Monday, January 30, 2012

But the Workers are Few

For my first few days in Cambodia, I let its third-world status get to me.

The smell here is terrible; the inside of the house is plagued by garbage waftings. Every room is unbearably stuffy—even in this winter season—and there are flies. I average killing six mosquitoes in the shower every day (today I got eight—naked ninja!) and I sleep on a pallet on the floor with no pillows or sheets.
As I toured the genocide museum and the killing fields, even as I met Vietnamese and Chinese refugees living on the Mekong—even then I thought, “I can’t wait to get back to Thailand.” “I miss Korea and its silliness.” “I wish my parents were visiting me now instead of in two months.”

Then I thought about dad wrestling with my sister and me on the living room floor while mom refereed. I remembered coloring the songs my mom practiced her violin for the next concert. I felt the last hugs my parents gave me before I got on the bus for first grade, before they left me behind at college, before I got on a plane for Korea.

These memories are big no-no’s on the best of days, surrounded by the happiest of people. But I’m surrounded by the unloved, the girls who declare they love me—write me notes, bedeck me in pink paper crowns, whose faces fall, even though they knew it was coming, when I admit I’m leaving tomorrow.

They’re sad that I’m leaving—I who checked out before I came, I who spent the last couple of days touring and eating at swanky restaurants and who wanted my alone time last night. Imagine if my parents were here.

Imagine my dad—who always said God blessed him with girls because he wouldn’t know what to do with boys—giving out bear hugs and gentle tussles. Imagine my mom, towards whom shy kids helplessly gravitate towards, reading “I Love You Forever” with these skinny brown girls with big eyes, who sit on the stairs behind a wall when visitors come in.

They’re too shy to hug you on the first day, but on the second day after a water fight or on the third day after a fierce game of “Ninja,” maybe they’ll sit nice and close to your left elbow, sharing crayons with you as the mosquitoes tickle your ankles.

I’m feeling very small here on my pallet on the floor with now sheets or pillows. Too small to change anything or to make the big difference. Too small to figure out what the next step is, what needs to happen, what’s the simplest way to go from A to B with the fewest mishaps and the most children safe, schooled, and happy.
I take you guys with me everywhere, mom and dad.

The People We Meet

People are baffling.

When I meet people and try to understand them it’s like when my camera gets stuck on manual focus without my photography-challenged mind’s consent. It’s like those baffling seconds when the pictures framed in the viewer, and I’m pressing the shutter button halfway down, but the lens doesn’t squirm like it’s supposed to. The picture vacillates between shades of “Almost Not” blurry to “The People Look Like Trees” blurry.

I met a group of women about 5 days ago when they showed up on a mission trip for H.E.L.P Thailand and H.E.L.P Cambodia, and meeting them has been similar to the accidental manual focus issue. I pressed the shutter button halfway down and saw a group of six women, some divorced, some married, one younger than me, all Americans. Only two of them had ever been out of the States before and they were always saying things like, “There’s a chicken on that moto! Is that normal?” while trying to take pictures of Buddhist monks. It has been a long time since I felt so much like a tourist.[1]

Then the picture blurred again. After getting my shampoo and hair gel and toothpaste confiscated by airport security—rookie mistake in traveling: trusting luck to sneak them past—the real rookies produced spare travel-sized Dove soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, and mousse. Oh, and I was running low on deodorant, but they had extra of that, too. Yesterday they covered my costs of eating and touring with them—and we ate at some swanky places.

Last night we shared testimonies, and the picture got fuzzier still. In Christian circles around my age, you get variations on the “I-grew-up-in-a-Christian-home-with-Christian-parents-but-I-never-really got it until...” theme, and I was expecting much of the same. Silly of me. Just because women are good Christian mothers now, does not mean they grew up as good little Christian girls. God uses all sorts of things—drugs, divorce, death—to bring us closer to him.

In Hosea 5:15 God says, “I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me.” These women had learned to seek God in real distress. And not just a B+ on a paper, as in my own personal testimony.

