Lost in translation: A check-up with a Burmese refugee

by BRADY LEAVITT

  • Click here to view a slideshow of my day with Zuli, Robson and Kamar (best viewed in full-screen mode)

Reporter’s note: Journalists traditionally remove themselves from the narrative of their articles to create an authoritative, objective tone in their writing. As I see it, the goal of the reporter is to become the invisible lens through which the reader, listener or viewer gets the truth. However, as I did the reporting for this story I unwittingly became an active participant in the day’s events. It was irresistible. To remove myself from the story would be to be to withhold the truth from the reader. So, in the interest of objectivity, this story is about me.

Zuli is a Burmese hill tribe refugee. As of November 2008, he had been in the United States for one year and two months. He has no last name. His medical records separate the second syllable from the first to form the required first-name, last-name construction: Zu Li.

For Zuli, everything is difficult. His wife is sick. He cannot find work. His shoulder aches all the time. As a Muslim living in Salt Lake City, he finds it hard to find Halaal meals, foods consistent with Islamic dietary code. Above all else, Zuli has a single, suffocating problem that envelops every part of his life — he speaks no English.

On Nov. 18, I accompanied Peter Robson, a translator from the Asian Association of Utah, to take Zuli to a routine doctor’s appointment to have his shoulder checked.

As climbed into his car, Robson, 23, explained he would be translating the medical staff’s questions from English to Thai. We were driving to pick up his partner, Kamar, who would translate from Thai to a mixture of Burmese and Karen, two of the languages Zuli speaks. The process would then repeat in reverse to convey Zuli’s responses to the nurses and doctors.

Kamar, 19, also a Burmese refugee, learned to speak Thai while growing up in refugee camps near the Thailand-Myanmar border. He has been in the U.S. for a little more than one year. Utah-born Robson, a native English speaker, learned to speak Thai while serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That is where Robson and I first met, and where I also learned to speak Thai.

“Do you ever worry that when you translate something…?” I started to ask.

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation. “Always”

I asked Robson how he knows when the chain of translation has broken down.

“By the answer they give,” Robson said. “I mean, you ask them the last time they threw up and they answer ‘No’ — you know something got lost.”

Kamar, Robson said, was very excited that I was coming. When we saw Kamar, Robson commented on how “dressed up” he was, saying that Kamar normally wears ragged jeans and T-shirts. That day he wore khaki slacks, a green dress shirt and faded red, white and blue flip-flops.

“Why aren’t you listening to music,” he asked Robson in Thai from the back seat of the car.

“Because I’m enduring an interview,” Robson responded, now speaking in Thai and motioning to me.

Kamar pulled out a knockoff mp3 player and informed me that he and Robson only listen to Burmese hip-hop in the car.

“What do you think of America,” I asked in Thai as we drove.

Kamar looked slightly annoyed. “I don’t think,” he said. “I’m listening to music.”

* * *

Zuli lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Rose Park with his wife, Poriba, and his five or six grandchildren. I say “five or six” because nobody, including Zuli, could give me a sure answer of how many people live there. He is either 55 or 59 years old, depending on whether one trusts his medical records or Zuli.

A pile of shoes lined the small entryway of the apartment. A moist, sour smell blanketed the apartment as we walked in. A collection of cardboard sheets ripped from packing boxes lined the wall, the names and phone numbers written on them. The names were written in Burmese making it impossible to tell to whom they belonged, but Zuli quickly asked me for my number which he added to the collection. The only other real decorations were the Islamic wall calendars, unidentifiable stains on the carpet and family pictures printed on inexpensive copy -paper and stuck to the wall with masking tape.

We sat cross-legged on the floor just next to a full-length sofa. Zuli began speaking in a dizzying blend of backwoods Thai and Burmese. He was animated and cheerful as he spoke. Peter listened to him and nodded.
Zuli said something to me, and flashed a tobacco-stained smile in my direction. I stared, hoping that whatever he said would eventually trickle into the part of my brain that could make sense of it. It never got that far. I smiled, nodded and tried to slink out of the conversation as fast as I could. They chatted for another few minutes before I heard something I did understand.

“Pete, you’re Christian, aren’t you?” Zuli asked.

Robson said he was.

“Christianity and Islam are really similar, you know,” Zuli said. “I say it, EE-bra-him, you say it Abraham.” He rattled off a few more Old Testament names. “They’re practically the same. The only difference is how we say it.”

I slowly began making sense of Zuli’s accent as the conversation continued.

Robson began asking Zuli questions about the day’s events. Zuli responded in garbled Thai half of the time and the rest of the time in a language that lies somewhere along the Thai-Burmese spectrum. Kamar filled the conversation’s gaps. Zuli told Robson that he thought he had an ulcer. He wanted medicine for that in addition to getting his shoulder checkup.

I was understanding about 25 percent of the proceedings when the volume of the conversation grew. Zuli was visibly amused that Robson had forgotten a detail from a previous appointment. Zuli erupted into belly-shaking laughter and pointed at Robson.

“I liked it better when we weren’t friends and he didn’t yell at me,” Robson said quietly to me with a smile.

We left for the clinic.

* * *

I had intended to spend as much time in the background as possible, to avoid interrupting the flow of activities. It was, I found, more and more impossible as we got closer to the doctor’s office.

In the car, Robson told Zuli I am engaged.

“You’ve got a woman?” Zuli cried in an excited spray of spit. “If you get married, I’m coming for sure, and I’ll bring you something.” He trailed off and gestured with his hands to show me just how large the intended gift would be.

