Sanga and Saia

tim104

Dear Ezra and Lian,

This letter is so difficult to write. I’ve been trying to write it for over a year. I think about it, but it literally makes me sick to my stomach. There’s a lot of emotion attached to it. I try to type words, but I don’t proceed. I’ve written you almost 50 letters now and I still struggle to get this one done. Here goes.

I’ve told you about the worst thing I’ve eaten (rat), but not the worst meal I ever ate. Physically and emotionally, this meal took a far greater toll on me. Imagine eating a meal that you think about every month for the rest of your life? That’s what this meal did to me. It haunts me still.

One of things I used to do in Mizoram, was take old, no longer used microscopes from Canada there. These microscopes were then used in small malaria clinics. Small villages would build a small, simple building the size of a Canadian tool shed. The village would have a committee that would organize fundraising and volunteers. They would select a young person from the village to get trained in detection of malaria and how to run the clinic. Each of these clinics would save lives every year. Rural people would easily and cheaply get tested. They then could get life-saving medication. It also kept them healthier and able to provide for their families.

Once we had a unique opportunity. The Border Security Force (BSF) near Tlabung had a terribly high incidence of malaria amongst their personnel stationed there (over 50% at any one time). They had no microscope. So they would over-prescribe malaria medication or respond too slowly to a malaria infection. They offered a deal. In exchange for a microscope, they would fully staff its use and give out free tests and malaria medication to the local people near their headquarters. Too good to pass up.

So one day, I, Sanga and Saia travelled to the remote border region near Tlabung. Sanga is the best driver in Mizoram. Saia is a worker for the Relief & Development department of the Baptist Church of Mizoram. From Lunglei, it was over 4 hours of driving on roller coaster roads. I think there was even a mudslide along the way.

When we got there, I was introduced to the chief medical officer for the BSF regiment on that sector of Bangladesh-India border. We had a brief conversation about the malaria situation in the region and what we were going to do that afternoon. Then I was asked some questions about myself. What did I do back in Canada? The usual one in India, “How did I ever end up in Mizoram of all places?” I told them I was married to a Mizo (Mommy) and about her family (Grandpa being a high-ranking police officer).

The medical officer offered me lunch with the other officers. Then he told me that Sanga and Saia would have to eat outside on a tree stump. Inside was nothing special. It was just a big shack with flies buzzing around. However, it was “explained” to me that since my Mizo friends were low class, they couldn’t eat with officers. I, however, was invited to join them.

There was so much riding on this day. Not only would over 550 people get free malaria tests and possibly medication that day, they would also get it permanently. Also, Tlabung was on the border with Bangladesh. It had recently been designated as an approved entry and exit point for cross-border trade by the Indian Central Government. However, BSF guards could easily shut that down or demand huge bribes from local traders and farmers. Before I left, my friend Dawnga, reminded me of this. I was being sent on a goodwill mission on behalf of the local people. I was there to foster good relations between the BSF and the local tribal people (Mizos, Chakma, amongst many others).

With a heavy heart, I dragged myself inside. I lost most of my appetite. I felt sick to my stomach. I pushed as much food as I could into my mouth. I tried to feign cheerfulness whenever I was asked a question. At the earliest opportunity, I got back outside. I had to get the microscope ready for a busy day.

Soon there was a huge, long line up of people waiting to get their blood tested for malaria. One at a time, people would give their names, get a pinprick and give a drop of blood for a blood smear. This went on for hours. Over 550 got tested before I left. Of those, at least 277 were positive for malaria. Each one of them would get the necessary medication from the BSF. The chief medical officer (CMO) would keep them under his care to ensure they didn’t develop complications.

The CMO told me a story while the testing was going. He described how a local man had a terrible case of malaria. Since, the doctor at the local hospital is only present to collect his salary once a month (like almost every hospital outside of Aizawl and Lunglei) there was no one to look after the man. This man was soon going to die without help. He was getting fluid on brain. The CMO and a driver took him to Lunglei. The man was vomiting constantly. So much so, that he started to cough up blood. It was a horrible situation, but somehow they made it to the hospital in time. The man’s life was saved.

I want you to realize, the CMO didn’t have to do any of this. He was not responsible for this man in any way. In fact, a local Mizo doctor was responsible, but he lived comfortably in Aizawl away from the people he was supposed to serve. It wasn’t the CMO’s duty to give free medical care to the local people. He had other ways to look after BSF personnel. However, he took his Hippocratic oath as a doctor seriously. He really did go beyond the call of duty to save lives and care for people.

I also want you to realize this CMO was a terrible man. He was a high caste Hindu, who clearly was bigoted against those who were not. He was racist against all the tribal people around him. He thought them lesser human beings. He was incredibly classist. Those who served in some occupations deserved respect, others disdain. He believed in high birth and low birth. (Ironic that he let me eat with him.) I still resent to this day, the position he put me in. He intentionally made me choose between my friends’ dignity and the lives in that village. On the way home that day, Sanga and Saia talked to me about the insult they were given for being Mizos.

