Thiri Part 4
On the third day Steve had to leave her in Bangkok to go to Rayong on business for 2 days.
By lunchtime on the day he left Thiri had called him 4 or 5 times to say hello, tell him what she was doing, ask him what he was up to and generally pester him. At first he thought it was cute and charming, but then he realized it was obsessive and another indicator of a not so stable personality that would be tough to live with. It got worse when the stream of SMSs started on the evening of the first day, after he didn’t answer her 4th call of the afternoon. He politely asked her to cut back to maybe 1 or 2 an hour, but that seemed to encourage her and there was a burst of 6 SMSs in about 30 minutes. So he just turned off his phone until the next morning when a barrage of 10 SMSs and a bunch of missed calls greeted him, with many being pledges of undying love and affection. Steve guessed she liked him a bit. It backed off a bit on the second day, but then peaked in a crescendo of incessant messages and calls that evening. He thought that maybe she went through some sort of hormonal change in the early evening, or her meds were wearing off and her OCD really kicked in. Whatever the case he had to handle this as either he’d go nuts or his phone would melt. So he called her that evening and laid down the rules: she had to chill out and if she continued this way he’d just swap out his chip and never speak with her again. That seemed to hit home and she actually apologized, explaining that she really liked him and did not want to lose his friendship, companionship and the chance for an even more special part of his life. Plus she admitted she was jealous as she knew sexy girls were so easy to meet and have fun with. Steve reminded her that they had just met and that although he enjoyed being with her and was really taken by her story, they were not yet an item, and that he had not promised her anything.
She was a bit nonplussed by this but nonetheless she deferred to his position and agreed to take it a bit easier. That made the rest of his trip to Rayong bearable, at least due to the more reasonable amount of electronic outreach from Thiri. When he got back to Bangkok she joined him at the same hotel and stayed with him for the next day and a half until he had to catch his return flight via Taipei back to Los Angeles. She continued to amaze, entertain, arouse, satisfy (and even satiate) his needs while at the same time she remained infuriatingly odd-ball and difficult. He left still undecided if she was really his item, yet definitely determined to help her in whatever ways he could, least of which would be to encourage her and help her plan her return to Mae La so she could actually get back on the list of active prospects for resettlement.
Leaving Bangkok was indeed sweet sorrow manifested, but it also allowed him to reassess his position without the quirkily seductive presence of Thiri continuing to confuse him. Back in the USA and with clear-headed deliberation he pondered his options and decided three things: first, he needed to understand the UNHCR process better so that he could ensure Thiri got the best shot of resettlement to the USA; second, he needed to send her some or all of the money she needed to get back to the camp as soon as possible; and third, he had to return to visit her again and spend more time with her. He realized that perhaps the stress of a life on the run was affecting her and he wanted to see how she was when she was back in her camp and with her own people.
Thiri continued to work in Bangkok while she saved a little more money and she arranged for her guided passage back to Mae La. He called her at least two or three times a week to monitor her progress and to encourage her, but it was tough going as she had become quite taciturn and difficult to talk with sensibly. As the pressure on her grew her thoughts became more disjointed and random, and yet there were flashes of brilliance and extraordinary insight. She had also turned back to her Baptist faith in an almost fanatical way and this made conversations difficult as they were laced with religious fervor and scriptural references. The only positive aspect to this was that she had begun to play the piano again, and had refreshed her violin lessons. She surely was a prodigy and a natural talent, as the beautiful music flowed from her without any special effort.
His web research into the resettlement process was frustratingly unhelpful, so he tried calling the offices in Geneva and also Mae Sot, even calling the station in the Mae La camp. This was by far the most productive and instructive: one of the liaison staff explained the real process to him and gave him invaluable guidance on how he should advise Thiri. Of course all the conversations were anonymous as he did not want to compromise her opportunities. Thiri had obscured the process by her tendency to complicate and muddle things up. In fact the process was quite simple: confirm your eligibility, get on the list, be available for the periodic status checks, wait, at the status checks be sure to be available, on time, positive and committed to the program, wait, check on your status, wait and when your name moves up the list be darned sure you’re paying attention and in the camp. Thiri had in one way or another pretty much blown it on all the points, especially the necessity to be available and so she had kept slipping in the list.
He reckoned it would take about 6 months.