A storm of confusion ensued upon our arrival at the University Healthcare Redwood Health Center in Salt Lake City. The translation system was about to be stretched to the limit.

A woman sitting with a nervous-looking Asian man was in the waiting room, which was full of people who spoke at least half a dozen languages. She jumped up to ask if we were the translators. The woman, an LDS service missionary, told us she had scheduled an appointment for her client but the hospital did not have anyone they could even call who speaks his language, Karen. The woman pleaded for our help after Zuli’s appointment as we were whisked into the exam room.

In the exam room, Zuli’s demeanor changed. He had been laughing and smiling and speaking almost non-stop, but now he was now silent and stared blankly at the wall, making eye contact with no one. A medical assistant came in and asked Zuli how tall he was.

“Zuli, how tall are you?” Robson translated.

Kamar translated the question into Burmese. Zuli spoke.

“Eight,” Kamar said, in Thai.

“What? What do you mean eight? He said eight,” Robson said in Thai and English.

In a flurry of further translation, and after standing Zuli back to back with Kamar, it was determined that Zuli is 5 feet 2 inches tall. The assistant did not seem too worried about actually measuring Zuli and entered his height into the computer.

“How is your shoulder,” the assistant asked.

Another 45-second volley of translation passed and Zuli again said, “Eight.”
It then became clear that Zuli was referring to a picture chart that medical staff uses to help patients rate the level of pain they are feeling. A rating of one is on the 10-point chart is associated with no pain and has a corresponding smiley face. An eight corresponds to a face with furrowed eyebrows and squinting eyes, the level of pain Zuli was feeling.

“Oh! I get it,” Kamar said. “See, I thought you were asking ‘how tall does it hurt’ a minute ago.”

The nurse laughed. I laughed. Robson laughed. Zuli did not. The medical assistant left and the room fell silent.

“Pete. Pete, help me, OK? Help me get this ulcer taken care of,” Zuli said quietly. Robson nodded and looked down at the floor.

The doctor came in and began to ask Zuli questions via the translation team. He said he was amazed at how efficient they were when compared to some he has worked with. The doctor checked Zuli’s shoulder and recommended an injection. Robson mentioned Zuli wanted medicine for an ulcer. The doctor said he would schedule a colonoscopy.

Robson stopped and looked at me. “How do you say colonoscopy in Thai?”
I thought about it and came up with the rough translation — a combination of words: check, look at and butt. We looked at Kamar who stared blankly at us.

“Oh wait. Yeah, I think my dad had one of those,” he said. He fired a stream of Burmese at Zuli who did not respond.

Robson then mentioned to the doctor that the Primary Care Network, a low-budget insurance plan provided by the Utah Department of Health for jobless refugees, covered Zuli.

The doctor stopped smiling and began typing furiously at his computer.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing else I can do, then,” he said. “That’s the worst insurance on the planet. It doesn’t cover anything.”

The doctor had been planning to refer Zuli to an orthopedic surgeon to inject medicine into his shoulder and to have Zuli return for colonoscopy. Because of the insurance, all he could recommend was to have Robson help Zuli file an appeal to the local insurance representative to have the treatments covered, he said. Kamar was still explaining the treatment plan to Zuli who said, “Look, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. All I know is that I hurt. And I don’t want it to hurt anymore.”

The doctor said if the appeal was denied, the best he could do was to schedule an appointment to have the injection done by a non-specialist doctor at the clinic. He asked whether Robson would accompany Zuli at that time or if it would be some other, “clueless translator.” Robson asked the doctor several more questions about Zuli’s options, to which the doctor replied he did not know.

At that moment that I became suddenly disenchanted with the whole process. The translation had been fun and somewhat exciting, if cumbersome, but now I felt as though Robson was the only one who understood Zuli’s needs and no one seemed able to tell him what to do.

We took Zuli to the pharmacy to buy the Tylenol the doctor recommended and some medicine for his wife. We passed the LDS service missionary who was still waiting with her client for a non-existent translator. A friend of Kamar happened to walk by at that moment and offered to help translate.

Robson decided to stop by the Asian Association to report to Zuli’s caseworker. This was Robson’s first time to meet the person primarily responsible for Zuli’s needs, but was his tenth time to help Zuli. Even the caseworker had difficulty giving Robson clear direction of how to help Zuli further.

* * *

Before we headed home, I decided to seal my lack of objectivity and journalistic disinterest by inviting Zuli, Kamar and Robson to lunch. We ate at an Indian restaurant called Curry in a Hurry, which, Zuli was delighted to find out, serves Halaal food.

Back at the apartment, Robson began explaining to Zuli how to take the medicine. Zuli wrote the directions on the bottles in Burmese. I noticed six or seven other orange bottles that held medicine similar to what we had just picked up. Robson asked Zuli to throw them away.

We were about to leave when Zuli insisted he wanted to give me something. He went into the back room and returned with a plain white T-shirt. He presented it to me as a token of his thanks. He could not remember my name so he called me “my son” and restated his intention to get me something “really good” for my wedding. We left.

Robson told me he would be paid only for the time he spent translating, excluding transportation time, or about three of the six hours that he had spent helping Zuli that day. But he gets more than money out the deal, he said.

“There’s something compelling about the refugee, something charismatic about spending time with them,” Robson said quietly as we drove, listening to a mix of Thai patriotic music played by a squeaky brass band. “It helps me keep things in perspective – if school or my social life isn’t going how I want, it helps me realize how outrageously well-off I am.”

He summarized the day by saying, “It’s pretty healthy, I think, to hang with these people.”

I think so too.