An American looking man of small stature and large personality walked into the lobby to greet us, his guests. He immediately started speaking formal Thai to Ajarn Tony, catching him off guard and leaving me a bit confused. Who is this guy and what have we come to learn from him?
His name is David Morse and, though he is in his 50’s (I’m guessing) and has already begun to gray around the temples, he moves and speaks with the energy of a man decades younger. Immediately I see that he is one of those people that can instantly break the ice in any situation with his witty humor leaving you feeling comfortable and at ease.
He has one of the most fascinating lives I’ve ever heard of. Though he holds an American passport, he hasn’t spent much time there. He was born in China to Christian missionaries and grew up in the Lisu villages in Burma where his parents and other missionaries worked. After 15 years there, the Burmese government expelled the Morse family from Burma. They could not leave by traditional means so they trekked across Burma towards India over rough mountainous jungle terrain. Running out of food and unable to cross into India, they settled in a ‘no-man’s land’ valley around the Burmese/Indian border along with about 1,000 Lisu people. What they hoped might be a temporary home turned into their home for six years. Constantly in survival mode, they lived of indigenous plants (mushrooms, leaves, and fermented bamboo shoot) and wild animals such as bear, deer, tiger, and monkey. They learned from the Lisu what to eat, what to hunt, and how to survive. About 6 years after they settled in the valley, they were found by the Burmese government, put in jail, and eventually deported back to the United States.
Most people would have stayed in the U.S. and enjoyed the comforts and freedom that we all know and love but not the Morse family. They felt that their work with the Lisu people was not over so they moved to Thailand to work with a Lisu tribe living there. This is where you can still find David Morse and most of his family today, almost 40 years later. Since David counts Lisu and English as native languages, he is working on the written Lisu language. Currently he is working with Microsoft to add the Lisu language to type script so that the Lisu can write in their own language on the computer and in emails. This has proven to be very difficult but he is determined to make it work. He feels that the Lisu language is in danger of extinction so keeping the Lisu language alive is very important. He sees a huge generational gap where the Lisu elders do not know how to read or write but the young children are now going to Thai schools where they are getting an education (in Thai), learning to speak Thai, and even texting in Thai. If the Lisu language is not preserved, it is easy to see how it might be lost forever in a generation or two.
One of my favorite parts of the visit was when David spoke to us in Lisu a bit which was very interesting. The Lisu language has 14 tones and is quite musical. He says that because of this, their ears are very sensitive to tones and they are incredible singers. All of their stories about their ancestors are also passed down through songs, some lasting all night long. David has even been working on a new way of writing and reading music. Talking with David and hearing his incredible stories was an amazing opportunity that I won’t soon forget.