This past week, my friend Ashlyn and I visited Vietnam. Since we both wanted to see as much of the country as possible while only taking a few days off of work, we decided to fly into Hanoi and spend five days backpacking our way down the country via night bus, then flying out of Ho Chi Minh.
As we are both somewhat averse to meticulous planning, Ashlyn and I tend to fly by the seats of our pants. We knew there were night buses and trains we could take, we knew we wanted to keep it as cheap as possible and we had a vague itinerary of what we wanted to do when, but that was it! The rest we discovered moment by moment.
One such discovery was that our travel plan, or lack thereof, was VERY ambitious. I mean, explore an entire country in less than a week? That’s crazy. BUT I am proud to say that, somehow, we managed to squeeze what could easily be a month long trip into our five days, and the hiccups and obstacles we encountered only served to enhance the adventure.
Here’s a brief overview of our travels:
Tuesday 10/17 – Fly from Chiang Mai to Bangkok in the evening. Sleep in the airport.
Wednesday 10/18 – Wake up super early to get our boarding passes (and Krispy Kreme, PTL). Fly to Hanoi. Arrive at 9 am and get our visas and coffee. Take public bus #7 and #46 to the My Dinh bus station. Buy public bus tickets to Ha Long Bay and get on the bus, which leaves immediately. The bus ride takes about 4-5 hours, and we stop frequently (often just by the side of the road) to pick up/drop off passengers (how do people know where to catch this bus?!) and cargo (plants, boxes, live chickens). Arrive at the Bay Chai bus station in Ha Long Bay. Take public bus #3 for its entire route (to get our bearings, see the city, and also we had no idea what we were doing!). Take public bus #3 again to the tourist area. Find a hostel (we had to go to a coffee shop to get wifi and look up cheap hostels nearby. We found a few and walked to check them out. One was an abandoned building. The next was a fancy hotel, just to see their prices – why not, right? Next, we passed a man on a motorbike who told us about his hostel: $4 a night, free breakfast, great deal! That’s where we ended up). Grab dinner at a little street grill. Wander around the closed Sun World park. Go to bed.
Thursday 10/19 – Wake up early. Eat breakfast (Vietnamese toast and pineapple jam. So good!). Get picked up by bus for our Ha Long Bay boat excursion (booked through our hostel). Explore the most beautiful and incredible place on earth by boat (seriously... Ha Long Bay is one of my new favorite places ever. The rock formations were absolutely stunning. I am still in awe!). Check out of hotel. Grab bubble tea (rediscovered my love for boba. I think I drank at least one a day the rest of the trip!) and try to figure out how to get to our next destination from Hanoi (sooo, night buses are a lot less regular than we thought. There’s usually only one or two a day. But, we found a night train to Hue that left at 10 pm). Take bus #3 back to Bay Chai bus station. Take public bus back to My Dinh, Hanoi. Take taxi to train station. Buy soft-seat tickets for 10 pm departure to Hue (pronounced Hway. Definitely botched that on multiple occasions). Walked 30 minutes to a local Vietnamese restaurant where Obama went when he was in Hanoi. Arrived right as it was closing and ordered the only thing left on the menu – crab rolls, rice noodles, and this strange, but incredible, soup that tasted like apples. Walked back to the train station – while stopping to get bubble tea and use the shop’s wifi – and arrive right in time! Get on the train (which was amazing! So roomy, the seats reclined, there were sinks to brush your teeth, and there weren’t many passengers. Definitely recommend) and depart. Go to sleep.
Friday 10/20 – Wake up on the bus to the most beautiful view – sunrise and fog and Vietnam’s countryside (the scenery was gorgeous. There were lakes and rice fields and pagodas and mountains... breathtaking). Arrive in Hue around 11 am. Evade taxi drivers and stumble upon a very helpful travel agent type man, who tells us there’s a bus that goes to Hoi An, our next destination, at 1 pm. We decide to book it (there’s another bus that leaves at 4:30, but it’s more expensive), and figure out what to do for our two hours in Hue. Walk to the Imperial City, where we figure out we have to pay to get in aaand we only have 20 minutes max, so we just take some photos outside and grab food at an ice cream/noodle place. Get a taxi back to the train station, where a man meets us and drives us to a travel agency. Get on the bus to Hoi An (such a cool bus – there were three rows of single seats, but each reclined like a semi-bed, and there were two levels. So like... chair bunk beds...?) and drive 4 hours to Hoi An. Get dropped off on the side of the road. Immediately, we are approached by the owners of several hotels. After listening to each of them make their case (mostly talking over each other), we decide to go with Mrs. Flower, who seems trustworthy, offers us a private room in her guesthouse near the Old City, negotiates with us down to $5 each and volunteers to drive us there on her motorbike. Book the last room in Mrs. Flower’s guesthouse. Sit down to figure out our plans to get to Ho Chi Minh the next day. Realize that our options are very limited and give us almost no time in Hoi An or Ho Chi Minh – there’s a night bus that takes 24 hours and a 17 hour night train, but neither are great options as my flight leaves from Ho Chi Minh at 9:30 pm on Sunday. Have an exhausted mental breakdown (just me, actually. Ashlyn kept a very level head). Figure out that we can fly to Ho Chi Minh late the next night. Decide to do it, even though it costs more than either of us were planning on – yikes! Venture out into Hoi An to grab pho for dinner and (me) buy a bag of mint M&Ms that cost more that our hotel room for the night (oops. Stress eating?). Go to bed.
