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.”

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