Boys Are Not Baht

Warning: some may find parts of this entry to be extremely raw. It needed to be in order to tell the story.  It won’t be easy to read through this, but it’s important that people are aware of such realities. 

Only through knowledge can we develop empathy.
Only through empathy can we feel compassion.
Only through compassion can we express love.
Only through love can we become human.

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The bar owners are complicit. The police, largely indifferent.  And as flip-flops clap against the sidewalks, and amateur hagglers squeeze an extra 60-cent savings from a t-shirt vendor on the corner, something quite horrible happens nearby.

Boys are being sold for sex.

Most come from the hill tribe villages, where poverty reigns.  And just as I have seen all over the world, children born into these families are treated as both asset and burden.  Once a family reaches its tipping point, desperation ensues.  If able bodied, any child becomes a candidate to leave the home to find work to help the family.  They go where the work is – in the cities, and where there are tourists.

So they venture out, perhaps to a distant relative’s home, but likely alone with no particular plan or destination.  They won’t be the first to leave the village for the same purpose.  They are already aware of other boys who have gone before them.  They know the directions to head – Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai.

Under the most ideal circumstances, a job washing dishes in a café, or cleaning the grounds at a hotel will provide a modest wage sufficient to share a room and cover basic needs.  These jobs require documentation, which many of the boys do not have and cannot obtain.  But even if they manage to get such a menial job, returning home to the family with only a few thousand baht (1,000 baht = approx. $30) is likely to compel questions about why there’s not more.  And in this way, a child suddenly carries the burden of the entire family.  In this way, a boy becomes willing to do whatever is necessary to earn more money.

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Over time, the boys are drawn into “communities” where they hear about work.  They begin to travel in close-knit circles.  In the absence of loving parents, in the absence of a protective older sibling or an affectionate grandma or even the village “watch dog”, the boys become their own family.

In Chiang Mai, just a few blocks from the night market, is an enclave of “boy bars” where (predominantly) Western men go to find the company of teenage boys.  The bar owners are protective of the trade, and the work of outreach groups must be carried out delicately or they will be banned.  By the time the bars fill, the boys are high from sniffing glue or drunk.  No matter their level of intoxication, their customers will encourage them to have more.

In trying to mentally untie this tragic knot, it’s not difficult to understand how the boys arrive at such a place.  Poverty and desperation exist the world over, and manifest in many different ways.  But the part of the knot that seems impossible to untie is the one of the grown men who seek out the boys.  Relief workers will tell you that these men do not consider themselves homosexual, and many have wives and children back home. Most of the boys do not see themselves as homosexual either.  And so it stands to reason that, to some extent, what occurs between the men and the boys has little to do with sex.  So what is it, exactly, that the men are seeking?  What critical component of their soul has been darkened – or altogether lost – that would otherwise sicken them at the thought of their acts?  What horrible chapter of their own personal history, perhaps never revealed or addressed, may have led them to this poisonous intersection?  And what of the bar owners and police officers who stand by idly?  Only in the most extreme cases, where very young boys are involved, will the police intervene.  From time to time, the police may take action against boys who are in possession of drugs as part of a feeble attempt to disrupt activities.  But to the bar owners who are simply serving up drinks, and the revolving faces of Western men who change nightly, these interferences are of little consequence.

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I became aware of Urban Light simply by chance.  A friend who had volunteered in Chiang Mai a few years ago for an HIV/AIDS organization introduced me to her contact, Brett.  I noted a post on Brett’s Facebook page by Urban Light, and followed the link.  The organization is just a few years old, and operates in a neat and compact space just a block off the night market road.  Though my time in Chiang Mai was not sufficient for a lot of volunteer activity during my stay, Urban Light was kind enough to invite me to their fund-raiser earlier in the week, and also invite me to spend a day with them at their program site.

A staff meeting was just wrapping up when I arrived, and lunch was being cooked.  The staff includes Adrian, Aw, June and Fame.  A boy walked into the upstairs office, wearing headphones attached to his cell phone.  His hair was messy, his eyes tired.  Staff greeted him by name – Sor.  He positioned a few floor cushions, and plopped down in exhaustion.  He told the staff he had a cold.  He covered his head with a pillow, and lay quiet.

Downstairs, we began to set up for lunch.  Sor followed us down, and circled the room still listening to his music.  Shortly after he was born, he had been given up.  His young life was spent bouncing around various care facilities, where he was often bullied or abused.  A few nights a week, he works at a food stall serving pad Thai.  He makes very little money, but at least gets a meal.  He comes to Urban Light a few days a week for meals and to sleep.  I was surprised to learn he was 19, as he looks much, much younger.  But this is common with most of the boys, as they grew up malnourished and are underdeveloped as a result.  Above his right temple appears to be some bruising.  I mention this to Adrian, and he explains that Sor also has epilepsy.  In the past, he has arrived at Urban Light bloodied and bruised from having experienced a seizure.

Each day, two tables are set up end-on-end and lined with hot bowls of food and place settings.  As he circled the room, Sor passed by me and grabbed a hold of my arm.  He didn’t look at me.  He just squeezed, released, and walked toward the sunlight of the windows.  Seemingly alone in his mind, but comforted by company.

It’s never known how many boys will show up for lunch.  On a slow day, perhaps 3-4 “regulars” will show up, and the leftovers will be saved for the following day’s meal.  On this day, however, there would be no leftovers.  As we took our seats, the glass door swung open and a line of boys filed in, each with his palms pressed together as if in prayer, smiling and bowing their greetings.  Eight, or so, all new faces.

