The Stateless Suckling

An infant lay in a baby carriage in front of the photo studio. I was there to get visa pictures as was the infant’s father, who was from Malaysia.

A Thai-Chinese woman in her 80’s made a fuss about the infant, who I wrongly assumed was the child’s grandmother—or great grandmother. “She’s second generation Thai Chinese,” the Malaysian told me. She lives across the street but likes to hang out at the photo studio.

An Italian arrived on a motorcycle to get passport pictures. I told him he would have to ask the boss and pointed to the infant. He realized this was a joke and asked grandma, who had nothing to do with the shop except that she liked to sit on their stools. Old people are lonely, but people in their 80’s are really lonely.

The infant made faces and looked like at any moment might burst into a fit of screaming tears. “He doesn’t have a passport,” the Malaysian told me. “His mother is Chinese. Chinese passports are easy. Malaysia is a different story. He’s stateless.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, “at this point he doesn’t know he’s stateless.” “Being born in Thailand doesn’t automatically make you a Thai citizen if your parents were born elsewhere. And Malaysia is so difficult.”

Grandma interrupted him. Pointing to me, she asked me in Thai, “where are you from?”

Mei guo, I answered in Chinese. Why not? Except for the Italian, it was the majority language in the shop at the moment.

A few more minutes for your photos, the real manager piped in. “Did you say you’re from America? I used to live in Kansas.” His hearing was acute.

“Not sure what we’ll do about the baby,” the Malaysian said. “Without a passport, he can’t leave Thailand.”

Mei guo?” Grandma asked. She said something quickly in Thai. Maybe she didn’t understand Mandarin. “Khaojai koh hua?” I asked her, mixing Thai and Chinese and using the Chinese phrase for Mandarin, koh hua or ‘common speech.’ She said no, the baby looked up and I asked “Guangdong hua? referring to Cantonese. She repeated the phrase, which I took to mean ‘yes.’

The Italian asked me what I was saying and I told him in English. “Do you speak any other languages?” he asked. I laughed. “I don’t speak those,” I said, “I just know a few words. But yeah, Spanish.”

In flawless textbook Latin American Spanish, the Italian announced that he had ‘good friends’ in Medellin. This rarely is a good sign. His familiarity with the show Narcos and the Italian Gamorra was less than reassuring.

Grandma was stroking the chest of the infant, who, perhaps startle by the confusion of languages around him, hadn’t said a thing.

“Got to get him a Malaysian passport,” he said to me before leaving. My pictures were handed over, so I left as well.