I still don’t have a very clear picture and I probably never will. I separate from these women tomorrow as I travel on in Cambodia—toting their shampoo—and they go home to their lives in the States. But I will forever be in their debt for lessons learned. There’s a price to pay for using auto focus. Sure, it has its uses in making split-second decisions, taking split-second photos, but more often than not it leads to a clean but shallow picture.

[1] And I mean this completely without judgment. I remember my first trips outside of the U.S., my own questions, and my penchant for taking pictures through the glass windows of the tour bus. And I still try to sneak pictures of monks.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Obligatory Bathroom Post

Books can be judged by their covers and countries can be judged by their toilets.

England’s toilets were cold and cramped. Spain’s were often missing toilet seats—uncomfortable for everyday use but efficient considering the Spanish party lifestyle. Austria’s were serviceable. Japan’s, clean and well-stocked, even when they were squatties.

I was first introduced to the squatties, in high school Japanese lectures, as one of a string of crazy things the Japanese do and have—cracked-out game shows, a world-class hotdog-eating champion, saying “yes, maybe” when they mean “no, definitely not” and being perfectly understood, and so on. But during my 2-week stay in the country, I only came across one pottie for which I had to squattie and despite being a public bathroom, it was extremely clean. Leaving Asia for the first time, I had no beef with the squatties.

After China, however, there was much beef. I found out that squatties can be the grossest thing in the world and that Communist China is not as well-stocked as Capitalist Japan. At that time I still had not mastered using the squattie facilities with my pants still around my ankles, so every visit to squattie-filled facilities was a logistical nightmare of trying to avoid the hopefully dirt and water and general filth that covered every surface. Stall time tripled and my upchuck reflex triggered every time I was faced—quite literally, since you’re so much closer to the ground—with the Eastern toilet.

In Spain I learned to expect toilet paper again, which spoiled me for Korea, Thailand, and Cambodia. But after four months of living in Korea, I feel confident in saying I’ve not only mastered the squattie, but also accept it as an equal toilet option. For a defense of that statement, I refer you to here: But I still think toilet paper outside the stall is ridiculous and no toilet paper whatsoever is pure torture.

Southeast Asia has a twist on the no toilet paper theme. They don’t offer toilet paper, but nor do they require you to flush! Instead, they offer a big bucket of water containing a smaller bucket with a handle for scooping the water out and throwing it into the toilet bowl. Or there’s a hose. I hear rumors it’s also used instead of toilet paper. Instead of. Like rinsing your hands. Buh.

America, although your politics and your abilities on a soccer pitch make you an international laughingstock, rest securely in the knowledge that your toilets are, according to me, the best in the world. Also, I really appreciate how drinkable your water is. And how many of your people speak passable, if often beautifully ungrammatical, English.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Night in Tunisia and a Day in Bangkok

Actually the night was not spent in Tunisia, but on 30-minute catnaps during my bus ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Unfortunately it only took 9 hours and I arrived in the capital at the rocking time of 4 in the morning. So I took an overpriced cab ride to the airport where I took 4 more 30-minute catnaps before taking an infinitely cheaper train into the city center.

City center is a...misleading term. Bangkok is sprawling, kind of like Seoul on a smaller scale and with shinier temples and more poverty. So I had to walk for a while and then hail a taxi. When I pointed on the map to Phara Sumain Fortrees[1], the driver made me a little nervous by saying, “Mmm. Okay. Very expensive.” Luckily he meant less than $2.

As you can see, various modes of transportation quickly became a theme of the day.

I chose the fortress for its proximity not only to a couple of temples—tourist-friendly, good for traveling alone—but to the river as well. It was perfect. The fortress itself was a simple white structure of three battlements, all decorated by fake cannons and greying with age. The grass around it was emerald green and wet—not from the picturesque morning dew, but a bevy of groundskeepers working on it. They call it winter, but even at nine in the morning it’s hot.

