Monday, April 11, 2016

Once Upon a Thaime

Photo credit: Connie Lengkeek Rock. Sign reads, "#1-GO-GO. 
50 gorgeous girls plus a few ugly one's [sic]."
It's been almost a year now since I went to Thailand for the experience that would break my heart daily; cause me to fall to my knees in gratitude for the blessings I've taken for granted; and challenge me to find the words that would describe what I saw, felt, and encountered.

I never found those words.

But there are women and children whose stories need to be told, whose lives need to be wrapped in your prayer. So I reach out to you...and with that, I will try to attach words to the experiences for which no words were ever created.

Once upon a Thaime, there was a little girl, maybe 6 years old, who walked the streets of one red light district - every night after midnight. She carried a bouquet of roses and asked visitors if they would like to buy some. The secret many people knew, that I didn't at the time, was that this little girl wasn't just selling roses...she was selling her body. She was "just" another numbered victim in this tragic game of sex sales. She was "just" another girl who never smiled and always looked straight past your eyes when you spoke to her because she couldn't bear to form an emotional attachment with someone. She is not just a number. She has a name.

Once upon a Thaime, there was an adolescent girl dancing on the stage of a bar, wearing high heels and a rubber ducky that symbolized innocence and newness to the industry. If you asked her mama-san, the girl was 18 years old. If you asked the girl herself, she was only 13 years old. How could she have chosen this fate for herself? How could she have known where this path would take her heart? She couldn't have known. She just couldn't have known.

Once upon a Thaime, there was a young woman who entered a bar in another red light district, prepared to apply for a job. As far as she knew, this was her only option. She needed to help her family and, without a high school diploma, she couldn't even work at 7-Eleven. She couldn't work anywhere but here. She spoke the words, "I can't do anything else." She listened to the words of a woman who was there to help her, someone who took a risk and walked behind a curtain to secretly intervene. She heard in her native tongue, "I can help you" and "We can train you to do something else." She heard, "Come find me when you are finished here, and I will help you." This young woman was already tied to her interview session, so she put on her uniform (a bikini) and stepped up onto the stage for her audition. Her arms were locked over her abdomen as she hid behind two experienced dancers and waited for the song to end. Men in the room ogled. The mama-sans observed. And she kept her eyes locked on us - the ones who would give her hope. To our misfortune, our mission was revealed and we were removed from the bar...prohibited from seeing the girl again...when the girl wasn't even in the room to know that she wasn't just abandoned by the ones she thought were there to help.

And once upon a Thaime, there was a 24 year-old graduate student who entered this country with enough research to fill the pages of a book but no real idea of what to expect.

She questioned everything.

She was angered by the men whose wedding rings glimmered in the lights of the bars where they were meeting sex-workers for instant's just a perk with coming to Thailand on business, right? No one has to know.

She was caught off guard when a man extended his hand with what appeared to be 2-300 Baht (5-7 US dollars), offering to pay her for a sexual service she wasn't there to provide. Was that the going rate? Was a woman's worth in this industry valued at $7.00? Who decided this? And how does this monetary value impact a woman's inner self-worth? These girls don't know that they are worth far more than rubies, already bought at the price of our Savior's ultimate sacrifice. They just don't know. They need to know.

She was amazed and uplifted by the joy of the women she met who had successfully transitioned out of the sex trade and into productive employment...the love they had for one another as a family...the laughter they shared as they danced and sang with their hearts...and the hope that came with starting to develop a relationship with Christ.

She was confused by the women who said that the sex trade saved their lives, that they chose this path voluntarily because it would give them better lives than what they knew outside of the city. Lesson learned: no story in this industry is ever the same.

But, in Thailand, they have a common saying they use for everything that goes, "Same, same, but different." I think these are the words we can attach to these stories. Same, same...but different. Each of their stories is different: there's a different beginning, a different reason why the sex industry became part of her story, and a different search for something better. But there's always brokenness. There's always a need to be loved. And there's always a hope for tomorrow. Thank God for that hope.

Please join me in prayer over each of these young ladies and their stories. I'm just the girl who saw what I could and then went home to my comfort and security. God reads the hearts of the girls before me and He hears the cries of you and me...He knows the words that we don't have...we need only approach Him.

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