Saturday 10/21 – Spend the day enjoying Hoi An! Grab breakfast (pineapple pancakes and Vietnamese seafood pancakes). Walk to the Old City and explore – art galleries, the famous Japanese covered bridge, souvenir shops, coffee cafes, the marketplace, pagodas. It was so cute and fun! Go to the beach and relax. Walk back to town after a few hours and stop at a local restaurant on the way. Also stop for more bubble tea. Arrive back to our hotel and get picked up to go to the airport, which is the next town over in Da Nang. Get on our (delayed) flight to Ho Chi Minh and land at 2 am. Walk to our pre-booked hotel (only a 15 minute walk from the airport) and realize that it is not where Apple maps says it should be. Wander the streets of Ho Chi Minh, ask workers at other hotels and finally get a vague direction from someone and find more accurate directions on Google maps. Finally arrive at hotel and crash HARD.
Sunday 10/22 – Wake up early, but not on purpose (someone is hammering, and this hotel is a concrete echo chamber). Get ready and grab a taxi to the War Remnants Museum, where we spend a few hours (more on that later). Walk to the famous Lunch Lady, a very local restaurant popular with ex-pats. Arrive. Are unceremoniously ushered to a tiny table, asked a question in Vietnamese that we don’t understand, nod our heads yes and are promptly served a Vietnamese feast (so much amazing food! Huge bowls of pho, spring rolls, salad rolls and fried prawns). Walk to the Emperor Jade Pagoda (at first, we couldn’t find it, because it’s not as big of a tourist spot. It’s very local, and we observed many people worshipping there. It was beautiful, and unlike anything I’d ever seen! I expected it to be more like the Thai temples, which generally only have one room in the center for prayer. But this pagoda was two stories, with many rooms and passageways, all filled with incense and statues and paintings and symbols. It felt very sacred). Walk 30 minutes for bubble tea (it had become an obsession). Use the last of our Vietnamese Dong to get a taxi back to our hotel. Walk to airport. Say goodbye to Vietnam, and fly back to Bangkok. Go through immigration and find a place to sleep.
Monday 10/23 – Wake up in airport. Check in for flight, and grab Krispy Kreme (again). Fly back to Chiang Mai. Get a taxi home. Sleep for an hour, shower and go to work.
An exhausting and amazing trip!!!
More on the War Remnants Museum: I was absolutely wrecked by what I saw. The museum is amazing, well thought out and extremely powerful. I even shed a few tears.
The most poignant and heart wrenching exhibits were those on the US war crimes and Agent Orange, the chemical toxin sprayed across Vietnam. I never realized how absolutely brutal this war was – villages were massacred, down to the children. Innocent natives were tortured. And it wasn’t even that long ago – many of the children that were killed would’ve been my parents’ age. The ___ referred to it as a genocide on the Vietnamese people.
I don’t understand how this kind of violence can even happen. It blows my mind that people are capable, either through brainwashing or our own fallen nature, to dehumanize someone else to that extent.
The effects of the war are far reaching and long lasting as well. Even as recently as 2003, unexploded landmines were still killing and injuring locals. Agent Orange has caused genetic mutations and disabilities over four generations of people (US citizens included). It’s devastating. How long will it take to rebuild and recover from something like that?
The thing is, I don’t remember learning much about any of this stateside, in high school history classes or otherwise. I’m not sure if it was just because all my teachers ran out of time towards the end of the year to go into detail (the Cold War, Vietnam War and Korean War all kind of blurred together), or if our society simply refuses to widely acknowledge itself as an imperialist power capable of such destruction and devastation. Maybe a little of both? Either way, I’m glad to have seen it from the Vietnamese perspective.
One last story – while I was reading an exhibit on global activism against the war, I was approached by a young Vietnamese man. He asked me, in hesitant English, what I thought about the war – was it justified? Why did it happen? I explained that I didn’t agree with it, and was horrified by the senseless violence. He nodded his head and looked relieved. He told me he agreed – he didn’t understand either. He then introduced himself, asked me my name and told me he was a law student in Vietnam. He asked me where I was from, and when I said the US, he looked apologetic and a little uncomfortable. I waved my hands and tried to explain “it’s ok! It doesn’t mean I agree with the war!” We’re on the same side.
He looked relieved and we continued chatting. At the end, he told apologized for his English, and said that this was his first conversation in English with a foreigner. I was honored! Then he gave me a piece of Vietnamese candy, and we parted ways.