The river was disgusting, of course. Bangkok is very polluted by trash. Like Korea, Thailand refuses to condone public trash cans as a necessity and the waterfronts suffer for it.

I only mention the river and cannon’s faults for honesty’s sake—and because I don’t want to sound like a kid in a candy shop. But the truth is, when it comes to traveling, I very much am six years old facing a wall of chocolate-covered somethings. The sky was blue! The grass was green! I spent the morning in Bangkok—Bangkok! I grew up in rural-ish Indiana! Suburbia!—eating chocolate-flavored bread, reading my kindleBible and writing in my journal. If I weren’t so self-conscious I’d write a poem about it and then not show it to anyone.

So, the river, the grass, the excitement. So.

Then I ran into an extremely outgoing tuk-tuk driver. For 10 baht (about 30 cents), he drove me to the different sites he recommended for an hour and a half. Of course, part of that hour and a half was going to three places (only 5 minutes each) where he gets commission to bring tourists too. I paid my dues—in time, not baht—and took his recommendation of a boat-ride back to the airport. It was an excellent choice—even though I missed my stop to the airport train. I had time to spare so I hung out on the boat for an extra 45 minutes, before jumping ship.

And you really did have to jump ship because sometimes the people in charge of the boat didn’t actually stop. I chose my disembarking spot with my usual half-fast-travel-themed thought process that seems to work pretty well in general and found myself at a mall with plenty of taxis and people that spoke enough English to tell me I had traveled so far that I was no longer on my map.

Yet another taxi ride later, I’m back at the airport and ready to finish the day off with a flight and maybe a tuk-tuk ride.

My travel pattern for this 24+ hour journey:

Chiang Mai: SongTaow—Bus—Taxi—Train—walk—Taxi—Tuk-tuk—Boat—taxi—plane—Tuk-tuk?—Pnohm Penh

[1] Never a day without a typo. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Non Sequitur

I’ve reached the point in Thailand that I both hate and love. Everything here seems ordinary again. That means two things: Thailand is another place I can call home, but also I can’t think of much to write about.

I love it here. It feels like the part of my childhood I loved the most—riding in truck beds, being outside all the time, running around in shorts playing soccer with anybody who feels like kicking a ball. I can eat everything I want and not gain weight, and I don’t have to cook. I’m sleepy when I go to bed every night around 9 or 10, and I’m ready to get up every morning around 6. There’s rhythm and freedom side by side.

Life’s a little simpler here. And I don’t mean that as any sort of pejorative on village life or people who are poorer than I am. I think there’s a tendency to equate “simplicity” with “simple-minded” which is unfair and inaccurate. Simpler is simpler and the reason isn’t a lack of brain cells, but a lack of funds and necessity. I don’t spend money because there’s no reason to. I have food—rice, rice, vegetables, and more rice—and a bed and things to do with my brain and time.

I still watch t.v. (Korean dramas are addictive; don’t judge) and read obsessively on my kindle. I use my netbook every day and my ipod if I go for a run. The camera I borrowed for this trip (thank you, thank you) is invaluable.

Yesterday I saw a butterfly and I’m still thinking about it. Last night was indoor soccer/balloon  and tickle fights/silliness of child variety. I spent today’s afternoon talking life with one of the new interns, never minding the time or the writing (my apologies for spotty posting) on which I’m days behind. I will not edit this post. Horrors.

I think I’m still competitive, driven, aggressive. But I am so very thankful that God’s given me a low-paying job that allows for huge trips of itinerate teaching/learning (it’s a fuzzy line), not to mention time to go home and see weddings and friends.

I am very blessed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Pym's a smart cookie and absolutely
rocked her English test last week.

