Archive for the ‘ Thailand ’ Category

Happy New Year, Round 2

Three months and some change after celebrating the Gregorian New Year with it’s fireworks and resolutions, Thailand shuts down for three solid days of Songkran, the country’s traditional New Year celebrated with massive water- and powder-fights.

It’s sort of like having a second breakfast.

I have to confess to loving second breakfasts.  (Who could turn down a second heaping mound of dad’s famous pancakes or, in the case of my previous two days, a second heaping mound of mango sticky rice?)

Second helpings of new year celebrations (or third, if you count the Chinese New Year in February) are equally welcome in my life.  A little change of pace from the craziness of the schedule for some even crazier fun and a little time to reflect on the “new year” ahead.  And maybe I can start over on those New Year’s resolutions that didn’t make it to February, let alone April.

As for Songkran-specific celebrations… it’ll take some time to recover from the unexpected full-day workout I underwent by violently throwing water at cars, trucks and motorcycle gangs driving by on crowded Bangkok streets.  Not sure it was enough to work off the sin of mango sticky rice consumed in large portions, but it sure left me with a sore arm.  And that was just day one.

Thai people like to call Songkran the world’s largest and longest waterfight. Granted we’re now only two days into the three day event, but I would have to agree with that claim to fame.

Here’s a small taste of the fun; photos taken at great risk to life and lens…

Happy New Year!

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Country Bumpkin

The first of a series on Buriram…

As much as I love our activities in Bangkok, the biggest area on my heart here in Thailand is the vast expanse of rice fields that make up Thailand’s rural Isaan region — a region known for it’s extreme poverty and as “home” to the vast majority of the women we meet and serve in Bangkok.  My biggest hope here is to somehow grasp the root factors leading to the migration of women from the rice fields to the red light districts and, God-willing, invest in some areas that will help break the cycle on a holistic and sustainable basis.

I admit to having many assumptions about those root factors before I came here.  Assumptions about poverty.  Assumptions about needs, resources, values, desires of communities to change and assumptions of what I might be able to do to “help.”

Some much brighter minds than mine warn of these assumptions and accompanying attitudes with respect to how to tackle poverty.  Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in the book “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself” gave me some paradigm shifting food for thought last fall which shaped my approach to Buriram:

One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich – their god-complexes- and the poverty of being of the economically poor – their feelings of inferiority and shame.

I had to chew on that one for a while, I admit.

The alternative to entering a situation with a god-complex (or the attitude that I’m less poor and therefore have come to “help” people out of their helpless state) is entering a situation with humility and the primary objective to learn.  Rather than documenting the number of ways that they could or should be better off (read: more like us), it’s seeking their unique value and worth.

Corbett and Fikkert characterize it this way: “By showing low-income people through our words, our actions, and most importantly our ears that they are people with unique gifts and abilities, we can be part of helping them to recover their sense of dignity, even as we recover from our sense of pride.”

So, I spent the last several trips trying to rid myself of my western pride, attitudes and assumptions by simply being a part of the community and not really trying to change, or do, anything.  I hoped simply to build relationships. As a result, I was able to see that there are many people in Buriram far less poor than I am in many ways and I have a great deal to learn from them.

One thing working against me… Many in the region are used to white people coming in and throwing down money to “fix things.”  Sadly, many of the nicer things in the area came as a result of an influx of foreign money, often through a foreign husband.  Sometimes those foreign husbands are still around, some visit every few years, but most are out of the picture.  I could write another blog post on this, or perhaps a thesis (which I should be working on right now instead of blogging, by the way…) but I’ll refrain for now.  I’ll simply observe that the allure of foreign wealth is a significant contributing factor to young women migrating to the city — and to the red light districts — to find a husband.

It leaves me with the uphill battle convincing the community that I’m different than the white people they’re used to; that I’m not a source of quick wealth.

I just have to convince them I’m not a foreigner at all.

Fast forward to now.  My time just hanging out and being one of the family members has paid some dividends.  When someone calls me a foreigner, the kids quickly and protectively shout back before I ever get the chance:  “mai chai farang – khao bpen khon thai leeo”.   She’s not a foreigner – she’s Thai!   It’s a running joke now; I still stick out like a sore thumb, but those words bring me great joy.