It’s so surreal… I have hit and surpassed the halfway point of my time here in Thailand. It feels like it’s been a month and a lifetime all at once. And it’s scary – as fast as these past three months have been, I know the next three are going to absolutely FLY by. Now that I feel more settled, and have more of a routine, a week passes in the blink of an eye.
It’s crazy to remember how I felt just a few months ago, and rewarding when I realize how far I’ve come since then. I’ve learned so much, adapted to my environment, met so many lovely people, and I still have time to continue to do so.
The most obvious then-and-now contrast is definitely my work with Urban Light. In the past few weeks especially, I have come to feel so settled in my day-to-day work. When I first began, I often felt overwhelmed and inadequate. Everything was hard – trying to communicate with the boys, balancing all my different tasks, feeling comfortable within the space. I constantly felt guilty; if I was working from my computer, I felt bad for not being with the boys, and if I was playing UNO or guitar with them, I would remember a social media deadline. I constantly required translation when the boys talked to me, and it would make my entire day just to have one of them approach me and ask to play a game.
Now, being approached is a normal and regular occurrence. The language barrier, while still significant, is much more manageable and less intimidating. I’ve learned enough Thai to have short, basic conversations (still including some element of charades!) with the boys and can get by without translation. I’ve learned how to establish my boundaries – gently at first, more firmly if they don’t respond, and excusing myself as a last resort (though usually, the boys apologize as soon as they realize they’ve made me uncomfortable). I’ve been able to find a balance between my different roles and set reasonable goals for myself. I’m not nearly as easily overwhelmed, but can recognize if I am and practice self care (quiet corners, short walks) to address it. I’ve found a groove when engaging with them, be it through music, art, ping pong, conversation, English or card games.
And they’ve warmed up to me too, which is the most rewarding part. I have real relationships, and even inside jokes, with several of them! Some playfully kidnap my supplies, or tease me over the way I say their names. And they’ve finally learned mine! An intern from the local university realized that “Lauren” sounds similar to “Lolen,” which is the Thai word for joking/kidding around. That makes it much easier for them to remember (except for one, who persistently refers to me as “Natalie” haha). And one boy even told me that he comes to Urban Light every day that I work there, and that it’s like his family, and I’m like his older sister. I melted.
Of course, there are still plenty of things I am not sure about, but it’s nice to take this opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate how far I’ve come. I truly love this organization and the work that I’m getting to be a part of.
A few weeks ago, I got to participate in a few different awareness events for human trafficking and Urban Light. All throughout college, I loved each and every opportunity I had to raise awareness for anti-trafficking organizations. It filled me with such a sense of purpose, to alert people to human rights abuses that perhaps they hadn’t heard of before.
But getting the chance to discuss these issues, this time alongside and on behalf of an organization I get to work with everyday, was something truly special.
The first event was with an organization called Remote Year. It’s a program where “digital nomads” can work remotely while visiting a new country every month. In every location, they have the opportunity to attend programs and seminars to learn more about the culture they’re stepping into and engage with the city in a way that goes beyond tourism.
It was at one of these programs that I got to speak, alongside Dear, Urban Light’s director of operations, and Dr. Matilda, Urban Light’s health care provider. A representative from HUG Thailand, an organization that focuses on eliminating trafficking from an online exploitation perspective, was there as well. Together, we gave a presentation that explained the work of our respective organizations, the clients we serve, the magnitude of the issue itself and the many ways, big and small, that each person can affect change.
It was a bit of a full circle moment for me. I first learned about human trafficking as a freshman in high school. Horrified, I did the only thing I knew how to do: I talked about it. I wrote a speech for my high school debate team, and spent the next year speaking on trafficking and trying to raise awareness at speech competitions around the state. After that experience, I knew I wanted to dedicate my career to the anti-trafficking movement. Now, nine years later, I’m back at the beginning of my journey, talking about it.
I know I’m biased, but I thought it was a fascinating presentation. Hearing from Dr. Matilda, Dear and HUG gave me new information and perspective that I didn’t have before – even on the work of Urban Light. For example, I’m learning more and more all the time how much technology and the internet impacts trafficking internationally. A man across the world, within the United States, can purchase sex or photos or live video or anything else from the safety and privacy of his own room. It’s seriously disturbing, yet these are the realities that our boys live daily. And it’s why organizations like UL and HUG are so incredibly important.
The second awareness event was Urban Light’s own, called Cover the Night. We invited our supporters and friends to UL’s headquarters on a Friday night, and after socializing over Thai snacks (sooo good), split up into two groups to hit the streets and share Urban Light’s work with everybody!
My group went to Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar area and handed out “Boys Cannot Be Baht” stickers to the people we walked by. Engaging casual passerbys and starting conversations can be so hard, but is absolutely essential to the work of awareness. Each person responded differently – some looking away, others responding in admiration of UL’s work or shock at the exploitation our boys face. I even had someone hand me back the sticker after I told him what it was for! But you just have to keep going, and give everyone a chance. You can’t afford to be intimidated, because who knows who may need to hear what you have to say!