 People make me tired. Most of the time it’s in a good way, a lovely way that makes me warm and smiley and gives me impetus to write. Obviously there are some people I can spend more time with than others and on that continuum, children are somewhere between snake charmers and anyone who thinks Spain should not have won the World Cup.[1]

So I worried about Thailand a little. I stocked up my kindle, and figured, if it came to it, I could always light out for war-torn Burma and hide out for a few weeks. Should the need arise. But my books are mostly unfinished and my hiking backpack remains shoved under the bed because the unprecedented as happened:

The longer I spend with these girls, the less I want to leave them.

Being on the receiving end of Nana’s ferociously strong hug, Dora’s adorable smirk, and Suam’s shy “I love you,”—complete with the hand gesture we all learned in Sunday School—changes things. I love living in this strange family where Aleek and Lock are either fighting or holding hands. Everyone looks to P’My, the oldest, for answers. Ba Nim is revered and loved and waied to at every opportunity.

Some girls from the last team here had to leave so we had a
going away party. Mass hugging ensued. It was cuter than
baby elephants and whatever you think is cuter than baby
elephants (I can't think of anything).
A couple of hours of peace are fine, but the houses seem empty without 80 odd children and I like it better when Ink and Awn are crawling all over the bunk-beds or they join Man, Pym in  some insane game of what can only be Thai Calvinball.[2]

Maybe normal children reside even lower than snake charmers, somewhere amidst the bad storytellers and cookie-haters. But not these girls. In my book, they’re up there with cute dog owners[3], Gary Schmidt, and the people who understand what beautiful soccer is.
If you ever need to feel better, come to
Thailand and hug these girls. Seriously.

[1] They do exist. I know. I’m pretty shocked too.
[2] It was a combination of bowling, dodgeball, and the timeless “make-the-shoes-into-a-tent” as far as I can tell.
[3] The ambiguous adjective was intentional.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Lazy Sundays

Sundays here at the girls’ home are some of my favorite days. We still wake up early—the girls at 5 or 6 depending on their morning chores, and the rest of us a little later than that. Breakfast is the same as dinner the night before, except there’s eggs in the rice and cabbage.

The girls all wear their Sunday best—cute skirts, adorable dresses—and they have free time all morning until church. The littler girls practice their newest dance routine, the older strum around on guitar or talk; others ride bikes or play badminton. At 10:00, girls and boys from all three houses meet in ours (the biggest) and assemble in the main dining room/living room area where plastic chairs have been set up as pews.

Church begins at 10:30 and all the worship is led by the girls. First a few songs—all in Thai, but sometimes we recognize the melodies—then an open sharing time. This is when the little girls perform their dance and when anyone else who has something prepared can come up and share. Sometimes they read a Bible verse, sometimes they play guitar. Last week the boys all shuffled up in front, grinning shyly and shifting about before belting out a chorus in their loudest little boy voices. This week my nongsau (little sister) Suam and I played Shine, Jesus Shine as a guitar-violin duet. Next week I intend to join the dancing.

Lunch is relaxed and the afternoon even more so. Yesterday most of the girls disappeared into one of the upstairs rooms (the houseparents’ apartment with a TV) to watch the last episode of a Korean Drama. I did laundry and read and wrote and moved my things out of the intern room and into the labyrinth of beds that is the girls’ room upstairs. I hugged Nana about twelve times; she is the best hugger in the world.

P’Bank took some of the girls to the market and after dinner some of us huddled around my tiny netbook to watch Secret Garden, another Korean drama. The girls taught me the word for “handsome” (laww) as we giggled over Hyun Bin.

Lazy Sundays are lazy Sundays everywhere, and I love them.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The R's and L's of Teaching in Thailand

I’ve probably taught more English here in Thailand than I did all semester in Korea. For my first week we hammered out a schedule for who I would be teaching and when. There are three sets of house parents and several more house helpers for each of the three houses. It took that entire first week to make it—to figure out who wanted lessons, when they were free to do it, what their skill level was—but at the end of the week we had a nice, neat schedule.

We look at it all the time (my students now know how to say “schedule” and the page in my notebook is dog-eared), but we have yet to actually follow it. I suspect that we never actually will. That’s okay: there’s always room to learn flexibility.

