By Joy Liu
The past week marked the second week of our research. Six mornings a week, Sabrina, Daniel, and I go with our translator and a CRHP staff member to one or two of the twenty villages that have documented cases of neonatal mortality. Usually, we’re greeted by the village health worker. Based on our records, her records, and the government village health worker’s (called an Angan Wandi) records, we compile a list of neonatal mortality. Then, we follow the village health worker in search of the households so we can interview the mothers in order to better understand the causes of neonatal mortality.
To me, the interviews are perhaps the most interesting but discomforting part of the research process. Our NGO partner didn’t want English translation to be provided during the actual interview itself, so I have very little understanding about the actual conversation until much later. The interesting part comes from observing the body language, facial expressions, and mannerisms of both the mother and our translator. The discomforting part is more subtle, something I only pick up when I really take the time to look at the mother, her children, her husband, her in-laws, and her surroundings. In nearly every single interview, I’ve had a moment of clear realization, a moment when I’m singularly conscious of the fact that the only thing separating me and the woman I’m sitting less than a foot away from are the circumstances of birth.
Nowhere did this hit home for me more than one particular interview we did a few days ago. From the moment she first entered the room, I sensed something a little different about her. She looked very young for a mother, but carried herself with remarkable poise even though I sensed that she was shy. When she talked, her words were much softer than those of the other women we interviewed. She was at times drowned out by her more overbearing mother-in-law, sitting back as the elder chattered on. Out of the now over seventy mothers I’ve interviewed in Kenya and India, she was the first woman who cried. It was when she no longer had the power to control the tears welling up in her eyes that I realized why she stuck out to me, and it was a classic light bulb moment. When I looked up at her again, what I saw was a reflection of who I might have been. It was like having a mirror held up before me, only the person staring back wasn’t really me in the physical sense of the word. I saw so much of myself in her shyness, her hesitancy, her soft-spoken manner. I frowned a little when I saw her mother-in-law prattling away while she listened because that’s my position most nights at the dinner table with the rest of the CRHP group. When I saw her tears, I wanted to cry with her because I too, am a terrible actor and concealer of emotion. I respected her for not keeping the sari blouse piece we gave her at the end as a token, for tossing it aside to her mother-in-law like she couldn’t accept anything for the memory of her dead child. I smiled when I saw the way that her hair was arranged—the way she clipped it twice, but how the ends of her hair were still sticking up with a slight messy, pesky curl because it was at the awkward length between too short and too long. I thought about how many times I had tried to smooth my own hair in frustration when it peaked up like that. It was the small, unimportant details that made me blink back tears. It was the knowledge that even though we may be so similar, our lives couldn’t be more different. Then, I felt the guilt, a “Why was it me instead of her?” moment. Then came a new kind of sensation—anger. I had an indignant “This is not fair” hour or two.
It’s such a basic realization. I was fully aware that I sounded like a five-year-old pouting child when I kept on repeating “It’s not fair” in my head over and over again. If we were sharing this in class, I would sound stupid. But as I kept processing, I realized that there’s a lot of power in that simple statement. I could have been born here. I could have been her. BUT I WASN’T. For whatever reason (providence if you believe in God, chance if you don’t), I was born on April 2, 1992 in Jilin, China as the daughter of Fujun and Fenghua. I was given this particular lot in life. It’s not for me to question or feel guilty about why this is, because that’s of no use to anybody. It’s for me to decide what to do with what I’m given. Those three words, but I wasn’t, are what separates me from this woman, and that’s what is fundamentally not fair (and consequently probably the basis of social justice). There’s power in that basic complaint because it confers responsibility. That woman never once looked at me during the entire interview (I was sitting behind her). I’m not sure if she even knew I was there. I’m fairly certain that she’s already forgotten me. All of that doesn’t change the fact that I have a responsibility to her. I was given what she wasn’t, and I have to make it count.
I’m getting a little angrier just sitting here writing this, and I almost never feel angry (the consequence of inheriting an awful temper that I’ve worked very hard on suppressing for years). I remember sitting at a crowded table with Dr. Peter Drobac (PIH Rwanda Director), hearing him tell his life story. I remember very distinctively that he said that he felt angry when he first encountered injustice, and it’s the sentiment that has fueled so much of his motivation to work in global health. I didn’t understand it at the time, partly because I never really cared enough about anything to get very worked up and partly because I didn’t understand how anger could motivate something good. Eight months later, those words are starting to make a lot more sense. I feel a bit more angry, a bit more motivated, and a whole lot more sympathetic to the complaint “It’s not fair”.