And those important conversations do happen. One of UL’s staff had an encounter with a man who admitted he’d bought sex from a boy the night before. He was confused and defensive – he insisted the boy hadn’t been trafficked or forced into anything. But that gave our staff member the opportunity to explain to him how sneaky coercion can be, how it can look like family obligation and a lack of opportunity rather than chains in a dingy basement. She was able to inform him of how vulnerable our boys are, and how the community turns a blind eye to their plight. When the conversation was over, the man asked for a second sticker.
My most important conversation that night was with a tourist couple. When I handed them a sticker and asked “did you know that boys can be victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation too?” the woman was instantly angry. She couldn’t understand why I would be advocating for boys when sex trafficking was a women’s issue and girls made up the majority of victims. So, I got to explain to her that the more research is done, the more boys are found to be victimized and sexually abused and exploited, and that because it is seen as a women’s issue, these boys are left without a way out. That makes them just as, if not more, vulnerable than some female victims, and they needed to be recognized if trafficking is ever going to end. I’m not sure if she completely understood or agreed with me, but she was more receptive to the idea at the conclusion of our conversation.
I know I often forget how important raising awareness is, and how difficult it is to convince people to care about something like this. Although I loved awareness events in college, I often grew frustrated that I couldn’t do something more. But here, I’ve found raising awareness to be among my more important jobs, especially considering that my skill set (mostly my English language abilities in this case, haha) lends itself that direction. I’m so grateful to have gotten to participate in these events.
I have played UNO so many times in the last two months (also, TWO months...! What? How has it been that long??) that it is now harder to play in English than it is to play in Thai. It’s not a very big deal – UNO is pretty easy to play with the language barrier – but it is an accomplishment none the less!
So, here is the proper vocabulary, so that you too can play UNO in Thai if you so desire.
First is the invitation. When asking if someone wants to play, you can say “len mai?” (will you play?) or hold up the deck of cards and ask “ao mai?” (do you want?). Mai, with a rising tone, is basically a question word. It kind of means everything and nothing at the same time, but you add it to the end of a sentence to make it a yes/no question. To respond affirmatively, you would use the verb itself to answer – len or ao. If the answer is negative, you use the word mai again, but this time with a falling tone. With this tone, mai becomes a negative modifier. So, “mai len” means won’t play and “mai ao” means don’t want (a phrase I also use occasionally to remind the boys of boundaries!).
Second, when dealing the cards, count to seven in Thai: nueng, sawng, saam, see, haa, hok, jet.
Next, you have to know the proper colors. See, with a rising inflection, means color in Thai, and precedes every color you name. So red is see-dang, green is see-kio, blue is see-fa, and yellow is see-leung. So, when someone puts down a Wild card, you can ask “see arai?”, meaning “what color?”, and then they’ll answer with any of the above.
Once you have those basics, you’ll need to know what to say when certain cards are played. When the Skip card is played, you say “yoot,” or “stop” to whoever’s turn is skipped. When the Draw +2 card or the +4 Wild card is played, you say “sawng bai” or “see bai.” I’m not sure of the exact translation of bai, but it essentially directs the player to draw 2 or 4 cards.
Some other helpful phrases: when someone plays a card out of turn, or tries to play a card against the rules, you can tell them “mai dai!” which translates to “you cannot!” Dai is the equivalent to can in English, and mai is the negative modifier I mentioned earlier. The same concept applies when you ask someone if they have a card to play, or if they need to draw one to continue. You would ask “mee mai” (do you have?), and if they don’t have the right card, they’d respond “mai mee” (do not have). And lastly, if you’re the lucky winner, you can exclaim “channat!” (I win!) as you lay down your final card.
These explanations may sound silly, but honestly, playing UNO has been one of the most effective ways to build relationships with the boys so far. It’s easy to communicate by laughing or cheering or sighing in disappointment, and some of the boys get very competitive with it.
It’s also reinforced my Thai skills in very small chunks. Now, I have these words and phrases down pat, and it has helped expand my understanding of others words and phrases with similar grammar and sounds. Who knew UNO could be such a versatile and useful tool?
To catch everyone up, Thailand is so wonderful. I feel very at home here, and am so grateful for the community and support system that I have found.
I feel more at home at Urban Light as well! The staff is so kind, and I’m learning how to communicate with them in Thai! It’s a slow going, but they are very patient and helpful with words and phrases. It’s actually such a fun language, and grammar-wise, is a lot simpler than English – but it makes up for it in the tonality! Even so, it’s coming along. I recognize some words when they’re spoken, and have a growing stack of flashcards for key terms.
My relationships with the boys are developing nicely as well. There’s a few regulars in particular that have warmed up to me, and it’s so fun to hang out with them and continue to get to know them. It can be a bit hard sometimes with the irregularity (you never know who is going to show up to the center each day), the language barrier (but it gets easier every day!), and setting boundaries, but these are the funniest, sweetest, most intelligent and all-around incredible boys, and I am so grateful to get to work with them!
