Lately I’ve been reflecting a lot about how I relate to Dokhita village, and about Taiye Selasi’s TED Talk, “Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask where I’m a local”. As someone with a healthy antipathy towards the state and its tendency to dictate, define and restrict identity, I appreciated how Selasi side-steps institutionally-defined conceptions of citizenship. She substitutes locality for nationality. Her definition of ‘localization’, or becoming local, fascinates me: in Selasi’s view, localization drives from 3 Rs – rituals, relationships, and restrictions. Thinking in these terms, I have 2 deeply rooted localities. One, from my childhood in Los Pinares de San Antón in the arid mountains of Andalucía. The other is born of the the Pacific Northwest, on Coast Salish lands and waters. I wonder if being here in Dokhita is building a third locality into my psyche. If we’re using Selasi’s standard of formative experience, I think it may be. In terms of the “3-R” metrics, 5 months into my internship, the rituals and relationships are comfortable and organic, but at times I feel the restrictions and barriers acutely.
In my last post, I observed that my rituals are baked into the rhythms of day-to-day life in Dokhita. I wake up around 5:30 and take a sunrise walk in the rice paddies, breathing in the mist, chatting and stretching with my friend Kate. Back at school, I exercise to raise my core temperature before bathing, since it’s the cool season now and mornings are foggy and brisk. I bathe in the river, or at the well if mountain rains have rendered the water opaque with red-brown sediment. I then assume my position in the daily routine of the KSDC students: reading time, mealtime, class-time, free time, study time, bedtime. I kick off my sandals before I walk from concrete to tile or wood floors, and slip them back onto my feet without touching the concrete on my way back out. I’ve exchanged mopping the teakwood floors of our space for waxing them with a candle-dripped coconut. I’ve traded my Gap cargo pants for Thai and Karenni sarong skirts. I feel at home in these new ways.
Home isn’t just habits, though – the personal dimension of connection to place is just as important. I feel a sense of thick relationship with the people I’ve met here. My extraversion was well met by the warm welcome of the Karenni community in Ban Nai Soi and Dokhita. I’ve gotten to know my students and their personalities and stories well, though some are closer than others. I relate to my friends and colleagues here the same way I do to my friends at home. I exchange nods and smiles with the older folks in the village when we pass. Expanding acquaintance with other teachers and community workers around the village has opened up a few work opportunities on the side of my regular teaching. The relationships I have with place have also grown deeper. I rise and sleep with the light. I’m starting to recognize the foods, insects and animals, fruit trees and geographical features that I engage with every day by their Karenni names.
These people and this place will stay with me, and I hope to come back and visit in the future. At the same time, I hope none of my friends will be here. I hope that they’ll have been able to return to their homes in Karenni state. Sadly, it’s unlikely, since the safety and living conditions have deteriorated so much since the coup. This brings me to the third R: restrictions. As much as I might dress the part, greet people in Karenni, and build connections with the people around me, my temporarity here is obvious to those around me. The biggest barriers between myself and the others here come from restrictions to mobility. First, insofar as I can do things the other people in the community can’t. They are coming to terms with the possibility that this place will be their home for years or decades as the life and safety conditions in Karenni state deteriorate. My Canadian passport and the ease of transit it brings me, my bank account, and my International SOS card give me layers and layers of privilege. I have guaranteed mobility, emergency credit, and safety for no other reason than that I was born in Canada. I came here with ease, and I’ll leave with ease – at least physically, if not emotionally. My students either have refugee status, or are undocumented. The state of statelessness dictates their lives in an incredibly restrictive way, limiting their opportunities for further study and work, and confining them to a tiny geographical space.
The barrier is built from both sides, in some ways. The second aspect of restriction is the fact that I can’t fully immerse myself in the world of those I live and work with. I’m not allowed to visit their homes and families in Refugee Camp 1, or to head into the mountains with them for community celebrations or holidays. The space outside Dokhita and Nai Soi, a camp-turned-town that houses 10,000 people, is unknown to me.
Despite the legal and political restrictions that keep barriers in place between myself and the wider community here, I do feel a sense of locality growing… just in time to leave. When I first arrived in Thailand, six months felt like a long time. On the tail end of my internship, it feels like time has gone by too fast. I’m already nostalgic for this place. Locality fuses place and self; with enough time in a place, the gazes of the cartographer and the tourist fade away. it becomes more than lines and words on a map, more than rinsed-and-repeated snapshots and well-trod trails. Locality comes from an integrative conversation between sense and spirit – engagement with the people, sounds, smells and sights of a place, and the thoughts and feelings they impress. How that looks and feels is different for everyone, but in my case, it’s the upwards perspective from under the rain tree, hushed good mornings exchanged before daybreak, teak floors and bare feet, Nan Yo’s fried chicken, a newfound love for acoustic pop, classroom laughs, rooster crows, sunburnt toes, and a communal camaraderie that’s rare and special.
I agree with Selasi; our experience is where we’re from, and this has definitely been a formative experience, one I’ll carry with me into the rest of my life.