By Aiko Enoki
This summer, I embarked on an incredible journey to the Theravada Buddhist country of Thailand and to India, the birthplace of Buddhism.
Of the 25,000 temples of Thailand, I entered about a dozen throughout my time in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai, and through the kindness of friendly locals, I learned their rituals: drip water from the tips of unblossomed lotus flowers over one’s head, light a candle for long life, light sixteen incense sticks to bring good fortune to your family name, place gold flakes on Buddha’s statue, and hang flowers, whose wilting petals symbolize impermanence. I also learned the many rules of Thailand’s temples. Temple goers abide by a strict dress code and arranging oneself in a comical pose with a Buddha statue is considered an arrestable offense. Women are forbidden to touch a monk or brush against their robes. Further, as the head is considered sacred and the feet, dirty, pointing one’s feet at Buddha’s statue must be avoided and when exiting, backing away from the Buddha is more appropriate than turning one’s back to the statue. I saw the revered Emerald Buddha by the Grand Palace and a golden 100 foot tall Buddha at Wat Intharawihan. However, the purpose of my tour was not to learn about Buddhism. It was to learn about human trafficking and modern-day slavery. I was one among thirteen students, alumni, and faculty of Cal State Los Angeles’ social work department and member of a two week Global Exchange reality tour.
Human trafficking is the illegal trade of human beings for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor. We visited hill tribe villages to understand the political and economic conditions contributing to trafficking and experienced a lesson of interconnectedness. As foreign countries like ours pressured countries like Thailand to strengthen environmental protection laws, Thailand enacted laws restricting farming in forest areas, the land hill tribes have lived and farmed on for many generations. With the new restrictions, hill tribes like the Acca are driven to find new ways to survive, like selling small craft items and moving to urban areas as labor workers, thus increasing their vulnerability to trafficking. I learned how our neglectful actions harm people in other countries, but also how our sensitive decisions could help. As consumers, being aware of where our clothes, foods, and items come from and not supporting forced labor with the money you spend, could make a big difference. Finally, through visits to local NGOs (nonprofit organizations), I witnessed the incredible work of local leaders working within communities to provide resources, support, education, and housing to child and adult victims of sex and labor trafficking.
Included among these NGO visits was a visit to an organization serving victims of labor trafficking in the fishing and shrimping industries of Bangkok. Thailand is a wealthy country relative to neighboring nations and thus attracts many workers from abroad. Faces of individuals from Myanmar are common sights in fishing industries. Some workers spend their life savings to cross the border. Others get into debt and are sometimes placed in situations where they are indefinitely unable to pay off their dues. On some boats these workers are considered expendable labor and when a worker gets sick, they are thrown overboard. The NGO we visited takes calls from victims on boats and in factories and works with local police to perform rescue raids.
With the agency, we visited an example of a nice shrimping factory to observe its conditions. Lines of workers stood peeling shrimp as our group filed through. The owner proudly exclaimed that his employees work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, for 300 Baht (less than $10) a day. We walked through their living quarters adjacent to the factory and were shocked to find their homes were created out of shipping crates. These crates were stacked in twos and lined up to create a residential community. I was appalled. We were supposed to be taking a tour of a nice factory, but these people were working 10 hour days for $10 a day. They were living in shipping crates!
But retaining sensitivity to local cultures is imperative as visitors to a country and I often find, the best way to do so is to ask. So I started up a conversation with one of the workers at the NGO and asked him about his work. He shared that he works 10 hours a day, seven days a weekbecause he enjoys it so much and his coworkers are like familyand that $10 per day is the minimum wage of Thailand. Through conversation I realized, that although at first the work conditions appeared unacceptable to me, I needed to listen and let go of my attachments to what I considered right, and be present and observe and absorb the culture.
Surprisingly, when I returned, I was watching an interior design program. And the item to be designed that day was…a shipping crate! Shipping crate homes are considered a sturdy, cheap, and recycle-friendly alternative in Texas. In Amsterdam, shipping crate dorms serve as an effective solution to their student housing problem. Witnessing these varied uses for shipping crates reinforced my need to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.
From Thailand, I traveled to India where 80% of the population follows Hinduism and 0.8% follows Buddhism. Hinduism is based on the concept of reincarnation and I was surprised to find the Buddha among the Hindu symbols of worship. The Buddha was incorporated into Hinduism and is thought to be one of the incarnations of the god Vishnu.
India is the birthplace of four of the world’s major religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism and living there for three weeks, I felt the spirituality that must have encouraged the development of these traditions. I felt very close to death there, visiting people in the hospital actively dying of AIDS, attending village funerals, and cars almost crashing into you as you ride on the back of a motorbike without a helmet on. And I felt very close to life. The earth is exposed, much of the ground unruly and unpaved. You eat dinner alongside nature, with mosquitoes and huge ants crawling around you. The incredible heat and lack of air conditioning, not knowing when your water supply would run out…you’re living and you’re surviving. And to cope with the chaos, you take moments to stand on top of the roof of a home and gaze out at the horizon as the sun sets…as you hear the mournful cries of wild peacocks (India’s national bird) in the distance…a moment of peace among the chaos.
There was something very spiritual about India, but this again, was not the reason for my visit there. I was in Jaipur to work as an office volunteer and advocate for Rajasthan’s Network for People Living with HIV/AIDS, while living at a care home for 24 children affected by HIV/AIDS. From my first evening there, the children called me “Deedee,” which means big sister. They loved the camera and they’d ask, “Deedee, one photo?” “Big sister take one photo,” or “Deedee, pani?”big sister, do you want water?
The boy who first called me Deedee was a thirteen year old. One evening after dinner, as I was washing my dish, he came into the kitchen to fill his cup of water from the filtered water dispenser next to me. His cup was filled and I looked over at him. He gave me the most beautiful, brilliant smile, opened his mouth to show two white pills on his tongue, and swallowed them with his water. I was working with children affected by HIV/AIDSthey’d lost a parent, both parents, or they were alive but too sick to care for their children. Some of the children were themselves living with HIV. I immediately felt guilty and concerned. This boy is ill, he was helping me, bringing me water and food…I should have been doing so instead and letting him rest. But then I realized, these children were born with HIV, but they are full of energy and resilience, they are living with HIV and places like the care home allow them to get an education, live in a safe environment, play as children, and dream.
My summer travels were full of lessons, thought-provoking experiences, and meaningful relationships and I thank you for the opportunity to share them with you.
If you would like to learn more about the organizations affiliated with my experiences in Thailand and India or are interested in learning more about how to get involved at the local level, please visit the websites below:
Reality Tours: globalexchange.org
Volunteering Abroad: ifrevolunteers.org
Urban Light: urban-light.org
Mirror Foundation: themirrorfoundation.org
Not For Sale Campaign: notforsalecampaign.org
Coalition Against Slavery and Trafficking: castla.org
Californians Against Slavery: caseact.org
RNP+ Aanchal Care Home: keepachildalive.org, armsaroundthechild.org
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