Lots and lots and lots of flexibility. I think I’m going to take up yoga again.

I teach outside, so there’s all sorts of distractions. The flies are a constant companion. Not only do they like to land on you for some reason—is it a game for them? Or is my skin the fly equivalent to pile of pillows?—but they also love to buhuzzbuhuzz around me and my students as we talk about pronouns. Besides the sounds of butchered English (Thais have a terrible time with their th’s, ironically, and of course r’s and l’s sound identical to them), you can hear the teak leaves falling.

Yes, you can hear them falling. This is because teak leaves are enormous. They are bigger than my head; some are about the size of my torso. It’s fall here, too, so the leaves make this beautiful, resounding crackle/crunch as they pull away from the tree and lightly bang into other browning leaves on the way down. Stepping on them is a pleasure and a half.

My students are eager to learn—sometimes too eager. Some days I end up teaching all day only to be followed home for more and more conversation practice. On Thursday, when P’Joy and P’Bank’s lesson was over, they stayed for the next lesson with P’Bow and P’Jiap.[1] I love it—except that everyone present had very different levels of English ability and the lesson quickly devolved into chaos.

As I tried to teach the possessive pronouns (Thai doesn’t have them in the first place, so it’s exceptionally confusing for everyone), P’Jiap, who has been working ahead, wanted me to check her answers, while P’Bow suggested to me, “you write!” out a list of American names so she could see the spelling. P’Joy handed me the dictionary so I could look up “Pedro” for her and P’Bank asked me how to pronounce “take a nap.” So while I explained that Susan *point* is a girl and this *point* is the camera she owns *mime clutching something to my chest* so it is her camera, P’Joy looked bewildered, P’Bow held out her notebook so I could write it down for the third time, P’Jiap tuned out all that English talk, took her workbook back, and turned to the next page, while P’Bank—ignoring the possessive pronouns as too advanced—practiced his pronunciation by occasionally telling me to “take a nap.”

I wish, P'Bank. I wish.

P'Bank and P'Jiap - Husband and Wife. They got better
at possessive pronouns when they practiced saying
"Bank is my husband" and "Jiap is my wife."

P'Bow is all things adorable.

P'Ton is crazy about learning English. Last week we talked
about the difference between, "It's sort of like cheese" and
"It's a sort of cheese."

[1] P is sort of an honorific: it means older and you use it in front of someone’s name to say “Older Sister Joy” or “Older Brother Bank.” The girls call me P’Elaine.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Remember Nhu

Remember Nhu is a nonprofit organization that works to prevent girls and boys from being trafficked. Because the cost of rescuing prostitutes is astronomically high and the success rate astronomically low, they use their resources to prevent it happening to as many children as possible.

The impetus for the organization is Nhu, who I met a few days ago. She is both sweet and outgoing. She has braces and is generous, even with her favorite food of dried persimmons (which are delicious). Meeting her now, after being rescued from what was likely to be the kind of hellish life Somaly Man describes, I never would have guessed her testimony.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Soccer Time, Thai Style

The Thai soccer circle was a lot easier to break into than the Korean circle. Last Friday I played my first game with the boys (boys, boys, it’s always boys) and shared with them the good news of women’s athletic emancipation.

This is P'Ton, who actually is not crazy contrary to this picture. 
He loves to learn English and is housedad not only to the forty 
orphans in the HELP Thailand house, but also to his own 2
daughters. Thais, like Koreans, are older than they look.
I’ve been pampered in Korea with turf fields and goals with nets. Here we play on dirt mixed with weeds with metal two-feet high mini-goals. No nets, no lines, and no smooth surfaces. The ball’s the same, though, as are the boys: incredulous and intrigued. When P’Ton, my soccer liaison (the Thai version of Gyu), went back on Saturday to play he said no less than five guys asked him where “Hlaine[1]” was. 

