Sunday, November 28, 2010

Khong Chiam 7/11

7/11 has arrived in Khong Chiam!

People here have said that 7/11 is the mark of civilization, so Khong Chiam has officially arrived. Thailand is full of 7/11. It's like Dunkin Donuts in Boston. Inescapable. Now I'm generally a "buy local" "support local business" kind of a gal.  I am genuinely concerned that the small local shops nearby are going to suffer a hit and a couple might just go under. So here's a list of reasons why 7/11 is awesome, followed by reasons other small businesses will survive:

7/11 is awesome in Khong Chiam because...
1. It sells books, no one else here does. Okay they're not in English, but other people can buy them.
2. Fat free dairy. Anyone who knows me knows how I feel about this.
3. Air conditioning. Ah the value of food stored in air conditioning. You get crunchy nuts, soft bread,  and most importantly...
4. Chocolate! Previously there was no chocolate here. But with air conditioning they can store it so they can sell it. I approve.
5. Prepared food. This is valuable only because my Thai is terrible and greatly limits my eating choices when I'm by myself since menus here are not in English. Handy occasionally, but not such a bit deal.

Reasons local stores will survive...
1. They let locals have tabs. You can buy your groceries and pay when you get paid at the end of the month. This is HUGE.
2. More stuff. Most stores carry a wider range of products than 7/11, so if you need many things you're likely to do all your shopping somewhere else.
3. The number of people (kids included) who have told me they "don't like western food" bodes well for the noodles carts and banana roti man, as the sandwiches may not appeal.
4. This is a small town and everyone knows who owns which store. Plus prices at 7/11 and local places are within 1 baht (4 cents) of each other, so I think locals will actively support their friends.

So come to Khong Chiam! We have 7/11! But we also have tons of local places that are way more awesome, but don't have chocolate.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reconciling Buddhism and Trafficking

Let me start by saying I am an expert on neither buddhism nor trafficking, this is an entirely superficial perspective. (It saddens me a bit to say) I have spent significantly more time reading about, talking about, researching, and pondering trafficking than I have Buddhism. Most of my knowledge comes from people I know who have dabbled in Buddhism, whether with conviction or curiosity, and from the answers to all the questions I ask of my Thai co-workers here.

So how can these two concepts appear so juxtaposed, yet co-exist? Let's start with definitions, as a wise person once told me, at the core of all arguments and disagreements is a difference of opinion about the definition of something.

What is trafficking? According to the definition used by the international community "Trafficking in Person is defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs." (Protocol to Prevent and Suppress the Trafficking in Persons, UNODC).

OK that was long. I know. So the short version is "Moving someone using threats, force, or fraud, with the end goal of exploiting them." The exception here is that if the person is under 18 you don't need to use threats, force or fraud, because of the power imbalance, if you move a child and it results in exploitation, you are guilty of trafficking. Yes there are nuances that we can debate in future blogs or in comments, but remember, we're being a bit superficial on purpose.

So then, if we've simplified trafficking into a sentence or two, where does Buddhism stand? (forgive me, Wikipedia was succinct) "Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddharta Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha. He is recognized by Buddhists as an awakened or enlighted teacher who shared his insights to help sentient beings end suffering, achieve nirvana, and escape what is seen as a cycle of suffering and rebirth." 

So how is it that these two, apparently disparate, practices can co-exist so closely. Why is it that SouthEast Asia and the Mekong region have some of the highest recorded instances of human trafficking in the world, and this exists, in Thailand at least, in a place where Buddhism is not only the dominant religion, but an ingrained part of the culture. How can something that causes so much pain exist in a place steeped in a religion that aims to end suffering? But, I think this is where it's important to remind myself of two things: people who are religious are not necessarily more ethical or moral than those who are not, and the existence of criminality and wrongdoing in conjunction with the presence of piety and good intentions is not unusual. The existence of a of moral code, even one that is wide reaching and part of the national culture, doesn't necessarily translate to adherence.