Having figured out the routine and process, he now just had to help get Thiri back to Mae La and to stick with the program. He called her to make the arrangements to send her 30,000 baht by Western Union, almost knowing that this wasn’t going to be the only time he’d send her money. By now she had saved another 5,000 baht and so had 15,000 baht. The 45,000 baht would buy her safe passage from Bangkok back to the camp, which would involve paying a guide (smuggler) to allow her to travel in their group on back roads at night and include some minor bribes along the way. As mentioned before, this would also cover the 25,000 to buy the main sector headman a motorcycle and other funds until she was able to leave. But she still needed at least another 15,000. She pledged that when she got to the USA or whatever Western country the UNHCR sent her to, she would work very hard to repay him every baht. He appreciated her sincere commitment, but also knew that she may never repay all the money and that it didn’t really matter as it was a small price to pay to help set someone free from oppression.
It was late and dark when they left their sector of the camp and headed for a smaller exit onto the main road, where they had arranged to meet the songtaew driver who was taking them back to Mae Sot. As they neared the exit gate a small group headed by an older man in the traditional longyi and singlet approached them. Thiri whispered to Steve that this was a head-man and he had to pay him. Although Steve was by now a little used to these unexpected demands, he was caught off guard and was a little annoyed. At Thiri’s direction he had been doling out blue and red notes to kids, family and other supposed worthies all evening and was actually getting quite short on cash. But he could tell from Thiri’s extreme deference to the old man that this was a bit different, and he figured he should play along, so he retreated a few paces and turned away so as not to draw attention to his wallet and fished out what he thought was a red. But in the dimness it was actually a green. He palmed the note and after a high wai, offered his handshake to the old man. Grasping his hand with his own gnarled and bony fingers, the old man expertly slipped the note out of Steve’s palm and into his own. Steve withdrew again while Thiri spoke with the small group, and then after saying and wai-ing her goodbyes she came running over and gave his arm a friendly squeeze and surreptitiously pinched his butt. On the ride back she told him that the old man was a senior elder from her old clan in Yangon and he was so happy and impressed that Steve had given him 1,000 baht and not the customary 100! Big money talks big time, that’s for sure.
The drive back was quite chilly in the cool mountain air, so they huddled together in the back of the songtaew and barely talked. For Steve it was a good time to reflect on the experiences of the day and of course also the potential future.
When they got back to the hotel Thiri practically attacked him, but although it was very tempting to enjoy the pleasure she offered and clearly wanted, he had already decided that things had changed and he could no longer dally in this sexual game. He knew that she wasn’t the one for him, and now he had to back out and yet also not break Thiri’s heart. So instead of a night of passion, it was a night of talking, crying, being hit by her tiny clenched fists and trying not to let her hysteria overwhelm him. But by about 5 AM things were a lot calmer and pretty much decided. It wasn’t clear to Steve if Thiri actually understood, but nonetheless he was secure in what he had decided.
After about 4 hours of deep sleep Steve woke to find Thiri praying by the side of the bed. She seemed almost to be in a trance as she murmured and muttered in a combination of Thai, Burmese and English. After a few minutes she raised her hands together in a kind of prayer-wai, opened her eyes and looked over at him. Her impossibly black eyes seemed to suck him in and tempt him all over again, but he resisted and merely smiled and asked her if she was ready to go back to the camp while he returned to the USA to get more things figured out.
Later that day Steve left to return to Bangkok. He took the minibus to Tak and then a larger bus to Sukhothai, and finally another minibus to the Sukhothai airport where he took the turbo prop plane back to Don Meuang. He was charmed by the quaint Thai airport at Sukhothai, with the ceremonial guard, the baggage pushed in a cart to and from the plane by two smiling Thais, the al fresco waiting area and the general sabai-sabai ambience. He spent two fun days in Bangkok and then flew to Los Angeles on EVA via Taiwan.
Steve put his focus on the efforts to secure Thiri’s freedom, which at this stage largely involved him pestering Thiri to go to the UNHCR office in the camp every day to check the progress and status. He also sent her the final money, which had ballooned from 15,000 to 30,000, and she again swore she would repay him when she was in a Western country.
As she had said, all it took was money and time…time and money.
About 2 months later he got a surprise call from Thiri who announced that she was on the list and she had to get ready to go within 1 week, most likely to the USA. She was assigned a group with whom she’d do an orientation and cultural education program. The latter was easy for her due to her experience, but the orientation was quite new as it involved preparing for their first-ever flight and for most of the others also the first time they’d see a big city and buildings higher than 4 or 5 storeys. Within a week they had said all their tearful good-byes and were on the bus to Bangkok where they would stay for one night, then on to Suvarnabhumi airport for their flights to freedom.