How did that happen?  Pretty sure a gracious God had something to do with it.

Some say I earned those stripes by eating (and loving) their local specialties of fermented-fish-flavored spicy food (nothing earns you more rapport with Thais than eating their food in mass quantities).  Snacking on bugs generally turns some heads; they’re not used to foreigners eating them other than for a possible photo-op. I think the scale tipped when I broke a flip flop but instead of tossing it, I fixed it with a piece of rope and kept wearing it until someone sneakily tossed them while I was asleep.  (I’m still a little bitter about that one.)

I think it’s starting to stick that, despite my white skin and my incessant questions, I’m just another Buriram sister, cousin, aunt or niece.  In many ways, more country bumpkin than they are.

Thankful for the chance to be welcomed into their community and looking forward to what this next season has in store.

Next up — putting the hand to the plow…

Approaching 6 Months

Finding it hard to believe the six-month mark is approaching.

Lots of highs and lows over the last few weeks since I returned from Christmas in the States.  I know that’s fairly typical of life overseas, but the extremes lately have been, well, extreme.  Chalk it up to having a different perspective on things now that I’m here on a one-way ticket, the initial glamourous luster of missions having somewhat faded, and my Thai language progressing to the point that I can no longer feign ignorance as to what’s going on around me.

But there are plenty of positive extremes to celebrate.

We kicked off a “version 2.0” education and job training program for women at The Well mid-January and, in less than a month, have seen some amazing things happen. The women learning metal-smithing technique from Chelsey are creating absolutely phenomenal jewelry pieces and are having lots of fun doing it. The student leaders now running the jewelry floor with minimal supervision are taking the business to a new level. The sewing team is mixing up their product lines with new stuff like laptop sleeves (putting Etsy vendors to shame…)  Students interested in music are accelerating after their guitar or keyboard lessons sometimes faster than the teachers can teach. Women are excitedly checking in with Skye, our resident nurse teaching health class, when they carry around a water bottle instead of their usual red sugar-water.

There’s nothing like fresh starts to infuse some excitement and new energy into life and ministry here.

I spend my time changing hats between teacher (media/communications class), auntie (working in The Well’s children’s center), friend (bar outreach), photographer (for the jewelry business and awareness raising/communications functions), house mom (running the volunteer house), student (plugging away at Thai language and working on my thesis), and trying to squeeze in some street basketball or soccer with neighborhood kids if we can handle the heat and polluted air.

On the other hand, the reality of living far from home in a culture I often find hard to understand (and sometimes hard to appreciate) is starting to wear on me. That coupled with facing some extremely difficult, complex ministry situations has left me at or near the end of my rope on more than one occasion.

But amidst the struggles and chaos, I also get to sit back and let the little life-giving and joy-bringing things soak in.

Such as… the football-team worth of little tacklers running, jumping, clinging to me and nuzzling their snotty noses into my shoulder upon arrival to the children’s center… a scene set to “repeat” for about four hours twice a week.

Such as….  when I pitched the idea of my media/communications class publishing a monthly newsletter, I had one of my students step boldly into the position of Editor-in-Chief, citing maybe she could be a real editor someday.

Such as… cooking Thai meals with Jup and realizing we can have serious conversations in Thai. Though our conversations are rarely serious and generally involve more laughter than decipherable words.

Such as… sitting down with visiting pastors, authors and missionaries and discussing new and innovative ways to challenge cultural paradigms, create healthy community, train up disciples and, well, just try to live like Jesus.

And so the list continues.  I might be missing out on a lot at home, but I can’t imagine missing out on THIS.


A Boy Named Solomon

I met a precious family on a concrete overpass over one of Bangkok’s busiest thoroughfares the other night.

A 32-year-old mother with two little girls – ages 4 and nearly 1. Her son joined us a little while later.  When we asked how old he was, he asked his mom whether he should tell his real age or the age he uses when he’s asking for food or money. She told him he could tell us the truth. 11. But he gets more money and food if he tells people he is only 6, and he could certainly pass for that age based on his small size.