I miss playing with girls, though. Girls are undeniably slower, usually more scared of the ball, and less likely to play competitively, but they’re also smarter. Girls learn their passing game and their limits (sometimes too well), whereas playing with boys sometimes turns into a game of See Who Can Hold onto the Ball the Longest and Dribble around Everyone Else Even if He Ends Up No Where Near the Goal or Anyone Else on His Team. Like everything else, soccer comes with opportunity costs.

So I try not to take it too personally when they tell me I play soccer like a man. They mean well.

[1] The night before my birthday, the founders of HELP Thailand took me and the other workers out for a joint celebration for me and the other intern, whose birthday was on January 4th. We had dinner and an ice cream cake that said “Happy Birthday Kristen & Hlaine.” P’Ton has thence adopted the appellation for me.

A Night in the Red Light (Part 2)

We arrived at the Red Light District at about 9 p.m. The main bar street leads to a cul-de-sac with a Muay Thai boxing ring. Bars line both sides of the street, their music, mood-lighting, and miniskirts competing with those of the bars next door. The bar I visited was tucked into the back corner with a couple of pool tables and a good view of the ring. They were all open-air, like most restaurants in Thailand, and outside of the red lighting and the inverted ratio of women to men, it felt much the same as any other bar.

We were greeted first by Lily, a younger girl with braces and a lot of bounce. She welcomed us with hugs before returning to the other side of the pool table where an old man curled an arm around her waist. We ordered drinks (Sprite) and played a round of pool, in which Lily smoked all three of us.

Another Sprite got me into a conversation with the bar-mom who makes kimchi and was recently in the hospital for some kind of skin ailment. English is ubiquitous but sketchy in the red light district; you take what you get. And besides good conversations, I got a slice of mango and a bland but succulent corn on the cob. It was delicious, but baffling,

The dynamic of the entire bar was odd. Besides Lily allowing the crusty old guy to kiss her arms and cleavage, the rest of the girls weren’t really...working the room. They were talking amongst themselves, texting, and trying to ignore the two men at the bar with me. One of them leaned over and rolled his eyes. His Aussie accent was pretty thick, but the gist of it was, “I’ve bought all these girls drinks; what does a guy have to do to get a little action around here?”

As you can imagine, I’ve never had this particular conversation before, so I steered the topic to safer waters: our respective nationalities and reasons for being in Thailand. I kept him chatting for a good half an hour—the girls looked like they needed a break. We talked about the Muy Thai sparring that was taking place, and he said, “That’s why I came here, actually. To see the fights. I just got distracted!” I snorted at him before he walked off to play pool and we shared a short laugh.


The men I talked to that night are one of the reasons I took so long to post this. I’ve read that you can only communicate within your audience’s experience, but I’m not sure that’s viable. How can all of this be part of your experience when I—I who am sitting laughing with men who buy women—haven’t yet wrapped my mind around it myself?

That’s about the time I told one of the girls it was my birthday and she told the bar mom who smiled and said something about a shot about which I tried to protest to no avail. Thus I ended up with all the bar girls—as well as said Aussie and the Swedish grandpa to my left who was giving me a mini-history lesson—singing Happy Birthday and cheering me on as the bar mom blew out the flames so I could drink my free birthday shot.

Other girls from our team who went to different bars had a completely different experience. Some met the famous ladyboys, others were pulled into deep conversations with some of the girls working. One confessed how much she hated what she was doing, but she had doctor’s bills to pay (occupational hazard) and another, only two months into the job, said she was only working for a little while to pay her way through college.

The girls waved and smiled at me when we left. We drove a half hour to the team house where warm showers, clean sheets, and our own beds waited for us.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Night in the Red Light

Last night we went to a Thai cultural dinner. The food was excellent and we had a very fun evening watching the various cultural dances and reading the hilarious Engrish on the program to describe them.[1] But the cultural part of it seemed nonexistent looking at the performers. We saw them either bored out of their minds (one man banging a palm-sized gong almost fell asleep onstage) or treating the whole thing as a joke (his compatriots were pulling faces and laughing at one another during the Drum Dance).

