As one returning for the second time here to Bangkok, this experience is quite different. In the past few days I have become more and more aware of a growing ache somewhere in my core as I stand in the background of a political protest. I am further convinced that peace cannot be realized with violence and bloodshed.
Yesterday a few of us went with Kwan and Som, two of our friends from Beginnings, to Waht Poh (?) (aka The Grand Palace) and the world renowned ‘Reclining Buddha’ (largest Buddha sculpture in all of the world- and it’s gold). It was indeed beautiful and a wonderful taste of Thai history that, now, seems to make a good amount of money from tourism. Having just driven by a number of slums on our way, my reflections of our time were mixed. As we walked onto the grounds of the Grand Palace, I felt swallowed whole, gulped down by wealth and excess: each structure ornate, intricate, coated in gold, sacred. I wondered about the people who had hand crafted each structure with care, devotion, and commitment. Was it the poorest of the poor who, once again, built for the wealthy? Within the Thai culture there is indeed a deep sense of respect for the sacred, for history, for the King, which is absolutely beautiful and challenging to my own culture struggling to name anything in which we still deem sacred. But, what of the poor? What of the marginalized here in Thailand? What of the women who continue to be exploited- some paying off family debts, supporting parents and children, responding to a desperate poverty that we can only try to grasp?
The Grand Palace, for me, embodied the gap, rather, the Grand Canyon, that exists between the rich and the poor here in Thailand. The lavish structures wreaked of exploitation- a similar smell to the literal “Bangkok stench” experienced walking the streets. Consider many of the Red Shirts, for instance, who are villagers from the North being paid more money protesting than they could possibly earn laboring in their fields, factories, or positions as maids/nannies. Further consider an entire people group in the far North where borders are blurred and neither Thailand nor Burma will claim them as their own. A people with no nation, no identification cards to obtain employment, no education. Nim, a 14 year old girl living in Beginnings, is from this area. At the age of 12 she walked for three days through the jungle after her grandmother died. As she had already been abandoned by her parents, there was no one in the village who could take her in and care for her. She wandered alone, abandoned, until someone offered her a job in Bangkok. A job where exploitation is the staple ingredient. Thankfully, within days of her beginning work at one of the bars here in Bangkok, Bonita and Anne from Beginnings met her and invited her home, home to a be a part of a family, a part of a new story. While I wonder if the very concept of exploitation has been rendered inconsequential here in Thailand, hollow of its painful meaning, I am reminded that it is individual stories as well as a unified story that once again personalizes the concept of exploitation. And it is story we seek.
Back to the outing. The reclining gold Buddha was enormous… and gold, very gold. We watched as Thai people came to pay their respects and make their requests to Buddha. I wondered what sort of prayers were going up? Perhaps cries for peace, for equality, for unity, for the bare essentials (food, shelter, work). I asked for hope to unveil itself amidst the sorrow of a political crisis and exploitation.
As a team, this has been a time of letting go. Letting go of our own expectations, purposes, hopes for this trip, need to do do do do do as we watch some of our plans flow out with the tide. We are being challenged to stand in the background and support our friends and encourage the women we meet here in Thailand. I am challenged to wonder what happens each time we look into another’s eyes, greeting them, “Swadikah” (the traditional Thai greeting), smiling, and loving the only way I know how: to see each one.
Sue and Jen asked us a few questions before outreach last night: What am I learning about Thai culture and how it contributes to the sexual exploitation of women? Are there factors in your own culture/community that contribute to the sexual exploitation of women nationally and internationally? Now that you’ve seen, are there issues that you would think differently about in your own culture? Skye and I were together as we paced Soi 7/1 (one of the streets with a number of bars) deciding which bar to enter. It felt awkward walking back and forth a good three times before we both decided on “The Star Dust Bar and Massage Parlor.” Within moments I was reminded of what can happen when I choose to acknowledge my own awkward discomfort, nausea at the sight of Western men purchasing Thai girls, and despite both meet the eyes of Thai sisters and engage in a new conversation that invites friendship and hope. While little English was exchanged, we discovered where three young women were from, a bit about their families and children, and how they had come to Bangkok. As we sipped Coca-Cola in the wet heat of Bangkok, we met Cathai, Lin, and Pen. Pen was 24, spoke hardly any English and had only been working for 1 month. Once we mentioned that we were English Teachers with Home for New Beginnings, 2 of the girls actually knew of the Home and Bonita and Anne (incredible!). Pen was very interested in English classes at the home and we were able to get her contact information to pass on to Bonita and Anne. In our conversations with Cathai and Lin, we asked them what their dreams were. Their answers were telling. Cathai answered with a smile, “to work and make money.” She is supporting her son and family, a common story. Lin answered with only a shy laugh and “I don’t know.” I know these are women who can create change here in Thailand, but who is giving them space to dream and to hope. - I wonder, “Is there a new story to be told?” We walked away with a hope- a hope for further connection, a hope for dreams, a hope for the start of a new story.
So, here we are in Bangkok, unsure of what’s next and yet united on the fact we are part of a greater story to be told. A story of women around the world- powerful, courageous women moving towards a new story of hope, equality, unity, and restoration, boldly stepping outside of their cultural norms to engage in such an adventure. We are here to hear and love and then share their stories, free of adornments, to you our friends and family who are supporting us and sharing with your friends and family. And so we stand and will continue to stand together with our friends here in Thailand, embracing a new sort of manifesto (adapted from World Pulse, 2010):
- Let us be a loudspeaker for women of the world
- Let us call forth voice where before there was silence
- Let us stand back while they speak up, for their words, are so beautiful they need no adornment
- Let us be their platform, their forum, their safe haven, their sanctuary, an amplifier no one can ignore
- Let us create a world where women are not only free, but empowered so greatly as to be unstoppable
- A world where each woman can transform her life and the lives of those around her, simply by raising her voice
- One voice at a time, millions of voices strong
- Until the sound is so deafening, the whole world will hear their music
- It’s not just a dream, it’s a revolution that has already begun
- This is the pulse that transforms the world.
Thank you for your love and support. Despite the political situation on the ground, we are safe and out of harms way. The staff here at our hotel love us (so we are told- and really, what’s not to love!?) and are taking wonderful care of us. We are in contact with Bonita and remain updated on the current situation in the city which is still bubbling with vendors, foreigners, and storefronts. We will continue to keep you posted…
Emma for Sue, Jen, Skye, Jacynta, and Leith