many of the sights around Sriboya. We traveled in the family boat, truck or tuk-tuk, with a gaggle of Da’s family on our every adventure. It was wonderful to be embraced by a family. We felt very fortunate.
Da is Muslim. She is a legal resident of the USA. She is delightful. But she and Kirby are a little bit nervous about her American status, both for no reason at all and for one big reason – the current administration’s policy on immigration and immigrants. History is littered with stories of countries and peoples sliding down slippery slopes of human rights abuses. They always seem to start with a few, small actions, that do not appear to affect the majority of people (like banning immigrants from seven countries does not directly affect most Americans). Just after Trump’s ban, I read several Facebook comments saying something like, “Why are you so angry, you and your kids are going to be fine!” I’ve spoken to many travelers who think Trump will be “good for America, but the rest of the world will suffer.” Seriously? Are we so self-centered? A “temporary ban on immigrants from only seven countries,” may not directly affect most Americans. But, history warns me that such a policy is only a first step.
My reading of history suggests that once the powerful taste the success of oppression, regardless of their culture, they thirst for more (Hitler, Pol Pot, Mugabe, Zuma, Idi Amin, the list goes on). It is as though they get the first rush of shoving a younger sibling down a muddy slope – it’s so funny to watch them flail their arms! Then, the ugly, acidic rains open up on the slope. When I heard news like the “temporary ban on immigrants,” I gasped for breath. I searched for cleaner air in a reputable journalistic source (NPR) to try to learn some facts. Unfortunately, my breath is still heavy. Hearing about Trump’s executive order to halt immigrants entering the US (including legal status immigrants!!) from certain countries while living with this wonderful family is like watching a TV commercial for Coca-cola while munching a delicious organic salad. Actually that understates it by a few orders of magnitude. Trump’s actions need no hyperbole or analogy to explain my outrage.
Even though the gun is not aimed at Da, she and Kirby can’t help but feel targeted and concerned. I share their worry. My “leader” is extra concerning because he is often referred to as the “leader of the free world.” The USA isn’t a small country without sway and leadership. Trump is acting in a narcissistic way – foolish, without compassion, foresight or wisdom, let alone common sense. His actions are just plain insane. And the number of travelers we’ve met who share a similar national history being written right now is shocking – in Poland, Britain, Turkey, Myanmar governments are turning shoulders to people who are from another tribe. It is human to be scared, to point, to laugh from fear, but it is also human to embrace, to communicate, to laugh from togetherness.
People are people
On our first day on the island, we visited Da’s mother and father’s house. Da’s mom, Leea, is one of those women that just demands your love, your attention, and your respect. She is strong, vibrant, and industrious. When we arrived, she was putting the finishing touches on a handwoven mat for Keri. It is beautiful, or Suay in Thai.
She showed us her craft – how she had harvested the fronds, dried and dyed them, peeled each across a metal blade to make it supple, then wove them strand by strand. She said it took her about three days. As we appreciated the art, admired the details, and complemented her skills, she pointed at Amy, and announced that Amy would get one as well. For real?! What a blessing.
Despite living in “island time,” Leea has only one gear in her transmission – full speed ahead. She rarely sits, even while we visited at her house she would put up with only a few minutes of small talk before busying herself with weaving, slicing up a pineapple or sweeping the front dirt. Her husband, on the other hand, spent most of his time chewing bettlenut, and cackling with a friend from his second-story porch like an old codger from the Muppets. (Why is it so rare to encounter a woman with sloth-like tendencies?)
On our second day on the island, the family took us to a deserted island for a family barbecue. As soon as we arrived, Leea was the first to start chopping chilies for lunch. We ate Som Tum, or spicy papaya salad. Each serving was prepared individually in a ceramic mortar and pestle – garlic, lime juice, chilies, fish sauce, peanuts, coconut sugar and green papaya were mashed together into South-east asian coleslaw. We grilled chicken skewers on hot coals. Fresh pineapple for dessert. Did I mention we were on a deserted island??!! Holy deliciousness.
After lunch, several people went out fishing for squid. Solet, Leea’s son, and Kirby taught Porter, Ant and me to fish without a rod. However, after an hour of plunking and a little trolling, we returned, empty handed. An hour later, Grandma Leea arrived back on shore in her own boat, with eleven squid in her basket. She jumped out of the boat, thrusting the bucket to Solet as if to say, “That’s how you do it.” Actually, since she only speaks Thai, that is probably exactly what she said. She quickly ate some lunch, packed up, then jumped into her boat, indicating “No time to waste, projects to complete!”
Leea also has a great sense of humor. She especially enjoys jabbering in Thai at Ant, who goes by the Thai word for Ant, “Muut.”
“Muut, something something, jiibity-jabbity, sun mai, jab jab” she says as she points to a piece of chicken.
Ant does not speak Thai, but he is always game for the game. He replies back, “Muut, som-sum, mak mak,” which means “Ant, jibberish-nothing, very much.” They both cackle.
At the end of our week, Leea invited us to her home for a send-off lunch. Leea and her sister, “Auntie” were there, as well as several of Da’s sisters and cousins. We ate Som Tum, Pad thai, shredded green mango with shrimp paste, gai pad krapow (chicken with basil), some veggie dishes, and of course fresh mango and pinneapple. Home-cooked dishes, shared family style, better than most restaurant food. And since it was a special occasion, we also had 2-Liter bottles of cherry-red Fanta and Coke. Ahh, western additions of finery.
Towards the end of the meal, Amy asked for Da to translate for her.
She said, “Leea and Da, thank you for taking our family in. We have felt blessed to be a part of your beautiful family for this entire week. We…” She hit the standard Amy Mckenney pouring love into the world two sentence mark before the flood gates opened. First Amy, then me of course (proud proud). Her words trailed off, no longer any need to translate. I looked around at ten smiling women in headscarves, little shining jewels spilling out of twenty dark brown eyes. Even Leea, the tough old cackling crow, was wiping her eyes on her skirt.
People are people. Whether we praise Allah, Jesus, Yahweh, Buddha, Brahmin or the deep black spaces between the stars, we are a humanity. We all toil, we love, we play, we grieve and we wonder. People are people.