A lot of modern Thai culture centers on other cultures. They love K-Pop here; even in the remote hill tribes I saw posters of Big Bang and Girls Generation hanging next to the picture of the beloved king and queen (present in nearly every household). But as seems to be the case with most places I’ve traveled, Thailand’s culture is heavily influenced by the west, predominantly the prosperous side of America as seen through Hollywood.

Unfortunately, the average monthly wage of a Thai is the equivalent of $300. It’s enough to live on if you don’t have too many family members or any outstanding hospital bills, but it’s definitely not enough to live like an American. And that’s where my trip to Chiang Mai’s Red Light District last Thursday comes into play.

Not all women are sold into prostitution. I hesitate to call it a choice because we who grew up with three very good meals plus snacks and dessert every day tend to assume choices have right and wrong answers and multiple options, some of which are better than others. The situation is different on the other side of the road (sometimes not the other side of the world): sometimes there’s not a good choice and sometimes you have to make that choice far too early in life.
As I said, the average Thai worker (if he or she is lucky enough to get a steady, respectable job) earns about $300 a month, working maybe 10+ hours a day. Prostitutes in sex tourism—these are the bars aimed at Westerners traveling to Thailand for “business reasons” and so on—can earn $1500 a month, working only 6 hours a day.

As Carl says, “America has a lot of blood on its hands” for spreading a materialist culture to people whose economy is not able to sustain it. Men and women both try to live beyond their means (another American tradition), and the consequences are severe. Sometimes it’s girls getting sold by their caretakers; sometimes it’s girls selling themselves.

For the evening, I worked with Lighthouse Ministries. The goal of the organization is to make friends with the prostitutes and let them know if they legitimately want out, they can get out. The ministry will financially support a girl’s bid for freedom, and so three nights a week they send people into the bars to build relationships, to hang out and talk.

End with a super-cute, if dark, picture of Dora (the explorer).
That sounds remarkably chill for a Christian ministry, you might be saying, but it’s a little more shocking when you’re in the middle of it. For one thing, these are obviously not normal bars when women—the vast majority of Lighthouse’s volunteers—go to hang out and talk. When we arrived, heads turned and the men in most of the bars were visibly uncomfortable seeing white girls the same age as the Thai girls they were planning on sleeping with.

More after the break: I’m going to go teach some English!

[1] Highlights included “to cerebrate their New Year...this performance is full of enjoyment showing the happiness of the hill tribes who locally live in Lanna” and “He chased her with the intendance to make her died.”

Friday, January 6, 2012

Other Side

“Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“To get to the other side.”

I used to think this was why I did all my traveling. Why go to Korea? Just to be going somewhere. But now I wonder if maybe the chicken went across that road and I went across the ocean to figure out why it was the other side.

There have been a lot of “other side” moments these past few days and if they hadn’t been quite so crazy, I would have blogged about them more. I’ll do my best to catch up, but today’s “other side of the road” moment is actually from Wednesday’s trip to the one of the local hill tribes.

Not many people are invited into the hill tribes, but HELP has a special connection with this particular village’s chief. Because hill tribe people do not live in cities, they often did not know where their daughters went when they sent them to work in the city. HELP has gotten the word out more and more and this chief is one of their informants; he contacts HELP if he knows about an at-risk girl.

We walked around meeting the oldest and youngest members of his village (there weren’t many teenagers) and seeing their homes. Hill tribe people live in traditional Thai houses—basically huts on stilts. Some huts are nicer than others, of course—some are made only of wood, some are wooden frames supporting woven gradan as the floors and walls. One house was nicer than the rest, with intricate carvings on the doors and mad entirely of heavy, lustered wood. It was by far the most beautiful thing in the village and by the smiles and jollity of the people there we gathered they were very wealthy.

Around there, the only way to become that wealthy is to send your daughter to work in the city.