The other aspects of my work are good as well! I’m working with a friend of Alex’s to strategically grow their social media accounts. Coming up with the content and trying to be present for the boys can be tough to juggle, though. Alex and I have also been planning for the first stages of the social enterprise – product development! I’ll be learning to screenprint later this week to begin creating products. There are also a few awareness/fundraising events coming up that I cannot wait to be involved in! Very busy
I could talk about my life here forever, but I thought it important to devote a post specifically to the community Urban Light works with, and the specific challenges they face. In my time so far, I have learned so much about trafficking, the nuances of coercion, and the many vulnerabilities of these young men, and I want to dive a little deeper into the issue here.
The current international approach to trafficking is gender-exclusive and primarily focuses on women, thereby overlooking and ignoring male sexual trauma and trafficking. Men are not considered a targeted population, and are thus vastly underrepresented in anti-trafficking initiatives and research. Oftentimes, when boys are included in the dialogue, it is strictly in regards to labor trafficking. In the world of sex trafficking, they are invisible.
But that does not mean they aren’t there.
The portrayal of the typical victim of sexual exploitation as female, coupled with the construction of traditional and toxic masculinity, ultimately prevents men from coming forward as victims. This is an even larger problem considering that males in Asia are at a higher risk for sexual abuse than females; over 60% of Asian males are sexually abused as a child, compared to 40% of females. While it’s no secret that Thailand is a sex tourism hotspot, few people realize that girls are not the only ones being sold. Boys are commonly victimized and sexually exploited as well.
These boys also face countless stigmas, contributing to their invisibility and vulnerability. They are considered the lowest rung of society, usually perceived as homeless, dangerous, the worst of the worst, drug addicts, thieves and criminals. Abandoned by their community, they have no resources, no one to advocate for them, no one to humanize them. They also, regardless of their sexual orientation, face the stigmatization of homosexuality (which was considered a mental disorder in Thailand until 2002). To make matters worse, Thai law provides no legal protection from sexual violence for men. In fact, forced sex between men – which 75% of bar-based male sex workers experience – is not technically classified as rape.
Urban Light exists specifically for these boys that no one talks about.
Who are the customers?
Thailand was once a haven for sex tourists, pedophiles, abusers and exploiters. While many improvements have been made, it still retains much of that reputation. But who are the people who prey upon Thailand’s most vulnerable?
The majority of customers are Western men. The hard part is that they are seemingly just everyday men: fathers, teachers, “sex”-pats, doctors, dentists, lawyers... the list goes on and on. These are the people frequenting the sex show bars and tourist destinations, looking to purchase sex from boys who are simply trying to survive. Even worse, these men often try to justify their actions, falsely believing that they are taking care of and providing for these boys.
It’s not commonly acknowledged, but Thais are also customers, and occasionally women as well.
Who are the boys?
The boys are Chiang Mai’s most vulnerable. Usually between ages 12-30, you probably wouldn’t even notice them (but hopefully now you will!). It’s difficult for many to comprehend male vulnerability, since men are supposed to be tough and strong and not convey emotion (especially in Thai culture), but these are some of the factors that contribute to their exploitation.
- They’re stateless. Many of UL’s boys are not formally registered to any government. This means no paperwork, hardly any protection under the law, and most difficult of all, no identification card. Without an ID, no one will hire them, and it is thus impossible for them to find reputable work.
- They’re ethnic minorities. Often families from the hill tribe villages will send their boys – as young as 12 years old – to find work and opportunity in the city. It is important for these boys to contribute to the survival of their family by sending money back home for food, siblings’ schooling, shelter, etc. But, because of their minority status, these boys face immense discrimination that keeps them from accessing work outside the bars. They also come to the city without skills, resources, or street smarts, and thus fall into trafficking.
- They’re refugees. Many are refugees from Burma, escaping political upheaval and violence there. This is also an ethnic minority that faces discrimination in employment.
- They’re orphans and homeless youth. Many are without any family at all, and from a young age, are completely responsible for their own survival.
- They’re substance users. When boys find themselves in the bars at a young age, lured in by owners with promises of work and opportunity, they are often offered drugs. These drugs keep them going during work, keep them performing longer, and, once they’re hooked, keep them coming back to the bars for more.
But why don’t they just stop? The nuances of coercion
In many of the boys’ cases, coercion looks different from the sensationalized view of trafficking victims that we’re accustomed to. They’re not chained to the bars or locked up in a dingy basement somewhere. They have “freedom” in the sense that they can move around, but mobility does not equal true freedom.
Sometimes they have pimps, sometimes they’re “owned” by the bars, but generally speaking, there are a whole different set of constraints that dictate their opportunities and keep them from “just stopping.”