Yesterday I took part in a beautiful religious and cultural celebration here, where you make little boats from banana leaves, put incense and candles in them, and float them down the river under the full moon. Before you let your boat go, you pray. Traditionally, you pray about letting go of anger and spite and disappointment, and you ask for success and luck in the coming year.

Yesterday I heard the story of a girl who worked on a mushroom farm nearby and for almost a year was assaulted by her boss daily as he took her from where she stayed to where she worked. Someone finally helped her escape and took her to the police. The police shrugged off the accusations because she was Lao.

In the simplest terms, good and bad exist everywhere, whether or not we choose to see them. One does not preclude the existence of the other, whether things seem idyllic or hope seems lost.

Perhaps we should not try to reconcile Buddhism and human trafficking, for fear of diluting the depth of understanding necessary to grasp either one. But rather, remember that they coexist, in the same culture, the same place, and sometimes even the same people.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thailand Incognito

There are some places I imagine I could blend in, pretty much anywhere English speaking, maybe Argentina or Chile, maybe parts of Europe if I didn’t wear sneakers. Northeast Thailand is definitely not one of them. Not only do I not blend, I stand out. But unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been, no one really seems all that interested. A big part of that is probably how many Westerns come to Thailand, whether living here or just passing through. On the other hand I’m in northeastern Thailand (Khong Chiam outside of Ubon Ratchathani if you’re in the mood for googling). This is not on your guide book’s “Top 10 things to do in Thailand” list. There are no beaches. There is no one trying to sell you anything or take you on a tour. But still, people seem to notice me, and beyond an extra glance over their shoulder as they walk away, they don’t seem to mind about me, one way or another. It’s actually really nice. It makes being more than a head taller than everyone in this little town on the border of Laos a little easier.
I would say that would be my tagline for Thailand so far, it’s an easy place to be. People are kind and helpful, the food is delicious, fresh and cheap, Although I am in a very rural part of the country the roads are paved and the lights are consistently on, and the little shops have all the necessities you could need living here (even espresso!). It’s also a beautiful place to be, with the Khong (Mekong) River on one side of our little peninsula and the Mun (Moon) River on the other, it’s stunning in every direction.
In other places I have found myself constantly apologizing for not speaking the local language, and having people dismiss me solely because of it. Here everyone is delighted when I nod and point, and at my butchering of Thank You in Thai. I’m working on it, and they’re more than happy to put the price of anything on their calculator to show me. People here don’t love me or hate me, they seem to simply be untroubled by my presence. Maybe they’re just being polite, but the Canadian in me appreciates some perfunctory politeness. Maybe I just don’t know what they’re saying about me because I don’t speak Thai, but I am more than content to live in a little ignorant bliss for the time being.
So just a little update for everyone who reads this occasionally to keep track of me, rather than for my keen insight (ha): I’m in Thailand, on the border of Laos. I was in Bangkok for a few days before coming here, and will be staying here until about December 15, when I will return to Bangkok. I’ll leave for home on December 18th.  I’m here working, so it’s unlikely I’ll be able to see anywhere outside of this rural corner of Thailand, but it looks like I’ll be putting it on my list of places to visit again. I’m 12 hours ahead of EST and 15 hours ahead of PST if you feel like calling, just email me for my Thai cell number or catch me online.
More to come!

Update #2
So it's been 5 weeks and I take it all back. Okay not all of it but most of it. Thailand seeming easy and like no one bothered with me... well that was just in comparison to Angola. Angola is difficult. Thailand is... well it isn't easy. There's just more effort to present a pleasant front I think. Like for instance, when teaching a data collection method to researchers, my first thought of something they could rank (1-5 best to worst, you get the idea) was "Biggest Problems in Luanda" since people already talked about it alllll the time. There was trash and electricity problems, cost of living, traffic and on and on. But here, we went with "Things you like best about Khong Chiam" because everyone's preference is to say positive things, even though there are negative things to say, they just often don't get said. Very interesting and I'm learning, slowly but surely.