There are all kind of things that go on here in Thailand that if no one ever told you, and since you didn't think to ask (because why would you), you would just never know. The song is of the benign variety. I was running in Lumpini park tonight and the national anthem started playing on loudspeakers, so I stood stopped immediately and stood still. Everyone in the park freezes, mid-stride, mid-aerobics, mid-whatever, to pay respects, as everyone does in all public places across the country every day, twice a day at 8 am and 6 pm. You just don't move and everything stops twice a day in public. That's all. Once you know, you just accept it and move on. But how bizarre for the un-initiated. I saw one tourist continue to walk around a few seconds, until she realized that the hundreds of people around her were totally still. You could see her slow down, trying to figure out what was going on (apocalypse? viral contagion? freeze tag?) until she just gave up and stood still with the rest of us. There are just things here you accept and don't ask questions. Things like matching.
In Thailand, days of the week are associated with auspicious astrological colors. Monday is yellow, and the king was born on a Monday, so you see a lot of yellow. Thais honor him on Mondays by wearing yellow. Someone somewhere in Thailand is super rich from selling yellow polo shirts all these years. More so last time I lived here, I noticed people wearing colors in accordance with the days of the week. On Tuesdays, we wear pink. We also visit the immigration detention center on Tuesdays.
If you overstay your visa in Thailand, no matter what your nationality, you risk being caught and thrown in immigration jail (a video of what I believe to be the inside- with prison language, natch). I've heard that there are around 250 adults and children inside, but I don't know the official number. I don't even know if there is an official number. All I know is what I've seen -- brown and white and black faces. Children from Pakistan clinging to their mother's hands. A muscular black guy from Guinea being visited by his Thai girlfriend (okay, so I imagine lots of scenarios). One older British guy shuffling through papers, asking his friend to round up some cash (his friend, I think, is not happy about this and I wonder why the hell a British guy is in here and why his friend won't help him). There are women who I'm certain have been trafficked from countries like Uzbekistan and Congo. There are women in hijab (Syria, maybe? Definitely Middle Eastern). There are Muslims and Christians. Most of the men are shirtless, whether due to the humidity or the humiliation, I don't know.
I can create such vivid stories in part because I can hear everything everyone is saying. We the visitors are all on one side of a metal fence and, 3 feet away, behind another metal fence, are the detainees. This isn't a one-on-one situation. It's an outdoor courtyard, but roofed by plastic, so the whole thing is an auditory free for all. Any visitor has to conduct business, express love, relay bad news, in the company of everyone else VERY LOUDLY. One couple separated by the fences talk about the other person's body and what they want to do to it (gross). Prayers are offered or sung by church groups on the visiting side of the fence. Details are being emphasized and money is being counted by those most emphatic about getting out and getting out soon. I've heard that bail is 50,000 baht, but I don't know anything for sure about the Immigration Detention Center.
I get information on detainees through various NGOs and churches in Bangkok. I've visited an Afghan guy who makes bracelets out of twisted plastic bags and sells them. I've visited a Pakistani guy several times whom I met once when he was on the outside. Sometimes a few of us visitors sign up en masse to visit a family so that they can visit with each other on the detainee side. There is one particular Pakistani family locked up together (5 or 6 kids, I can't recall), separated by gendered dorms. The boys and girls only get to see each other when people come to visit and they are all herded into this open courtyard. There are an estimated 4000 Pakistani people, a lot of them Christians, in Bangkok. The Christians specifically have fled religious persecution and came to the nearest and easiest place they could get a visa. Once their visa expires, they just begin a life in limbo. Not legal in Thailand, not able to return home for fear of bodily harm, they begin the process of seeking asylum, which can take eight years. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, so you have no protected status until you have an official assignment and are on your way to the U.S. or Europe. A practically stateless person, you formally don't exist while in Thailand. You're invisible. This invisibility means it's easy to be held in this jail for months, even years with no criminal charges and no recourse. There are thousands and thousands of refugees without protected status who live in Bangkok in fear of the IDC. If no one ever told you, you would just never know.
I try to go every week, to bring food and offer encouragement. Sometimes I just introduce myself and start talking about the weather. People seem mostly grateful and unfailingly wish my husband and family the best of health and luck. It feels simultaneously super unhelpful and like the most important, humane thing I could possibly be doing. There is deep injustice in the world, and you feel the weight of it leaving the IDC. At the same time, the Coke I buy at the 711 on my way out is the best I've ever tasted. The motorcycle ride home is the freest I feel all week. I don't even know why, but I go back. There are just things here you can never accept and all you can do is ask questions.