Sweet Tea and Sympathy for Invisible Women

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By Melinda Jackson

A_Melinda02Lalrinthangi is invisible. 

I meet her operating her makeshift vegetable stand in the golden rays of Northeast India’s morning sun. Cabbage, Bird’s Eye chilies, bitter gourds, okra. The sun has just risen over Mizoram state, illuminating the hillside city of Aizawl for a crisp, January day.

My husband and I were just settling in as new residents of Aizawl, he into his historical research, and me into my volunteer position for a refugee scholarship fund. Our landing had been hard. Homesick from a first Christmas abroad, I was weepy and weary, cold and cranky, and a torrent of afflictions from lice to Dengue Fever hadn’t helped.

I bundle up early that coffee-less morning, and begrudgingly brave the pot-holed hairpin turns to talk to Lalrinthangi about her son, Lallawmkima. His name means, “This son was given to me, so I am thankful to God.” He goes by Lawma, for short. He is in grade four, the last grade his mother completed before hard economic times pulled her out of the classroom.

Lalrinthangi’s tiny, bamboo-thatched home perches on thin, wooden stilts on the cliff side. We drink milk tea together inside—extra sweet to tell me she likes me. 

Like thousands of others, Lalrinthangi is an economic refugee, having crossed the porous border into India from her home in Myanmar’s Chin Hills. Mizos and Chins are ethnically identical, culturally similar, and united in the Christian faith; they are brothers and sisters separated only by an arbitrary colonial line drawn in the sand. 

But over the last hundred years, processes of politics have eroded that line into a crevasse. Mizos are Mizos. Chins are Chins. 

Chins become invisible when they migrate to Mizoram. Lalrinthangi explains that they look, act, and sound Mizo, only their citizenship cards says they’re not. No government resources, no rice subsidies, and no official jobs. So they crush stone by hand and receive nothing more than a blind eye from the Government and a few rupees. They walk door-to-door selling vegetables in the heat of the day because they made no sales at their stands in the morning. 

Without sales you can’t eat, and without sales you can’t feed your children. 

Lalrinthangi raises Lawma alone. Her husband, Lawma’s father, died of AIDS in 2006. And now she has AIDS. 

AIDS, tuberculosis, a stomach ulcer, gallstones, and crippling knee pain. My translator whispers in English that Lalrinthangi doesn’t know the tuberculosis is chronic because her doctors are afraid the news would break her. 

My petty complaints about lice evaporate, making room for a flood of sympathy.

A_Melinda01Her mothering intuition set Lalrinthangi on a path of preparing her son for—eyes cast downwards—“when I leave him.” She is growing strength in Lawma. She is growing strength out of her weakness and because of her weakness. She is putting his education above everything. Now Lawma is smart, responsible, and mature. He cooks their meals. He scrubs the house. He dons his uniform, a smart white and blue, and runs off to get A’s. 

While we wished desperately to become a stitch in Mizoram’s close-knit community, the tapestry seemed to have no room for us. Who are these saps—these White people—and what are they doing in our protected territory? Different language, different food, different complexion. We were kept as outsiders, longingly looking in at the fun-loving, God-fearing community that we were not readily welcome to be part of.

It is Lalrinthangi’s own, bold choice to stay on the fringe, invisible within her neighbourhood. She has to hide her joys, veil her sadness, and never be a hindrance because if they found out she has AIDS she would be an outcast; the community that is so rich for the Mizo status quo can turn viciously against a non-conformer to ensure her ruin.

How do you get AIDS again? Coughing, right? No, no, if she touches you, you’ll get it. What is AIDS, anyway?

She may not have friends but at least her neighbours will still buy vegetables from her. 

As a woman in Mizoram, you are already halfway to invisible.

“What are you doing in Mizoram?” my husband and I were once asked. He answered first and when I breathed to give my account, it was not my voice that sounded, but again that of our questioner over top of mine. 

“When are you leaving? How do you like the people?” 

I didn’t get a word in. Act this scene out repeatedly and shock becomes disbelief. Then disbelief becomes acceptance. I don’t matter here. Nobody cares.

Nobody except Lalrinthangi. She understands. She thinks those very same thoughts. I smile at her, she smiles at me: we are both women of difference here.

Both of our hearts grow bigger.

I have the privilege of helping Lalrinthangi, but it is she who makes the bigger impact. She accepts me into her own community, a global community—the community of the invisible. She extends her hand to share with me the love I was craving in a new land. She inspires me to work hard for Mizoram’s oppressed, fighting my own feelings of I don’t matter

Lalrinthangi knits a purl for me, then hands me the needles. 

It is time to make myself matter. 

_________________

About Melinda:

Melinda Jackson Bio Photo

Melinda’s heart beats for the global oppressed, and she’s marched to the beat of this drum into the Asubpeeschoseewagong sweat lodges of northern Canada and the Mizo jungles of the Indo-Burmese border.  As Trustee Representative for the Brackett Foundation, Melinda is working on getting scholarships to deserving Chin refugees in India’s Mizoram state. She is fueled by a love for Jesus and strong coffee ordered via FedEx from Karnataka.

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