But what he lacks in size he makes up for in personality and wit.  As much as I fell in love with the mom and her sweet daughters, I was fascinated by the little boy.

I call him Solomon.

They’ve been in Thailand for some time, having migrated across the border from Cambodia after her husband left her for another woman and sold their house, leaving her with nothing except her sweet children. Cambodia had nothing for them – not even food. They’re able to at least find food in Thailand, though that doesn’t mean it’s easy. One of the many dangers, she’s left to fend off a Japanese man who approaches her on a daily basis offering her 100,000 baht (~3,300 USD) to buy her beautiful little 1-year-old daughter.

Jup and I had a blast playing with the kids, singing Thai kid songs with them and listening to Mom sing an old Christian hymn in her native tongue, all the while getting weird looks from passers by, both foreign and Thai.  Some looked on with pity.  Others looked somewhere between perplexed and disgusted as we sat on the dirty ground sharing food and laughs in the “home” of this homeless family.

At lot about this particular night left me unsettled.  The thought of people lurking waiting to purchase and traffic homeless kids. Juxtaposing the kindness of the poor street vendors that had purchased a mat for this family so they didn’t have to sleep on the ground with the ambivalent wealthy folks passing by in their rush to the next entertainment stop. The list goes on.

But I was distracted from the injustices of the situation by the sheer potential I saw in little Solomon.

When we asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, he said he wanted to be a soldier because “I want to protect Thailand. I love Thailand. Thai people have good hearts.” Hungry for knowledge, he wants to be able to speak good Thai and English…and he threw in Chinese for good measure too.

We took him and his sister to the 7-Eleven nearby to buy some milk and food and a couple simple art supplies. Solomon’s sister wanted an expensive art set, but he quickly told her that he found one that was just as good but much less expensive.

We then went to the milk aisle and asked Solomon which kind he likes to drink.  Of the two options, he pointed to the first one and matter-of-factly stated that, though this one would make him healthy, the second one would make him clever.

He chose clever.

Precious.

I sincerely hope this isn’t the end of the story. We’re exploring ways to help this family, but the list of complications is long.

What will it take to give clever little Solomon some hope for his future?

I can’t help but think that if Solomon and his family are given some hope for their future, it might help give Thailand and Cambodia some hope for theirs.

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

1 Corinthians 1:26-29

Christmas All Over the World

90 degrees notwithstanding, it’s Christmas-time in Bangkok.

Caroling over the weekend in and around our neighborhood ushered in the Christmas spirit in style.  For the record, I’m a fan of caroling Thai-style…. shorts, flip flops, piled in the back of a songtaew (converted pickup truck with benches in the back) and each stop generally results in being invited in for food in mass quantities.  Ice cream might replace hot cocoa and “kha haai mii kwaam suk nai wan Christmas le suk san wan bpii maai” takes the place of “we wish you a Merry Christmas”, but degrees of Christmas joy certainly aren’t contingent on language, climate or any other tradition that we hold so dear for Christmas in America.  My personal favorite part of the caroling evening was a random stop at our local open-air market (adjacent our oft-frequented 7-Eleven) for a few songs, much to the embarrassment of half the singing crew as they felt overly exposed in our Santa hats and reindeer antlers amongst n0t-quite-strangers-but-not-yet-friends.

An evening of Christmas songs in Thai and English laced with laughter made for good soul food, and the nine stops with meals/food at each one ensured I won’t actually need another meal until Christmas.

Caroling was just the start, though.  Tonight kicked off a series of Christmas parties of varying shapes and sizes, hosted by a number of ministries in Bangkok with hearts for men and women in the sex industry.

A group of us from The Well spent the evening in Chinatown sharing gifts with women with whom we have relationships and meeting some new friends.  We find some of the hardest of the hard stuff in our trips to Chinatown; stuff that’s not comfortable or particularly fun to share.  A picture: One woman with two young boys, ages 9 and 11…  They sleep in a storefront on one of the main streets where the girls work and the boys suffer from major skin problems due to mosquito bites from sleeping in the open air.  The 11-year-old brother recently “ran away” for a while, which we later found out consisted of leaving with some foreign customers; he was back tonight.  We went to see them earlier this week to bring them to The Well (at their request) but an abnormal cool/dry season rainfall foiled our plans and they didn’t show.  After spending some time with them tonight, they said they will come check out The Well tomorrow.  We’re hoping  and praying they actually will.  Please pray for this precious family and the many others with whom we’re developing friendships in Chinatown.