People look for other options, though. Right now HELP has about forty applications to review to find out if the girls really are at risk or if their parents are angling for a better life (one less mouth to feed and a good education for at least one child). Due to financial and spatial reasons, they can only accept eight, so discernment is of utmost importance.

And to think that back home the pinnacle of discernment for me is whether or not I should buy that second jar of peanut butter. That’s why this is the other side of the road.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Asia: Do You Know What Your Shirt Means?

“Christianity is beyond the experience of a Christian-professing-but-not-practicing population.”[1]

Carl, the founder of HELP Thailand, met Mam the first time he came to Thailand. She had on a white shirt that said, “I hate life.” She had very little English, so he asked her:

“Do you know what your shirt says?”
“Because people are very mean.”

Over the next two years he and Laurie (his wife) became close friends with Mam. They prayed for her and eventually helped her go to English school so that she could work with mission teams that came over to Thailand.

HELP Thailand was looking for houseparents at the time, but they require that all their houseparents be committed first to God and then to the children under their charge. So one day Carl sat down with Mam and an interpreter to be sure she understood. He shared the gospel with her, spoke to her about the love of Christ, and asked her if it was something she was interested in.

“Oh, I already am a Christian,” she said. She didn’t need to be preached to; she didn’t need the gospel laid out on the Romans Road in front of her. She’d already seen Christ’s love—knew it and wanted it. P’Mam and her husband P’Ton are now the houseparents of one of Thailand’s girls’ homes. They love God and they love the girls and they are now the people showing Christ’s love to their new charges.

That is Carl’s goal for all the girls that come under HELP Thailand’s care. Many of the children come from a Buddhist or Animist background. Many girls the group comes into contact with have been through hell and back already. Even though the organization is committed to Christian values, their goal is not to. It’s to love.

“Christianity is beyond the experience of a Christian-professing-but-not-practicing population.”

[1] Quote by Saul Alisnky, an author with whom I disagree with about nearly everything moral, but who is occasionally, as seen here, very right.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How to Feed 90 Thai Children on a Tight Budget

Shifty, but in a bad-ass sort of way.

Again, I apologize for the weird white hi-lighting. I thought I knew what caused it, but...

I was invited along on the monthly fresh market shopping trip yesterday morning. I’ve never seen so many vegetables in my life, nor quite so much raw meat sitting out. P’Jiap, P’Bry, P’Joy—three of the women who take care of the girls—did the shopping, and P’Bank (you don’t really pronounce the k and it sort of sounds like "bang!") sort acted as a bodyguard as far as I could tell. He was always about twenty steps behind and looking around shiftily.

P’Jiap is a skinny little Thai who showed us around and tested her knowledge of English names for vegetables and seafood. We could tell her what “shrimp” and “green beans” were, but I’m still mystified as to the identity of about 50% of the Thai produce we saw that day.

The market was a labyrinth of truck beds piled high with lettuce, potatoes, onions, more lettuce, chilies, cabbage, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, and even more lettuce. You wouldn’t believe how much lettuce you can pack into the back of a truck if you stack it right. You also wouldn’t believe the park job I saw performed by one of a million lettuce trucks. It took about 20 minutes and nearly every nearby Thai stopped selling and buying produce to watch and help guide the driver into place. When the task was complete, I applauded the group effort—quietly and as unobtrusively as a white girl in a Thai market can.

After pinballing between a million potato trucks (it took me ten minutes to realize that P’Jiap was systematically scouring the trucks she knew for a better price), we finally bought the potatoes P’Jiap was looking for.She was frustrated because apparently the going price of 200 baht—$6—for a 10 kg bag of potatoes is more expensive than usual.

The family we bought them from—the father was selling while the mother was peeling a persimmon for the little boy who was mawing on it as he hung onto his father’s neck—had to leave at 1 in the morning in order to reach the market on time. I got the impression that was common because we saw many a small child—and several adults—very asleep, perched on piled vegetables.

I will never complain about the sound of little girls scraping their plates clean at 6 a.m. again.