When they got to Bangkok they were split up into groups sorted by their final destination as well as the sponsoring organization. In Thiri’s case this was of all places Detroit, USA as she was being sponsored by a large Baptist congregation in greater Detroit. She SMSd Steve to tell him her news and also the name and phone number of the main contact in Detroit. He replied that she had to be prepared to live in an icebox because by now it was late November and winter had set in, and of course her conception and experience of cold was a pleasant 50 degrees of a Thai “winter”.
Steve felt elated that it really was happening, that Thiri was on her way to a new life here in the USA. He had a feeling that she would thrive in the economic, social and personal freedoms of her new life, but also worried whether those very freedoms would jaundice her spirit and her original dreams and goals. He knew she had so much potential not only to personally excel in her new homeland but also to use her new situation to reach out and help her oppressed Burmese people. But he also had a serious foreboding that perhaps it would all be too much for her somewhat fragile and flighty personality.
He called the contact in Detroit and arranged to send Thiri a box of warm clothes that his ex-wife and teenage daughter donated. At least she’d have a few changes of not only warm but pretty stylish outfits. The contact told him that likely she’d just transition through Detroit on her way to a more permanent home, but that they’d provide everything she needed such as a safe apartment with 2 other single ladies from the camp, food (including rice and Asian groceries and ingredients), some spending money, medical and health check-ups and treatment (many new arrivals suffer from the radically different climate and environment) and cultural orientations and counseling. He asked if there was anything he could help with personally or if he would be able to call her. He was told that there was a phone in the community center that could only accept in-bound calls and that he should call to make sure she was safe and ok.
So 3 days later he called to confirm that Thiri and the others had arrived. After some minutes of figuring out who he was referring to, then a few more while they fetched her, a breathless and excited Thiri announced her presence with a loud “I’m in America…and I’m so cold!!” Then she demanded “When will you come see me?” That was so typical of her: ignore the social niceties of even saying hello in favor of just blurting out what was on her mind, and although it was a charmingly refreshing approach it became quite annoying after a while. Despite Steve’s selfless efforts to help her that pretty much summed up his feelings about Thiri most of the time: although her insouciance and sensuality were beguiling her almost childish and extremely fundamentalist view of the world was altogether too narrow-minded for his more mature and expansive notions about life. The longer he knew Thiri and the more exchanges they had that went beyond simple social banter, the more he felt vindicated that he had not been drawn into a relationship with her, and yet he also felt completely happy that he made the commitment and effort to help her come to the USA.
Today Thiri lives near San Francisco, California. The weather is generally warmer, or at least milder, for sure the politics and attitudes are more liberal, and the personal and economic opportunities are better than in the “rust belt” of a depressed Detroit. She’s found a new Baptist congregation, she has a good job with decent pay as a personal assistant and nurse’s aide to a wealthy widower, she’s learned to drive and has an old but reliable car, she enjoys window shopping in the malls, occasionally going on day-trips to the Napa wine country north of San Francisco…and generally becoming a California girl. So Steve’s foreboding that she would succumb to another type of stress was unfounded, but on the other hand his aspirations that she would be part of the vanguard of a new Burmese movement in the USA was perhaps way too optimistic.
On the other hand, she sends money home every month to her family in Yangon, and calls them once a week. Although it’s good to keep connected to her loved ones, these calls remind her of the insidious oppression and danger she left behind: the calls are only ever about innocent things like family and the weather. She knows that all international calls are screened and any mention of social or political causes would result in a visit to her family’s home from the authorities, and very possibly severe sanctions. Despite the apparent developing democratic openness on the international level (which is largely to enable economic development and for the Myanmar government to de-leverage the once monopolistic stranglehold the Chinese had over them), the domestic scene has barely changed.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is that Thiri is still devoutly Baptist and instead of Christmas cards she sends religious text messages from her new smartphone that was given to her by the Berkeley Baptist ministry. Last Christmas she sent 2 texts to Steve. The first was: “Jesus forgives you even though you’re a sinner.” And a few minutes later a second one: “Jesus is the reason for the season!”
And as for the money that Steve fronted her? Well, the good sign is that Thiri has mentioned it a few times, even sent him $100 and has pledged that she will repay it all once she’s more established. Although he’s not so confident that he’ll get back all the money (rounded to $2,000) he’s sure that she will continue to send him some periodically. He doesn’t press her but occasionally reminds her that Jesus would want her to keep her obligation, even to a sinner like him!
It must give you huge satisfaction to know that you played a not insignificant part in making this woman's life so much better and giving her the chance of a real future!