Seeing is Believing: Lessons Learned in the Land of Smiles

By: Molly Meisels  |  February 18, 2019

By Molly Meisels, Junior News Editor

When our China Eastern flight flew over Reykjavik, the enormity of what I was about to experience hit me. I was the farthest I’d ever been from home, flying to Thailand, a Southeast Asian nation that I had spent years studying but had never visited. For all my 20 hours in the air, I built expectations of Thailand in my mind. I had read Half the Sky to educate myself for our sessions on the Thai sex work industry, travel blogs to anticipate my chances of getting malaria, and articles about why riding elephants is unethical. However, nothing prepared me for the country’s immense pain and immeasurable beauty. Nothing prepared me for the transformation a visit to a third-world country would have on someone who had never left a bubble of first-world pleasure and predictability.

The moment I first discovered that Yeshiva University was planning a winter mission trip to Thailand with Justifi, a Jewish social activist organization, I applied immediately. In a university which has previously focused its winter trips on tech and business, social justice missions are few and far between. Biology and business are all-encompassing at YU, with the tendency for students of the social sciences and humanities to be forgotten. We tend to be afterthoughts, which can be detrimental for student growth in fields outside of the hard sciences or commerce.

I believed we were finally living up to our blazing “Torah U’Madda” slogan, since Tikkun Olam, an aspect of Judaism sometimes overlooked by Orthodoxy, was to be explored by the students of YU. We live in a bubble of luxury and contentment. While this is not to say that our students have not faced tremendous adversity, it is clear that when you are thriving in New York City, with a first-rate education and a budding community, third-world issues escape you. Yes, you may watch a documentary or two about the frightful condition of Thai women or Burmese refugees, but if you have not visited Thailand, if you have not seen the Burmese refugees, they seem to exist in a realm outside of reality. They are merely modes of entertainment on your Netflix queue. That is why leaving America to visit worlds which are vastly different than our own, is necessary for achieving any sort of social change across the globe.

This need for change is palpable in Thailand. From the moment the bus took us from the airport to our Bangkok hotel, I was seized with images of colorful homes and picturesque markets, yet distraught with observations of darkness and inequality. I was hit with the painful epiphany that the ache of inequity the Thai people suffered from was worse than I thought. We drove by a majestic palace, gilded and glistening, but the awe of the architecture did not last long, as the very next moment, we drove by dilapidated slums. Slum, palace, slum, slum, slum, palace – a dizzying whir of disparity. We passed the narrowest of streets, where people live on top of people, who live on top of people. The masses live in slums of rotting wood, with plastic, brightly painted roofs. Those who live in the palaces seem to be gods over those who live in the shacks, as the top 1% tower over the poor. It was then that I began fighting within myself. What am I doing here? Am I merely contributing to the pain and heartache perpetrated by the gods in golden towers and Western imperialist attitudes?

It felt like I was in a relentless dance between exploitation and activism. One moment, I was being an activist. I was sitting in Home of New Beginnings, an organization which assists women and girls who are victims of the Thai sex work industry. The founder of the organization, Bonita Thompson, spoke for hours about the gender inequality, economic disparities, and lack of education in the region, which ultimately leads girls to enter the sex work industry, as they are left with no other choice. “Poverty is their pimp,” said Thompson when discussing how the girls are forced into the demeaning work. Home of New Beginnings steps in and attempts to give them a new life. They have helped 62 girls in 15 years, a number which seems miniscule when compared to the 10,000 girls in Bangkok; but looked at individually, HNB has saved 62 lives. The impact these lives can have is indescribable.

Additionally, Thompson spent a significant amount of time examining the men who buy these women. They are all Westerners. I was sick to my stomach hearing how men from my side of the world, including Americans, Israelis, and Europeans, were taking “sex tours” of Thailand, treating young girls like objects to be bought, sold, and harassed. My agony worsened as I walked the street of Nana Road, a prominent Thai “red light district,” where I spotted white, Western men, aged 25-65, handling young girls whom they had just purchased. The image which will forever be seared into my mind is that of a Thai girl, around 18-years-old, no taller than 5’2, flanked by two buff, middle-aged white men, who were giving her kisses and commanding a sense of ownership.