Tomorrow night Jup and I will be joining a group of volunteers from the “Home of New Beginnings” ministry as they host a Christmas party for women working in Soi Cowboy and Nana, two of Bangkok’s main red light districts.  Between 400-600 women are expected to join in the festivities over the course of two evenings.  These parties provide a beautiful opportunity for women to experience a gift of love and hear about the true meaning of Christmas; for many it will be the first time they hear the story of Jesus.   Praying that those that attend will experience a love beyond anything they’ve known and be given real, tangible hope for new beginnings.

We’ll be hosting a “smaller” gathering here at our house over the weekend for the women with whom we’ve developed closer friendships — just an evening of food, fun and an opportunity for some of the women at The Well to share their victorious stories with women who face what they too once faced.  Spaghetti’s on the menu at the request of a few of our girls — not exactly a traditional Christmas dinner, but their wish is my command!  (Green curry will also be on the menu since Thai people rarely truly enjoy Western food even if they request it…) Praying that it will be an evening that blesses the girls this Christmas and gives them yet another glimpse of love and hope for freedom.

A good friend that has begun a ministry (called dton naam ministries) specifically reaching out to ladyboys will be hosting a Christmas gathering next week as well at their coffee shop which is nearing completion.  I’m a huge fan of this ministry and heart to provide opportunities for ladyboys to leave prostitution and gain legitimate job skills while receiving healing physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Please keep Celeste, her staff and this unique and very important ministry in your prayers this next week and heading into the new year!

Parties, gift giving, preparing to pour out joy and messages of hope … it’s all very “Christmas-y” and yet not at all like any Christmas I’ve experienced.   My prayers are much different than they used to be; I find myself unsure what even to pray.  It seems trite to pray for ‘peace and joy” for women, men and families that have endured so much and have so little to look forward to.  I can pray that they experience the love of Christ and a message of hope, but even that seems…well… tired, for lack of a better word.

Isaiah 25:5 leapt from the pages this last week:  “You subdue the noise of the foreigners; as heat by the shade of a cloud so the song of the ruthless is put down…  God will wipe away tears from all faces… let us rejoice and be glad!

Amazing how God gives new pictures and fresh perspectives at just the right time to remind us what to hope for and how to pray.

I’m praying this week that “the noise of the foreigners” and the “songs of the ruthless” would be subdued completely.  Those noisy voices of customers that tell women they’re worth nothing more than $10-20 per night.  Those songs that tell them their destiny was written when they were born into their respective social class or economic situation. That they’re “used goods” that have no worth or value.  That their situation of poverty and/or exploitation is hopeless.

I’m now envisioning — and trusting — that God will use these opportunities over the next week to turn down the volume knob of that noise.  That it would be silenced if even for a moment to allow room for messages of truth, love and hope to seep in.  And that these moments would lay the foundation for a more permanent silencing of those voices; for tears to be replaced with rejoicing and for many ‘new beginnings’ as we head into a new year.

We would love your prayers as we continue through what is a big week for many ministries here in Bangkok.

Bring on the Christmas cheer!

Commercial Break: What is “The Well”?

After getting a number of questions about what all goes on here, I decided it’s time for a brief commercial break to highlight what this “well” is actually about.

The Well consists of a small group of Christians focused on bringing change to Thailand through personal, family and social transformation.  Their “Reach, Teach, Send” strategy is based on John 4 where Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman resulted in a changed life and that one changed life resulted in a transformed community.

The organization looks for innovative ways to help women in the sex industry, or at risk of entering it, find healing and a new start.  We believe that these women, like the woman at the well, can experience personal healing and transformation as well as be powerful agents of change in their families and communities.

That all sounds great, right?  But you’re probably still wondering what we actually do.

