Living in Bangkok, I walk by about a hundred (conservative estimate) moral dilemmas a day. Disabled people begging. Children of migrants that have been drugged with sleeping medicine so that they can appear docile while their parents beg all night. Street food is so cheap it cannot possibly be fair to anyone who grew or prepared it (and deliciously MSG-laden). I walk by two red light districts, with women out front putting on makeup getting ready for their nights, on my way to yoga. Police ask for bribes - to pay or not to pay? The shopping malls use more energy than entire provinces, but it's so marvelously cold in there, I find myself riding escalators by Chanel and Lamborghini stores (yes, in a mall) all weekend just to escape the heat. Thailand doesn't recognize refugees, and it is therefore illegal to help educate or employ them, so you have to break laws to do so. By the time I get home, it's all I can do to crawl into bed, watch Empire while eating gummi bears and fall asleep.
At the foundation I'm consulting with, the children who are part of the education project used to work at night selling flowers. Like so many other kids around the world, they represent an economic value to their family. For them to be able to quit their jobs and go to school, the foundation had to offer to compensate the families for their loss, so to speak. It's what the foundation considers necessary and reclaims the future of the children, but it is still reinforcing the idea that children have to support the family. Nothing is ever easy or straightforward.
I went to a bar the other night and drank vodka and listened to live rap (a rare treat in a city obsessed with Ed Sheeran covers) while women in fur coats sat on swings and others played cards above the bar. It was performance art with just a touch of objectification. I've been to these kinds of parties in L.A. and Austin. But is it similar to the women who work in the red light districts? How can you tell the difference? Agency? How much they're being paid? The amount of clothes they are wearing? I mean, it was fancy, so I'm sure we're good.
Last week I walked through a market in Chiang Rai, near the Thai/Burma border where the ground is rich with exploitation of animals, land and people. Akha people populate this area and make their living off the land and re-selling goods. The generation before them cultivated poppies for opium until the Thai government and U.S. DEA shut that shit down. There was a lovely young woman I chatted with for a little bit. Probably living near the poverty line. She was openly selling what she purported to be elephant tusks, bear livers, tiger teeth. Ay ay ay. On the same spectrum, I went to a bougie fox cafe in the burbs here where you can drink coffee and play with fennec foxes. Yes, I know, these foxes aren't living their best life, as Oprah would say. And their #squadgoals probably weren't taking a selfie with me, but I couldn't help it, okay? They were so freaking adorable and zoos never let you do anything fun. Hello my name is Constance and I participate in the trafficking of animals.
These dilemmas are not unique to Bangkok, but megacities like this one put on such fine display the inequalities, the thousand little choices a day that make up not only who we are and what we consume, but how other people meet those needs. And what they sacrifice to meet the demand. The interconnectedness of it all. As I write this, I can look out my window and see a dozen Burmese construction workers building apartments. Citizenship may never be offered to them, but their cheap labor is in high demand. And it keeps building costs down. Bangkok deserves its sordid reputation, and enough people have made enough money on blatant, debauched exploitation, that if you wanted to have sex with an endangered tiger here, you could probably Favor it. Just in these last few paragraphs, I have been a witness to or participated in trafficking of animals and people. That is what every day is like here.
I heard of an expat who buys owls from one of the many animal vendors at Jatujak market. There are many animals trafficked illegally through that market, but some are just not, again, living their best life. (Here is a video to give you an idea). Anyway, this foreigner buys owls from the market, houses them in her apartment for a bit, and then sets them free. On the one hand, setting an owl free in Bangkok is a one-way ticket to getting smashed into a high-rise window. What a waste. On the other hand, this is how this individual has chosen to deal with what I presume is an innate desire for justice while living here. Setting one owl free at a time. For an organization to do this would clearly be a waste of resources, but for this one lone owl hero, I don't begrudge them doing something that makes the world better.
I'm still looking for my owls. I don't yet know how to consistently participate in a meaningful or measurable way in this wonderful/horrible city that I love/hate. I am, however, already de facto contributing to the inequalities, exacerbated by my privilege as a foreigner with money. And the sheer volume of daily choices makes me dizzy. But I will continue to look and hope for owls -- small ways to connect with and serve others. Even knowing full well they might smash into windows. I need to hold no expectations for them or myself. Also, truth be told, I want to be absolved of a little of the guilt that is in many ways useless and even itself reeks of privilege, but exists in me nonetheless. I'm going on an owl hunt. Not that kind! Jeez. God help me.