Their names and ages were collected, with the youngest claiming to be 14 but by all appearances he had to me much younger.  To my eyes, he could not have been more than 9 or 10 years old.  The boys were all quite social and talkative, happy to answer questions about how they found Urban Light.  They had been referred by a woman who operates another center for children.  Apparently, this particular group of boys has been running into trouble lately.

It was easy to see they were clearly operating as a single unit.  There were 2-3 older boys in their late teens and early 20s, but if the amount of talking was any indication, a number of the younger boys seemed to be in command.  They were dressed in shorts and t-shirts.  “Predator to Prey” read one.  Some looked like they wore clean clothes, while others clearly were in need of a shower and some fresh clothing.  Their attitudes showed defiance, a few covered in tattoos of dragons across their legs and arms, with ink cropping up from underneath their collars indicating even more ink across their backs and chests.  They carried themselves as grown men – but their frail voices and tiny features served as constant reminders that these are children.

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There was a lot of chatter at the dinner table as the boys emptied and filled their plates.  A young boy sitting across from me – his body covered in tattoos and his hair cropped short – smiled as he watched me ask Aw which dishes were the spiciest.

“This one no spicy! This one no spicy!” he encouraged me, laughing.  Thankfully Aw intervened to let me know the dish he had pointed out was, in fact, the spiciest of them all.  I looked at him, narrowed my eyes and grinned.  He threw his head back and laughed, and again “No, no! This one no spicy!”

After lunch the boys convened upstairs.  After I cleared the tables and put the chairs back, I climbed the stairs to find them huddled in front of the television watching a DVD of “Ice Age.”  A few of the older boys had left, and another younger one was taking a shower.  The boy with his head shaved on the sides laid across a loveseat, cradling a guitar and plucking its strings while the others lay on the floor riveted by the movie.  For anyone who didn’t know better, this would look like any other living room in any ordinary place where little boys retreat from a hot day by watching movies in their air-conditioned home.  In their minds, I imagine there was nothing of note occurring.  But given where they had spent the previous night, and given where they would likely again be in a few short hours, it was hard to not see them all in a fleeting state of rescue.

I joined June and a few boys at a game of Jenga on the floor behind the others.  “Ice Age” had ended and they had chose another DVD – Tom & Jerry.  Among the cartoon watchers was a husky boy probably no more than 15 years old.  His hair looked like he probably cut it himself, and he was the one boy most in need of a shower.  He was missing a front tooth, and smelled of alcohol and body odor.  He was restless, and rolling about in front of the television making sounds and provoking a few of the little ones as they tried to watch the movie.  At one point, he finally reclined again back on the floor as he shoved a handful of condoms in his pocket.  His eyes looked back at me, caught a little off-guard that I saw him.  He stuck his tongue out, and growled.  I put my hand over my mouth to hush him, he growled a little more silently, and then turned back to the movie.

Jenga eventually made way for a game of Uno, and after playing about 20 hands Adrian directed the remaining boys back downstairs.  They refused, intent on watching the DVD.  So Aw came up to coax them downstairs to play different games together.  The model at work is very simple.  First, provide a physical space that is safe for the boys to come.  Provide for their basic needs (food, a hot shower, etc.).  Engage them in the pursuits of childhood – games, lessons, and excursions.  And over time, learn their stories and offer them a chance to change their path.  For me, it was especially interesting to be at Urban Light on a day when a new group of boys arrived.  It showed me, hopefully, the beginning of something.

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Aw and Fame had the boys play a game of tossing pens in the air and seeing if you could grasp them all before they fell.  The degree of difficulty gradually increased, and with each failed attempt pen marks were placed on your arm.  Of course, you hand a group of boys colored markers and simple lines on arms quickly evolve into full-on drawings of hearts and smiles and, in one case, even cat whiskers drawn on one boy’s face.  The games went on, and it was heartwarming to see the boys having their brains fully engaged.  It’s doubtful any of them have had much schooling, if any.  But it was clear for a few that their minds were anxious to be tested, and granted the opportunity to show they are more than what they seem.  They giggled and nudged each other.  Again, by sight and sound just a group of boys playing games.  And then another reminder comes that these boys are living a different kind of life.

Hand-crafted Twister tiles were taped to the floor, and the boys quickly took to the challenge of the game and the silliness of the outcomes.  As boys fell out of the game, they would tease the others who were still playing.  The most common method of distraction was to grab at a boy’s crotch or poke at his backside while he was spread eagle on the Twister mat.  The boy who had filled his pocket with condoms stood at the side watching, his hand constantly down the back of his pants.  One of the youngest rolled on the floor in a full belly laugh as he watched his friends contort and balance their way through the game.

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At the end of each game, it became harder and harder to keep the group’s attention.  With each new activity, a boy or two would wander off for a few minutes, then rejoin as a spectator.  By the time the ping pong table was set up, only a few boys remained.  One of them was Jack, one of the very youngest.

For the last hour of the day, we rotated in and out of ping-pong matches with the two remaining boys.  Again it was clear the boys thrived in a setting where they could show off and rule victorious.  By the time 5 o’clock arrived, the building had quieted.

The boys, who just a few hours before had been watching Tom & Jerry cartoons, were gone.  The only thing softening the reality of where they had gone was a very fragile hope that they were at least together.

For every sadness in this world, somewhere there is a corresponding happiness in those working — and giving — to change what is wrong and save those who are lost.

With love can come all things imaginable.

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