On one hand, many boys are bound by family obligation. This is a bit of a foreign concept for Westerners, but in Thai culture, a child is responsible for contributing and taking care of the family financially. As a result, children in the hill tribe regions and communities surrounding the city are taken to tourist areas late at night to sell bracelets and flowers and other trinkets. Then, at around 12 years old, they are sent to the city more permanently to find work, and that’s when they get sucked in to sex industry. This expectation for kids to support their families is enough to keep kids out of school and in the bars. In many cases, our boys act as a sort of sacrificial lamb for their siblings – “I do this so my little brother and sister don’t have to.”
On the other hand, they have zero family to begin with, and as a child, are 100% responsible for their own survival. Without any community or support system to look after them, they have to take care of themselves. They’re too young to work, or have no identification to work, and so they must engage in survival sex. This means they’ll go home with someone just so that they can eat a hot meal and sleep in a bed instead of under a bridge.
And underlying all of it, these boys are trapped in a society that looks away. They are despised by their community, which refuses to understand their narrative in context, and instead sees them simply as thieves and drug addicts. Even in Urban Light’s own neighborhood, people have expressed that UL is unwelcome, believing that the center is bringing problems to the area, instead of seeing that the boys are already there.
And that is why...
...Urban Light is dedicated to providing help and services to young male victims in Chiang Mai, where none were available before. It is uniquely positioned as one of the only anti-trafficking organizations in existence to “specifically focus on helping young men and providing an outlet for safety, health and renewal.”
It’s difficult to know where to begin, because the last few weeks have been such a whirlwind!
On Tuesday, June 11th, I officially began my internship at Urban Light. My first day began with a short ride in the CCT van, and when I got to the Urban Light Youth Center (ULYC) a little after 10am, the staff was just starting to arrive (that’s something to note about the culture in Thailand – everyone runs on “Thai time,” or anywhere from 10-45 minutes late. As a person who is perpetually late, it works just fine for me!). When Alex, the founder of Urban Light, arrived, she conducted an orientation for me and discussed the history of Urban Light, introduced me to the staff (there are 11 people on the staff, and besides Alex, they’re all Thai!) and the other current intern Zuzu, went over my tasks and responsibilities, and informed me of the daily schedule.
Each day, the staff and I arrive around 10am, and it’s usually pretty quiet at the center until noon, when lunch is served. Everyone eats together family style, and you know when it’s ready: the boys come up to the office saying gin kao, gin kao (let’s eat!). After lunch, it’s time for workshops, lessons, games, programming, or anything to interact with the boys and keep them engaged. So far, I’ve played UNO with them (they love UNO soooo much! One boy in particular would play all day if you’d let him!), and a few games of ping pong. So far, there hasn’t been much programming – Alex was telling me it’s difficult to get a consistent program rolling, because the boys usually won’t participate for long unless it’s really fun and interesting. Around 4pm, things quiet down again until the center closes at 5pm.
Of course, this schedule is not a hard and fast rule (with the exception of lunch!). Since the ULYC is a drop-in center, every day is different. Some days, it’s loud and crazy with boys everywhere – playing games and guitar, watching movies, and listening to music. Some days, all they want is a hot meal, a shower, and a place to rest. Being adaptable, flexible, and able to tune into their moods and needs is key.
So far in my internship, I’ve:
- shadowed Zuzu, the other intern. She’s awesome, and we get along really well. She’s also great at engaging the boys, so I’ve learned a lot from watching her. For example, the best way to interact with the boys is a delicate balance of persistence and doing your own thing. Sometimes, if you want to involve a boy in a lesson or activity, you have to enthusiastically pester him and take charge of the moment until he’s engaged. Other times, it’s best to relax and do your own thing: start an art project or play the guitar, and eventually, if they’re interested, the boys will join you. Again, it’s all about learning to read the situation!
- helped Zuzu with her greeting card project. Right now, we’ve just finished designing and painting holiday and greeting cards with one of the boys. We’re planning on selling them to generate income for Urban Light.
- started to build relationships with UL’s participants through games of ping pong and UNO and my favorite, a guitar/ukulele jam session! It’s definitely taken some time for the boys to get used to me, but I’m starting to earn their trust. Every time they ask me to play a game or listen to music, it’s a little victory. One boy even insisted on walking me part of the way home this week!
- began brainstorming and implementing the social media part of my role. I’m enjoying coming up with ideas for content development and generating awareness online, and am so excited to use my communications experience in this way. Alex and I have also started talking about her ideas for a social enterprise project, which I’ll start assisting her with soon.
I’ve learned a lot so far. But, as one would expect, there have also been significant challenges and moments of discouragement as well. However, even though I’ve felt lost and inadequate at times, I’m trying to give myself the space and grace to settle into the role. And truly, I have such an incredible support network here! The staff at UL and CCT are amazing and have done so much to encourage and prepare me.
