The sidewalk is uneven sometimes, and you have to watch out for the tiles that are loose. Because of the heavy seasonal rains in Thailand, the sidewalk tiles break down and water seeps under them. If a tile is lose, it can squirt water up the cracks when you step on them. My friend, Janine, calls that water soi sauce. Though the words are pronounced the same, soi sauce is very different from soy sauce. Soy sauce is delicious for dipping sushi and enhances the flavors in many stir fry and Asian dishes – but that’s not what we mean by soi sauce. A soi is a small street in Thailand, so calling the water that squirts up as you walk the sidewalk soi sauce is a play on words. When Janine first called that water soi sauce, I laughed and laughed. Good one, Janine.
So, as I walk the streets, I’m trying to avoid getting sprayed by the soi sauce – taking care to walk on the tiles that seem to be solid – not broken – the ones that are sealed with concrete on all sides. It’s not a great feeling to make a misstep and get squirted with the dirty water. My first days in Thailand, the bottoms of my feet were black when I came home from walking the streets. That alone was enough to make me think I never wanted to come back to Thailand again. Inconvenient. Gross.
But I came back. God had led me here, I told people. It was true. God had led me to Thailand through a dream.
As I walked the red light districts week after week, I gradually grew accustomed to different parts of life there. The soi sauce became something I learned to deal with and avoid. I adapted. I also learned to get used to the sight of scantily clad women walking on the arms of foreign men. In Bangkok, the sex industry is so common that I began to grow immune to the sight of it. However, it was the sex industry that had brought me to Thailand in the first place. In the three years I spent in Thailand, I didn’t get used to the water that would drip down from the buildings above. Why couldn’t people just invest in real drains that would carry stray water down the front of their buildings? Why did they just let it drip down from drains that hung over the sidewalk? This, in no way, helped the soi sauce problem. This could feel worse than the soi sauce, because, although you might expect your feet to get dirty walking around Bangkok, it was not a nice experience to catch a drip of dirty drain water on your face or square on the top of your head as you walked to and fro. I had been advised that Bangkok rain and associated runoff water was toxic and could cause hair loss, or as they called it in Bangkok, hair fall. The idea of my hair thinning due to toxic rain water was enough to make me consider tying a plastic bag on my head when I went outside in the rain, as many Thai people did to protect their hair from the rain. (A far cry from how I washed my hair in the rainwater of South Sudan!)
Wholesome life. Is it just a dream? Or does it exist somewhere? The Bible tells us to think on things that are good and noble and honest and pure and true and worthy, but the world is full of so many problems. I wonder if I am addicted to the trauma of the world. I wonder if I could turn it off and simply be happy, or if the sadness and pain and oppression will haunt my waking consciousness for the rest of my life. Call me dramatic, if you must, but I’m just wondering on paper what I have wondered silently through so many days. Since leaving Thailand, I think that I could possibly still have the luxury of hiding myself from most of the pain, but the memories don’t go anywhere.
Along that red light district in Thailand, people are commodified. Objectified. Even I would walk by many of them as if they were props in a movie. Extras on the scene. I was a person on mission as I walked down that road toward the go-go bars where ministry was slated to take place. I’d glance back and forth over the street, make eye-contact with the women and ladyboys littering the streets like sidewalk candy. I would smile. Sometimes they smiled back. Some smiles were seductive. Others were cold. Others just stared, without smiling. Some would genuinely reciprocate a smile. Many looked away, eyes glancing about for the next prospective customer. Everybody is playing a game to get the cash they need to keep living – to keep playing this empty game. I wonder what their passions are? I wonder how many of them have a passion outside of their obligations? Do they do this just to keep food in their children’s stomachs and to keep those kids in school? Do they do it to get the money to send home to feel they are a good daughter?
I have no idea how many women ply this trade after dark in Bangkok. Annie counted 745 women and ladyboys on the street in our neighborhood one evening when we went walking. She carried a counter in her hand and clicked it as we walked past face after face – person after person – life after life – all working it to get a wage. Annie is the lady who started NightLight, the ministry I worked with in Thailand.
Seeing women on the street is tragic enough. Walking along the sidewalk and observing a man stopping along the line, negotiating sexual services with the women, tells of deeper tragedy. He tells one women, “No, you’re asking too much. You’re not worth that,” before countering her price with one much lower. She refuses his insultingly low offer, and the man shrugs nonchalantly before cooing with a patronizing air, “Well, maybe I’ll be back after I check with others.” Even in the buying, the man has all the power in that relationship. She doesn’t even have the freedom to set her own price – the market drives the price of her sexuality to nothing as more desperate women enter the market. From what women have told me, the men don’t even always pay. Once they are together in a room alone, there is no safety. If that woman doesn’t want to engage in a certain sexual act – or if the man refuses to use a condom – the woman is the vulnerable one. She has no position of authority from which to protect herself. If a man has no respect, and she asserts herself, she’ll find out just how much agency she has when he doesn’t pay her, or her face finds the back of his hand, or he rapes her anyway. I’ve even heard of weapons, of druggings, beatings, gang rapes, hospitalizations, and even bodies in the river.
Social services often work against the woman – so rarely do they work for her. Healthcare systems patch her up and pass her on through without offering her a way out. The police don’t serve and protect, rather ask for bribes on penalty of arrest. Immigration laws trap women in foreign lands where exploitation is their only work opportunity.
And, as I lived in Thailand, I fixated on all of that. For three years, the pain was my soundtrack. The trauma played out as the backdrop of my living. The oppressive and corrupt systems were the mazes I had to negotiate. And, I couldn’t care that it affected me, because I knew it affected my friends directly. Their pain was worse. They were trapped inside. I was tripping around on the edge of the scene, trying to maintain enough leverage to catch women’s hands and pull them out.