Reach

You may have heard me talk (or write) about our nights spent in Thailand’s red light districts developing relationships with women in the sex industry.  We seek simply to build friendships and speak love and hope into their lives in the process.  If they express an interest in finding alternative income sources or further education, we try to offer ways for them to do that.

Teach

The “Teach” component is multi-faceted and ever-evolving.  The organization looks to address physical needs (by providing a place for the women to come and stay), emotional needs (crisis intervention and counseling), spiritual needs (discipleship) as well as provide opportunities for education and skill development.  Workshops on health, parenting, business/entrepreneurship, emotional healing, etc. supplement courses in English and other core subjects.  In addition to the scheduled education programs, the women are also offered the opportunity to earn income by taking part in “The Well Products” business, consisting of training in sewing, jewelry making and paper products.  A children’s center on site offers child care while the women study and work.

Jewelry party in Bangkok this last weekend featuring The Well Products

The hope is to reform the education modules in the future to move toward designing clear career paths for the women that enter The Well programs. We’re also on the lookout for ideas and partners in finding new, innovative ways to provide employment opportunities for single mothers.

Send

The Well seeks to love and disciple women as long as they need it, with the goal of equipping them to at some point go out and be leaders of their families and communities.

I’m heading out of Bangkok tonight to spend a week with one of these women that has been “sent”.  She has a story that will break your heart but a passion for hope and growth and progress for her community and country that will both humble and inspire you.  She has returned to her rural community and is investing in teaching, discipling and creating business and employment opportunities for women there.

She’s what The Well is all about.

I’m going to visit her first and foremost to learn from her.  And her neighbors.  And their neighbors… and a few others that are involved in fascinating development-minded projects in the area that have been gracious enough to let me hear their stories.

Because the economy of the region is heavily reliant on agriculture, we’re looking for ways to possibly engage in agricultural education and/or innovation that can help provide income for families in a way that would avoid the need for urban migration.  That is, we’re looking for ways to spark longer-term change in families and communities that will keep young girls or young mothers from migrating to the city (and too often the bars) for economic reasons.

But first, I’m going simply to listen and learn.   Looking forward to sharing stories after the trip!

1000 Words Aren’t Enough

We easily accept that a picture can be worth a thousand words.  But how often do we stop with the thousand words it speaks?  What about the rest of the story?

I took my camera to Soi Cowboy last week for the first time, trying to get some images for awareness-raising efforts.  And I hated every second of it.  As someone that usually enjoys being behind a lens, this threw me for a loop.

I hated looking through a lens at that place; I would much prefer to look in their eyes and hear the stories of the women we meet rather than “capture” the scenes that can’t possibly come close to telling the real stories of the past or dreams of the future.

I realized going there with a camera was risky.  I was risking looking (and feeling) like I was reducing women to subjects and statistics rather than affirming their worth and value.  Beyond that, I feared what reaction I might get to the photos.  I feared that others might see the photos and pass judgments.  Or even worse, that people might simply react with pity, shake their head and go on their way.

Either way, I realized that I’m terrified to take photos of the hard stuff because I know all too well how easy it is to stop with the “thousand words” and not bother to find out the rest of the story.

As uncomfortable as this makes me, I was reminded by someone I respect that it’s a turmoil we have to face.

I have the privilege of working alongside some incredible people and a handful of ministries that are committed to getting to know both stories of the past and dreams for the future.  Most of these people were moved at some point or another by the reality of the injustices we saw – whether it was through a photograph, a video, or seeing it in person.  “Seeing” it offered an invitation to enter in.

I guess that makes the turmoil worth it.  It’s my hope that any images used from this shoot or any others would not evoke judgment. Or pity. But that they would be an invitation for others to be moved with compassion to come and find out the rest of the story.

Tomorrow we’ll be attending a full day networking event with Thai Christian business leaders and a number of local non-profits. It’s an opportunity for Thai leaders to better understand what God is doing in the country and for ministries like The Well to find committed, local leaders to partner in our efforts.

We would love your prayers for God to move in the hearts of those at the meeting — that they would be compelled to want to learn the stories behind the images.

Whose Daughter?

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