My biggest challenges so far have been:
- the language barrier. Oh yeah. This is definitely top of the list. For one, it’s difficult to form relationships with the participants at UL when you can’t communicate clearly. I want so badly to connect with them in a meaningful way, but I need to learn more Thai. I’m trying not to get discouraged because I know it’s a process and every day, I learn something new. I’ve made flashcards for words and phrases, so I can say hello and thank you and how are you? and what’s your name? I can even play UNO in Thai! And there have been funny moments too. On my third day, I said hello to a boy in Thai and he responded with “you say that a lot...” (Zuzu translated). I was bummed for a moment, but he was right! And it motivated me to learn some new phrases.
- my name. Turns out, Lauren is really hard for the boys to say. So, I’ve started introducing myself to them as Lo, one of my nicknames back home.
- finding my niche. Since, I often can’t use words to engage the boys, I have to figure out other ways to interact. Painting is good, and so are UNO games, but as I mentioned, I recently played music with a few of the boys and it was a blast! I just played along on a uke while they played guitar and sang in Thai, and it was great. So, maybe that’s my niche To be determined.
- the greeting card project. I’m seeing firsthand some of the challenges of workforce development social enterprises! For example, we were on a schedule to get the cards done by a deadline, but the boy who worked with us had a lot of important things to worry about, so it was tricky to find the time to work on them with him. In addition, it was hard to communicate, given the language barrier, exactly what we wanted the cards to look like, and then to give feedback and edits after the fact. But, it all worked out, and we ended up with some beautiful cards to sell. He is super sweet, great to work with, and a very talented painter.
One last bit – I’ve had some other adventures the past few weeks! I visited Pai (a hippie/expat village in the mountains), went to Mukata (mostly a local place that has Mongolian-style bbq), shopped in a local mall (and realized how much more expensive the markets can be), tried to speak in Thai at the market (before realizing it didn’t matter because I couldn’t understand people’s responses), took a Thai cooking class, and found a way to stream the new Game of Thrones season with my roommates at the volunteer house.
After about 36 hours of travel, I touched down in Chiang Mai. After months of preparation, it was incredibly surreal to actually be in the city. I was definitely a bit nervous when I arrived, but after a weekend of adventuring around the city, catching up on sleep, and getting to know the other volunteers, I began to feel right at home. I began on Monday with an orientation with Wad, the executive director of Cultural Canvas Thailand (CCT), and a few other new volunteers. We went to a cute coffee shop and drank Thai tea while he welcomed us to the country and discussed the program and our accommodations. He also talked about the incredible things to do in Chiang Mai and Thailand, which got me very excited for all the exploring ahead!
My placement with Urban Light begins today (or tomorrow, depending on where in the world you’re reading this), so in the meantime, I’ve been volunteering with CCT’s organization, Art Relief International (ARI). CCT/ARI partners with organizations and schools all around Chiang Mai to provide art workshops and activities. The purpose of each workshop depends on the needs of the recipient. CCT/ARI truly covers a huge spectrum, doing everything from creative English lessons with young temple school students to music/art therapy projects with adults with disabilities. You can read more about their programs on their blog.
After a brief orientation on Tuesday, the new ARI volunteers and myself jumped right into assisting the other volunteers with their workshops. On Wednesday, we made paper plate jellyfish at Hope Home, an orphanage for children with disabilities. I paired up with a boy who has cerebral palsy who generally only has motor control over his feet. He was very sweet and had a great sense of humor. We had a lot of fun as he painted his jellyfish (and occasionally some of the other children!) with his toes. On Thursday, we went to a temple school, Baan King Kaew, where the students made popsicle stick puppets with us until their parents picked them up. Each student chose from a list of ten jobs (doctor, dancer, police officer, etc.) to base their puppet on, and then had to write the English word for it on the stick. They seemed to enjoy the activity, but the language barrier definitely made it challenging to communicate. On Friday, we went to another temple school, Wat Pa Pao, and had the students create an island scene using English vocabulary. In the afternoon, we did an art project at Healing Families, an organization that provides a space for adults with disabilities to learn, grow, and have fun. They’re also a social enterprise, weaving clothing to sell to support the organization! For our art project, we each painted a piece of a larger portrait to put together at the end for a full picture. The people were very kind and affectionate, and had a lot of fun designing their own piece of the puzzle.
Volunteering with ARI for the week was a great introduction to Chiang Mai and the wonderful work taking place here. Some other interesting lessons of the past week included:
- The language. I knew Thai was a tonal language, but didn’t know exactly what that meant until my first Thai lesson. Essentially, the inflection you use when pronouncing a word (medium, high, low, rising, or falling) changes the meaning of the word completely and IT IS SO HARD. There was about two seconds at the beginning of the lesson, when our teacher had us sing “doh re mi” to find the medium tone, that I thought “oh! Tonal is like singing! I can sing! I’m gonna be fine.” NOPE. I was terrible. It is so hard to hear the pitches. Literally, you can say the same word, but the different tones change the meaning entirely. For example, the Thai word glai with a medium tone means far, and glai with a falling tone means near. One tonal mistake could lead to a substantial miscommunication!
