Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jasmin and I Plant a Tree

I’m usually pretty good at remembering names—I think it’s an important way to show respect—but I admit that I’ve been having trouble all week. We had introductions on Monday, but those were a bit rushed, and there hasn’t been a quiet moment since in which to fix names to faces. Everyone wears a name tag, which should help, but most of the Thais go by nicknames that bear little relation to their given names, so I’m often lost.

Our homeowner, for instance, has a name tag that says Chanida, but she goes by the nickname Jasmin. Initially, because Jasmin is Muslim and wears a hijab that covers much of her face, I thought she and Chanida were two different people, both very shy. By Wednesday, however, with the help of the Thai Amway ladies, I began to recognize Jasmin and also to pick up a little more information about her.

Her sister and her brother are also partner families. In fact, they’ll be occupying the houses on either side of House 2, and their mother will be living with Jasmin. I haven’t found out what Jasmin does for a living yet, but I did learn that she has a digital camera, as well as a little English. I was somewhat surprised to see the camera, but then I remembered that Habitat doesn’t serve the deeply indigent, because they can’t afford even the most modest of mortgage payments. Rather, Habitat serves the working poor: people who have some income but not enough to afford a decent home. Habitat puts up the money to buy building materials for the house and arranges the volunteer labor, but the partner family pays Habitat back over time and contributes its own labor as well.

For most of the week, I wasn’t sure how to relate to Jasmin. I’d heard plenty of stories about the bonds that develop between homeowners and volunteers, and President Carter had explained to me very clearly that the point of Habitat, as far as he was concerned, was to span the chasm between the haves (me) and the have-nots (Jasmin). So by Thursday I was feeling a little guilty that I hadn’t crossed the chasm myself. Even so, I knew that I couldn’t force a relationship, nor should I, because to do so would be patronizing. Instead, I interacted with Jasmin in the same way that I interacted with everyone else: Can you help me with this? Can I help you with that? She probably felt equally at sea; after all, this was her first Habitat build, too.

And so the work proceeded until Friday, when I took a tumble during the afternoon and dislocated the middle joint of my pinkie. Not a big deal, but I had to go to the medical tent and get a temporary splint, which meant no more work on the fascia boards for me. Instead, my wife, Julia, told me that plants for the yard had just arrived and that they needed to be put in the ground immediately. She also told me to make sure that Jasmin had a say in their placement.

I hailed one of the roaming translators and got her to ask Jasmin where she wanted the plants to go. Jasmin replied that she wanted me to decide, because that would be a “symbol of good health.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, but the impression I got was that she thought it would be good luck, or good feng shui, for me to choose the locations. I said I wanted to take a walk around the block to see what other houses were doing—at which point one of the Thai Amway ladies suggested that Jasmin accompany me and help with the planting.

We had fun. She was able to explain to me the growing habits of the plants—big, less big—and, because I’m a gardener at home, I was able to come up with an out-of –the-ordinary plan that she liked. As I watched Jasmin digging the holes and watering the plants into the ground, I got a strong sense that her dreamed-of house was finally becoming terra firma. I really enjoyed being a part of that.

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