Kids, I want you to know two things. One, growing up in Canada you are going to be taught repeatedly that racism and bigotry are THE worst sins you can commit. (Only in a comfortable country can people believe this.) It is a complete lie. There are so many things far worse. The apathy that lets someone live in ease and comfort, while there are those less than 50 miles away being denied medical care or food to which they are entitled, is far, far worse. That apathy kills people. You will be told that racism is the root of death and violence. It’s utter nonsense. Greed, laziness, apathy, selfishness have killed far more. Some of the proudest Mizo “Christians” live in Aizawl. They love Mizos in all their Mizoness AND they are quite content to let their fellow Mizos die due to neglect. Meanwhile, a racist, bigoted, arrogant man from another religion living in very difficult circumstances in area filled with disease, was not willing to casually stand by and watch them suffer. At the end of the day, actions are far more important than attitudes. Actions speak louder than words.

Secondly, I want you both to know this; you will never have to make that choice I did. While you are in Mizoram, you are going to eat with the officers and with your friends and with anybody you care to invite. I stood there unsure of myself. I was a foreigner from humble origins. You are going to tell them who you are. You are going to tell them that if they want to insult all the people of Mizoram, they will exclude your guests. You will turn the tables on the officers, the rich and the powerful. You will invite them to eat with you. You will invite whoever you want to eat with you. You will have the confidence to do that because you will know who you are. It is an honour to eat with you and your friends. If someone doesn’t want that, then let them eat by themselves.

Love,

Dad

 

Hebron

Dear Ezra and Lian,

In December, 1999, it was between the First and Second Intifada. There was peace in Israel and Palestine. The Palestinian Authority especially were making an extra effort to welcome tourists for the new millennium celebrations. There were big plans for Christmas Eve programs in Bethlehem.

It was a special time. I feel privileged to have been there at that time. There were tens of thousands of foreign tourists. Every day we made new friends and would hang out and do stuff together; especially us backpackers. One day, a Buddhist friend from the U.K. and I decided we should visit Hebron. We didn’t take an Israeli Egged bus. We took a Palestinian bus leaving from the Damascus Gate.

The bus dropped us off in the centre of Hebron. We set out for the Cave of the Patriarchs, one mile away. As we walked along the street, there were two young men watching us. As we approached, one of them, pulled out a handgun and pointed it at me. I did a bit of stutter step, but I kept walking.

Strangely, the two guys never said anything. They never motioned with the gun for me to stop or to raise my hands. So I didn’t. I maintained an expressionless eye contact. I never said anything or gave any gestures of any kind. But I kept on walking. I don’t think my friend saw the gun. We never talked about it. After about 30 second of walking, these guys were now about 50 feet away from me, so I turned my head and looked straight ahead. After about a minute, I let out a sigh of relief as I figured they were too far away to shoot me now. Since I can still walk now, you’ve probably guessed that they did never fired a shot at me.

About 10 minutes later we arrived at the Cave of the Patriarchs. There was a large unit of Israeli soldiers there (about 30). They provided security for this famous site. They were completely kitted out with machine guns, grenade launchers, mortars, automatic rifles, armoured personnel carriers and jeeps. They were doing running drills carrying their weapons. My friend wanted pictures with them. I took photos of him hugging young, smiling Israeli soldiers or they would pretend to be shooting him. After having a Palestinian pull a gun on me earlier, I figured I didn’t want the picture in my camera. Besides, I never used to be much for pictures.

When we went back to Jerusalem, we ended up on a bullet proof glass, tour bus. We left right from the Cave of the Patriarchs. That seemed the better way to go.

Now your Grandpa in Mizoram survived an entire career as a police officer in India. I know he experienced more dangerous things than this. I’m sure he could give you some great professional advice about staying safe. He was also the State of Maharashtra Police Pistol shooting champion. All the same, here’s an amateur’s take on things.

I had spent about two weeks enduring Palestinian violence. I had been hit with stones flung from slingshots (it hurts a lot). I had seen girls get hit and cry their eyes out with the pain. I had seen a huge fight between UN peacekeepers and Palestinians at the Damascus Gate (they were provoked by the so-called peacekeepers.) I had seen Palestinian men shout violently at young women for wearing shorts or eating during Ramadan. By the time, I arrived in Hebron, without even realizing it, I was now resisting their authority to order people around. If you point a gun at me, I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of watching me easily surrender to your will. You are going to have to order me to stop and raise my hands. You want to rob me? Walk over here and take my wallet. I won’t stop you.

It was stupid, but this is why young men do stupid stuff and get themselves shot. Push a man around long enough and he will resist. Imagine if you lived in a place where you spent your whole life like that. You won’t easily cooperate with whoever is holding the gun.

It was even more foolhardy for those two young guys to point that gun at me. There were 30 Israeli soldiers eager, trained and completely outfitted to kill them. They just needed a good excuse. Pointing a gun at an unarmed tourist would be more than enough. Young men marking territory and claiming authority over the actions of others is another good way to get shot. There’s always a bigger bully with a bigger gun.