- The wai. This is how Thais respectfully greet or thank each other in Thailand. To wai, put your hands together in a sort of “prayer” position, and bow your head. The angle that you bow and the placement of your hands (forehead, nose, chin, or chest) varies depending on who you are greeting. The highest level of respect is shown to the Buddhist monks.
- Which side of the road? In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the road, which has been quite an adjustment for me!
- Pricing. The US dollar is strong in Thailand, so compared to American prices, things are really cheap. However, I’ve already started “thinking like a Thai person” and bargained for lower prices or decided against purchasing something because it cost 100 baht (the equivalent of about $3).
All in all, it’s been an amazing first week in Chiang Mai. I am so excited to spend the next six months here, absorbing the Thai culture. In addition to all the learning, I’ve gotten a Thai massage (it was actually rather painful... they do not hold back!), pet a tiger, ziplined through the jungle, shopped at the night bazaar, got sick from eating raw vegetables, got sick from riding in a car up the winding mountain, got sick from riding in a van through the winding city streets, talked with a Buddhist monk, finally saw Wonder Woman in the cinema (with Thai subtitles), went to church on the back of my friend’s motorbike, visited some amazing temples (including Wat Phra That, the temple at the peak of Doi Suthep mountain. My Thai teacher said if you haven’t visited Wat Phra That, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai! We went at sunrise, and it was absolutely stunning.), bought a Thai cell phone, made friends from all over the world, ate several kinds of incredible Thai food that I’m still learning to call by the correct name, used the “hot water machine” in our volunteer house to shower, and lived without air conditioning in a very hot and humid climate. I am loving it here and can’t wait to begin my work at Urban Light today. I’ll check back soon! Kawp koon ka (thank you) for reading!
สวัสดี ค่ะ! <— That, pronounced Sa-wat-dee ka, means hello (and goodbye!) in Thai. Sa-wat-dee is the actual greeting, and ka is the suffix attached to indicate gender. Females use ka whereas males use krab. Additionally, Thai, as one of the oldest Easter Asian languages, is monosyllabic and tonal. The entire meaning of a word is different based on which tone – high, mid, low, rising, or falling – you use. And all of this comes into play when just giving a greeting! It’s clear just from scratching the surface that the Thai language is unique, complex, and is going to be a challenge to use, but I’m looking forward to learning.
Saying hello is just one of the many things I’ve learned as I’ve prepared for my journey abroad. Other tidbits: you can contract very scary-sounding diseases like chikungunya and Japanese encephalitis from contact with mosquitos; you have to mail your actual passport across the country to apply for a visa; and I can, in fact, squeeze all of my possessions into a four-door sedan (I recently made the drive from Nashville to Albuquerque).
To catch you all up to speed, I depart on Wednesday, June 28th (in just 8 days!) to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I will be working with Urban Light, an organization that provides life-changing services to young male victims of human trafficking and exploitation in the region. I will be serving as the full-time Education, Advocacy, and Social Marketing intern. As such, I will be assisting the organization with services and advocacy by teaching English and conducting life skills workshops, managing and maintaining UL’s social media accounts, fundraising, and helping case managers.
The last six months have been filled with tons of general life transition. In December, shortly after I received the Lumos Award, I graduated from Belmont University with a BA in Social Entrepreneurship. In January, I began working full-time in communications at Social Enterprise Alliance, an organization that seeks to equip and empower social enterprises across the United States. And last week, my life in Nashville came to a close (for now!) as I said goodbye to my home, my dear friends, my church, my beloved Chagos, and my team of girl bosses. My dad and I packed up my car and drove across the country to my hometown of Albuquerque, NM, where I’ll be until I leave.
On the preparation front, I’ve booked my flights, downloaded Memrise’s Thai course, volunteered in an ESL classroom, bought way too much travel gear on Amazon (like, do I need six packets of oral rehydration salts? Stay tuned to find out, I guess!), and started reading books like “Working at the Bar: Sex Work and Health Communication in Thailand.” I’ve gotten all the necessary vaccinations, navigated the process for my volunteer visa, ordered foreign currency (the Thai baht) and photos of friends and family, learned how to avoid mosquitos, and stocked up on contact lenses. In short, I am ready to do this thing!
2017 has been completely crazy so far, and it’s about to get even wilder! But through all the uncertainty and insecurity that comes with transitioning into “the real world,” thinking about this journey has always made me feel more like myself than I’ve felt in awhile. I’m sure I’ll have moments of fear and thoughts of what the heck made me think I could do this, but at this point, I feel nothing but excitement and joy. I cannot wait to learn and grow, make new friends, haul my camera and ukulele across the world, serve an amazing cause and organization, focus on my life’s purpose, and learn what it means to truly depend on my faith. I’m even looking forward to the hard stuff: fumbling my way through conversations in Thai, times of loneliness and solitude, and dealing with situations that put my strength to the test.
I can hardly believe it. I’ve been working towards this adventure my entire life, and now I’m actually here, standing on the edge of the unknown, about to dive in.