With the blink of an eye an entire month here in Bangkok has flown by! I knew this experience would bring with it enormous personal growth but it was hard to fathom exactly what life would really be like before I set foot in Bangkok. Even sitting here now, I am finding it really difficult to find a way to articulate my experiences and daily life in a way that could capture the complexities and learning experiences that every encounter provides. Each day has brought about a plethora of new foods, smells, and observations, as well as new Thai words.
I have been extremely fortunate that the organisation I am interning with, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), has been incredibly welcoming, helpful, and overall just amazing. Within the past month I have learned so much and have gotten to be a part of multiple aspects of GAATW’s work. I have had the privilege to assist with both a project surrounding women migrant workers’ lived experiences and a feminist participatory action research project on safe and fair migration. I have also written a report to the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, helped with logistics for an upcoming workshop, and conducted desk research on the relationship between climate change and trafficking. In addition, I got the opportunity to attend EMPOWER foundations (a sex workers organisation in Bangkok) event focusing on the harmful impact of 10 years of protectionist anti-trafficking laws on sex workers in Thailand, which highlighted the importance of decriminalising sex work to combat exploitation and forced labour.
Living alone has also provided space for critical reflection and self-growth. Most farangs (foreigners) residing in Bangkok live in expat communities near Sukhumvit or Silom in areas swamped with skyscrapers. Living on the other side of the river, there are significantly less foreigners in the area (and significantly less skyscrapers). Living alone has given me the opportunity to examine how I take up space in my surrounding environment. From constant stares, strangers taking their time to teach me a couple words in Thai, taxi drivers refusing to drive me because of my inability to speak Thai, and the everyday moments of laughing with street vendors (or them laughing at me), I am slowly peeling back layers of what it means to be a young, foreign, mixed-raced, female in this setting.
I have also had to navigate the impacts of photography and the single story that photos can unintentionally (or intentionally) reproduce. Posting photographs of the skyscrapers, the Grand Palace, or the enormous shopping malls (although Terminal 21 lets you visit 7 countries all in one mall so really how cool is that?!) does not adequately portray my daily life in Bangkok. However, posting photos of the local houses in my neighbourhood or in the small villages I have found myself lost in on weekend adventures may be viewed as fetishizing poverty. With that thought comes the exploration of who gets to define poverty? As Westerners, we have preconceived notions of what we view as ‘poor’ which we directly respond to with feelings of pity and sadness. Yet my 20 years of life have showed me that the people working in high corporate positions with giant houses and nice cars can be isolated and deeply unhappy, while people who may be economically disadvantaged can have incredibly supportive communities and live a life full of love. In which case who are we to assume that the family living in a nicer house is automatically ‘richer’ than their neighbour? Nevertheless, any time I pull out my phone to photograph someone’s home or daily life I am filled with unease; although those photos are likely to be more representative of my time spent wandering around on my time off work than the grand buildings in central Bangkok. With that I also have to deconstruct my biases towards not wanting to post pictures of typical tourist areas. Am I trying to justify my experience as more ‘authentic’ to validate or make up for my western privilege of even having this incredible opportunity to begin with? If ‘likes’ on social media were not present in the context of posting photos would my thought process behind posting photos differ?
Although I know these next months will not provide me the answers to all my questions, I am positive that the experiences I am going to have here will give me clarity on the ways in which I want to take up space in various contexts and guide me to being a better version of myself.
From being woken up at 7am on a Sunday to a lion dance parading down my street, to escaping the rain by getting into a taxi only to go the opposite direction of my house for the next 40 minutes due to the language barrier, to winding up in a tiny village after taking a train, boat, and getting a ride on the back of a motorbike (from an extremely helpful man who barely spoke english) only to miss the connecting train and have to head back home, the past month has been such a eventful journey and I am so excited for what the rest of my time in Bangkok will bring!