I spent my teen years and big chunks of my twenties sleeping in a bed with a .22 rifle and a 30 gauge shotgun beside or under it. (Cue the dueling banjos music.) Strangely I never shot those firearms or any other gun. Killing rabid or nuisance animals was grandpa’s job. My grandpas and uncles hunted a lot. I’m not afraid of them, but firearms are dangerous tools. I remember in grade school, looking at a schoolmate’s leg that had just had a .22 bullet pulled out. He got shot by a hunter carelessly firing into the air. That sort of thing happens around guns. Geography affects violence. It doesn’t happen randomly. Our old neighbourhood here in Pickering had become a much more violent and dangerous place than where we live now. Our family had no reasons to justify us to keep living there. When we had finally come to accept that fact, we moved. Hebron is one of those violent places in the world. I thought it temporarily had become peaceful enough to make a trip there worthwhile. I was wrong. I ticked a few things off my sightseeing list, but it wasn’t worth the risk.

Those who live by sword tend to die by sword, or at least see more death than usual. Those who carry firearms make themselves targets for violence. Often the good done by being a police officer justifies the accompanying risk. Before you decide to bear arms, think long and hard whether what you are doing is worth the risk.

My whole encounter in Hebron involved two young men reading each other’s faces and doing a risk assessment. We listened to the other’s body language and heard no real threat. It ended well because we correctly assumed that the other posed no risk to body or ego. I never yelled for help. He never shot. We both walked away alive. Ezra, buddy, because of your autism, this will be extremely difficult for you. Listening to non-verbal communication for many people with ASD is practically impossible. Atypically, you do have some ability doing this. However, don’t let this fool you into believing you will be good at in a life or death situation. Every year many non-threatening people get killed because their risk assessments get botched and communication breaks down. It’s not even easy for trained professionals. It’s much more difficult for amateurs.

There are two main strategies, Ezra, you need to use to compensate. First, you need to use your words. You need to vocalize the words, “I’m not a threat. I have autism.” Repeat it often. Someone may misinterpret your actions as a threat or a challenge. You need to say it out loud that because of your autism, you are not challenging them. Even teachers and their aides need to hear it. You are not being oppositional or confrontational. You just need some extra understanding.

Second, don’t go to places like Hebron, unless there’s some great purpose for you there. Taking a few pictures doesn’t count as a great purpose. It is far easier to avoid complicated or dangerous situations than it is to get out of them.

This letter is already too long. I will stop now.

Love,

Dad

 

 


tim77

I love Mizoram

tim57

Dear Ezra and Lian,

I strongly believe every Mizo lives with the following tension in their lives; like Ezra, they have a remarkable ability to not show pain or weakness, no matter how severe. Yet, like Lian, they are very emotional people. When they love something, they love it with all their heart and want to express it. When they are sad, they want to cry rivers of tears. Mizos who can maintain a stiff upper lip whatever the circumstance are greatly admired. Mizos who can eloquently sing at the top of their voices about the love or pain in their hearts are greatly loved. They are the true leaders of Mizoram. Mizos will follow them with their hearts. So even if a Mizo is really reserved and “proper”, what they really want to see from you is a passion from the depth of your soul.

In 2000, Jonah Pachuau (sp?), the publisher of the magazine Vartian, asked me to write an article about Mizoram. I poured my soul into what I wrote. I wrote about how I had fallen in love with Mizoram at the same time I had fallen in love with Mommy. However, if you ever find a copy of that edition of the magazine, that’s not what you will read. You will read this boring article with my name attached to it as author.

What happened was that somehow your Grandma reviewed my essay. She cut out all the love and passion. What remained was unrecognizable from what I had written, but that is what got published. At the time, I thought, ok it’s a different culture. Maybe what I wrote would be embarrassing or shameful to the family. I let it go. Now I just think, it was an attempt to maintain family dignity. My public declaration of love for both your Mom and Mizoram went unheard to the readers of Vartian.

Let me say it now, loud and clear, unedited, I love Mizoram. I love your Mommy. Sure, we live apart, but I will always carry you in my heart. Yes, you have mistreated me and a normal person would hate you, but I don’t, never have and never will. I forgave you long ago. I will always care about you and your welfare. You can misunderstand me and my motivations, but I love you. Not in a fluffy, fleeting, tingly feeling way. No, it’s tough love. If I hated you, if I was only interested in a public perception of this family, we could be together. I love you and your children, so I will always call you up to be better. I won’t tolerate the gross injustices you blithely do. You need healing. I won’t drink your poison and call it honey.

You’re free to make your own choices. I’m free to tell you when they are horrible decisions that are soul destroying. I will protect our kids from the inevitable consequences of your actions. Don’t be mad, be grateful that I will fight to the death for them.

Confession is good for the soul, but real change comes with real repentance. No amount of outpouring of emotion can be a substitute for that. If you’re looking for a little redemption, I can’t help you. If you want total redemption, you need a Redeemer. You need someone who has loved you for your entire existence. Someone who has endured every shame and suffered every indignity to demonstrate to the whole world how much they have loved you. Someone not only willing to die for you, someone who did and has the power to live again and give new life.

Kids, know this to be true; whatever happens, I love Mizoram, I love Mommy.

Love,

Dad