Sisters of Isan displays Isan (the northeastern part of Thailand)’s value and their construction at the beginning of the 20th century together with Thailand as a modern state. The book has recorded the stories of two sisters growing up and working from the countryside to Bangkok. At the same time, the book shows the perspectives of Isan people through their belief, lifestyle, culture, social norm, value and fate. This book covers the changes by over 50 years of Isan workers and Thailand. Hence, beyond two sisters who had shifted from rural to urban landscape, the stories inside reflect how Thai society has come. The struggle is not something Isan people choose, whereas, reading this book may imply the answer. Sisters of Isan is not just a book. This infers lives… the Isan’s lives.
Cover image credit istock.com/kentoh
I was laid off from my job in Bangkok because of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. With no interprovincial busses operating, I had to go home by taking a plane to Khon Kaen Airport. I arrived at Don Mueang International Airport at around 5 a.m. The air conditioning inside was very cold. No matter how often airport staff took people’s temperature , the body temperature was always low.
My body temperature was tested again at Khon Kaen Airport. The situation was similar to Don Mueang airport. Since the air conditioning was cold, no matter how many times the temperature was taken, it was always low. Then the staff asked me to scan a QR Code to check where I came from, as well as the flight number and airline. Then I went on to the bus terminal.
Before leaving the terminal, I was asked to register my name along with details on what I was doing in Khon Kaen. The staff then asked the van driver to count the number of female and male passengers on the van. The driver responded, adding that there was one “kathoey,” or transgender person.
That person was me. At that moment I felt weirdly separated from the other people.
When I arrived home, I reported myself to the village chief, in line with the government announcement which stated that “those returning from Bangkok and surrounding provinces need to report themselves to village chiefs.”
Since my mother has diabetes and my father suffers from allergies, both of them are vulnerable to COVID-19.
A day later, I decided to go and get tested for COVID-19 at the hospital. I was interviewed by a nurse. I told her that I had come back from Bangkok and that I worked in a risk area and met foreigners on a daily basis. I also had a fever and my symptoms included coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath, and having difficulty breathing.
The doctor asked me if I wanted to test for HIV. I told him that I was tested two years ago and didn’t have sex with anyone. I felt bad that my gender was perceived as having a higher HIV risk.
The doctor told me to quarantine at the hospital for two days. Before a COVID-19 test can be administered, approval is needed from provincial authorities and then one becomes classified as a “patient under investigation” (PUI). That evening, they took a sample of my blood for testing. The results would be known the next morning.
After learning the results of the blood test, the hospital notified a local hospital in my subdistrict. The director of that hospital called the chief of my village, who according to what I’ve heard, was asked which “kathoey” in his village tested for COVID-19.
My experience at both hospitals made me feel like I was discriminated against due to my gender identity, causing me to be looked upon differently from the rest of society. When locals in my subdistrict learned I got tested for COVID-19, the director of the local hospital, the subdistrict chief, and village chief came to my house to collect information.
But the hospital director was afraid to step inside my house and waited outside. My father told him that if he was so afraid of the patient, he shouldn’t have come in the first place.
It seemed like everyone in the neighborhood came to my house to listen to the results of the blood test. The results arrived in the evening. I tested negative for COVID-19. After that I had to quarantine at home for 14 days.
When I was at the hospital, all medical staff wore personal protective equipment (PPE) except me. I wonder why they chose not to protect someone who might have a fever. What would happen if I had contracted the disease from someone?
When I arrived home, I practiced social distancing according to the doctor’s recommendations. I couldn’t eat with my parents and I had to use a separate bathroom. My parents were afraid to touch my personal belongings. I was afraid to leave the house to go shopping in the village and had to do so in another village where I was unknown.
From my experience, it is clear that in the context of rural Isaan, details of who is doing what and where spreads fast. Everyone in the subdistrict now knows I am at risk of contracting COVID-19.
People are still reluctant to come close to me. Some days when I go to the town center, I move my face mask to get more air because I have difficulty breathing. People who sit next to me walk away even though they are sitting two meters away from me.
I started to feel depressed and it’s even worse that I have a mental illness. Even though I am only a risk group, I am treated as though I have been infected by the virus.
I see news on social media of people criticizing people for returning home and spreading the virus. But if you look at my case, I came home because I was unemployed. I had no intention to spread the disease nor was I infected in the first place.
For me, social distancing is more like society is feeling disgusted by me. Social distancing has caused people to see me as a freak. Due to the structure of rural society amidst a pandemic, people are panicking and misunderstand, because the reality is that this disease can be prevented.
Mobile medical units should do more to provide information to people in communities to monitor diseases to prevent their spread in Isaan society.
The author is a young transgender person from a rural area in Isaan who asked to remain anonymous.
This article was first published in Thai on April 13, 2020. Translated and edited by The Isaan Record.
Note: The views expressed on The Isaan Record website are the views of the authors. They do not represent the views of the organization, its editorial team or any of its partner organizations.