If I had not walked the streets of Nana, the self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Adult Playground,” I would have never realized the amount of activist work needed in Thailand. In Bangkok, 10,000 girls are on sale every night. All 30 participants of the YU trip needed to observe the cruelty, poverty, and misogyny to believe it. Calling the trip an activist trip may be wrong. It was not activism, yet it was education which has the potential to lead to activism. Activists are not created overnight, yet they are developed slowly, with education and experience.

The activism was sometimes replaced with moments of guilt, when I considered that my visiting Thailand was objectively erroneous and exploitative. I felt shame receiving a $4 massage, when massages cost $100 in New York. How can I pay hard-working individuals $4 for their work? How can I purchase dirt-cheap souvenirs to bring back home, just to prove that I’d been to Asia? But I also know that my tourism feeds their economy. The shame I felt receiving a $4 massage was joy felt by Thai masseurs, as $4 for 30 minutes is substantial income for a citizen. But the dance between guilt and activism knows no end. We did exploit them, even if they did not feel exploited and required our exploitation. We contribute to their economy, but we also cause much of their pain. There is a balance of give and take. They are helping me, and I am helping them. There is no clear answer to what is right and what is wrong. While being awoken to these contradictory truths is difficult, it is pivotal to the work we can accomplish there if we dedicate our time and resources.

Besides for an internal monologue about misuse of foreign peoples for our own enjoyment, exploring Thailand for ten days allowed me to learn about the human condition. We saw some of the worst of humanity, but we also saw some of the best. For every man purchasing a girl on Nana, there is a woman like Lisa Nesser, who founded the Thai Freedom House, which provides services to Burmese refugees. For every royal who lives in lavishness while other people starve, there is a man like Bird, who runs Smart Elephant Family, a sanctuary which rescues elephants from brutal captivity.

This is how one experiences Thailand. For every good, there is bad. For every moral, there is evil. You learn to view the world in shades of gray. There is pain in the beauty, and beauty in the pain. You see poverty at its most revolting and architecture at its most ravishing. You see a homeless woman with two babies begging on the street, and you see amused children running through radiantly-lit night markets. You see a blind man playing a wooden flute and a sculptor chiseling at a monumental stone Buddha. You see people thriving, crying, and living.

To me, the height of our trip was in Chiang Rai, where we visited Thai primary schools. Visiting these schools at the last leg of our trip allowed us to recognize how fundamental education is to the progression of Thai lives and society. The children we visited were underprivileged. Many had bruises on their legs, torn and stained clothes, and rotting teeth. They were struggling, yet were some of the most lively and brilliant children I had ever met. They were thrilled to learn, and we treated them by teaching them. Education keeps the little girls I met, like Stamp, Mesa, and Yok, out of the sex industry. It keeps little boys, like June, off the streets. Education ensures that these children utilize the limitless potential I saw exuding from them.

As I watched the little girls playing in the field, I knew that many of them would be pulled out of school soon because their parents would not have the resources to pay. I knew that some of them would end up servicing despicable Western men on Nana Road. It broke my heart. It also lit a fire in my soul. My sadness and frustration with their realities will ensure that I never forget what I saw in Thailand. But it is easy to forget. It is easy to come back to New York, with our gleaming skyscrapers, healthcare, and indulgence, and forget. But I cannot. I see Nana Road as I walk through Times Square, the Chiang Rai schools as I pass by children playing in the park, and the slums when I stare up at the Empire State Building.

As much as I learned from our experience, should we have spent the $2,100 of the trip cost differently? Should we have donated all those thousands of dollars to an organization, instead of visiting Thailand? As harsh as this may sound, not one of the 30 trip participants (myself included) would have donated $2,100 to a country we’ve never visited, for causes we knew nothing about. It would be foolish to assume we would have. Only through seeing Western men take advantage of Thai sex workers, only through learning dance moves from Burmese refugees, and only through working side-by-side with Thai children, could we dedicate ourselves to changing their lives. When you do not directly observe poverty, power, and perseverance, it is difficult to relate to it. Our $2,100 payment to visit Thailand was not $2,100 wasted on tourism. It was a $2,100 investment in the future of activism.