Poverty in Paradise

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If there’s one thing that I noticed when I arrived in Khao Lak, it was the luxury paradox. That probably makes no sense to you. I’ll explain. Khao Lak is one of the most beautiful places in Thailand, abundant in white sand beaches, lush green palm trees, and of course, top-notch 5-Star resorts. The town’s economy relies on the pockets of the foreigners who travel from all over the world to see such splendor. Who wouldn’t want to come here? How does it not sound appealing when one describes the gorgeous landscape, the lively night festivals, and the deliciously spicy Thai food? Khao Lak seems so perfect. So striking. So tranquil. So exotic. So Thailand.

Khao Lak, Thailand

Khao Lak, Thailand

I find it ironic to work with Burmese migrants, who are barely making enough money to put food on the table, who fear for their lives in their own neighborhoods, who send their children to work on rubber plantations. These people are working and living in the very same paradise of Khao Lak. In fact, some of them live so close to the resorts, that they are seen in their backyards (technically they don’t have backyards, but that’s just putting things into perspective for you).

This past weekend, we took students from grades 6, 7, and 8 on an environmental camp in a national park by the beach. As we picked up the students in the school bus, I was able to see where some of my students live. I have seen their houses before, but these ones were different because of the location. We drove onto a road that had signs leading to the 5 star resorts. I look to my left and right and see signs attracting all the foreigners. “Free sunbed!” “Thai massage!” “Delicious Thai cocktails!” We drove past several resorts, absolutely beautiful resorts. The students were enamored by the white foreigners, or farangs, who were bathing on the beach, drinking their cocktails, taking photos of the students…basically being tourists. The students turned to me and said, “Teacher, those are your people! There are your friends!” Ah, I wanted nothing to do with those farangs. They just lay there, oblivious to their surroundings, oblivious to the fact that there were children two minutes down the road who struggle every day to sustain an education for themselves. I just said, “No. You are my friends. They are not.” But my students didn’t understand. They thought that since the farangs had white skin as well, obviously I should “buddy buddy” with all of them.

We continued driving and the well-constructed resort-like road slowly turned into a poorly-built dirt road with insanely huge pot holes. We kept driving through the jungle. I was beginning to think that we were lost. Then the bus finally stopped and I looked to see some of my favorite students (psh, teachers don’t have favorites…right?) waiting outside their homes. I don’t know why it struck me then, but it most definitely struck me. My students live in such poor conditions. They do not have clean water, their parents struggle to provide food for the family, and it’s a miracle alone to just have the students come along for the environmental camp that weekend. In that moment, I realized how much of an impact this school is for the students. They are finally being given an opportunity to pursue an education that could create promising futures. The fact that I am teaching them English will open up doors for these kids, doors that they only could dream about opening.

As I watched my students climb onto the bus, one by one, I couldn’t stop thinking about how they must drive past those 5 star resorts every single day on their way to and from school. It makes me sick to see how much wealth and poverty are located in such close proximity from one another. We drove out of the jungle and made our way to the main road, where I again saw endless farangs walking around, shooting photos with their expensive Canons, eating at the most expensive restaurants in Khao Lak, the usual. We picked up some more students who were waiting beside the market. Then we continued on and made a sudden turn off into another neighborhood that was flooded with farangs, decorated with all sorts of resort-like advertisements and shops. We took a turn away from the resorts and entered a pier, where some students were waiting beside the boats. The pier was, in the words of an American 18-year-old, very “sketchy.” Not safe at all, especially for kids. I couldn’t believe my kids had to live here.

I asked my friend later about the condition of the pier and the atmosphere of it. He said that it is such a dangerous neighborhood. The mafia once controlled it. Crime is atrocious there. One time, a man’s legs were chopped off by a machete and he was left to die in the road. As he cried for help all through the night, nobody left their house to help him out of complete fear of their surroundings. He was still alive in the morning.

These are the kind of places where my students have grown up. Not only were their parents forced to flee their homes in Myanmar, but they were also forced to live in such a dangerous environment, where they struggle every day to ensure safety for their children. Can you imagine living in a place where rape, kidnapping, and break-ins are the norm? Think about that. These are children who are living here. 10-year-olds, 11-year-olds, 12-year-olds. I would never dream of allowing my little sister, Nellie, to spend 5 minutes in such an area. And yet these children have no choice but to live in such a dangerous environment.

I spend a lot of time proofreading reports for my organization all about the crimes that occur in this area. I proofread papers about mothers and daughters who have been raped, fathers and sons who have been trafficked; all of which occurring in neighborhoods such as these. These are my students who live here. What if something like that happens to them? It makes me sick to even imagine someone laying a finger on the kids I teach every day.

This school is everything for the kids. I was so happy to have these students leave for the weekend and go to a safe, productive, learning environment at the camp that is far away from the places they call “home.” The camp was a great success. The students were so happy and excited to be given such a great opportunity. I also felt pretty popular at the camp since every time I walked into the hall, all 71 students would chant, “Sophie! Sophie! SOPHIE!” I had all the students dancing the Cha Cha Slide, Cupid Shuffle, all those good ol’ ‘Merican dances.

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They absolutely loved it. When we had to split into groups, all the students wanted to be with me. They all wanted to eat lunch with me. They all wanted to hang out with me. They all wanted to sing an English song with me.

My group for the

My group for the “Hug a Tree” activity

It was really special for me, not because I felt super popular (but that’s always a plus!), but because I was able to see how I have been an influence in their lives. And I haven’t even done much for them, all I’ve been doing is teaching them English. But that’s just the point. They realize how incredibly important English is for them, so they take advantage of having me here, which is what I love about them.

This is my free ice cream that was bought for me by a student. She ran out and paid for it with her own money, then reached into her bag, took out her bag of oreos, and placed one in my ice cream. The generosity of these kids simply astound me.

This is my free ice cream that was bought for me by a student. She ran out and paid for it with her own money, then reached into her bag, took out her bag of oreos, and placed one in my ice cream. The generosity of these kids simply astounds me. They have nothing and yet they give me everything.

I never thought that I could connect so well with so many different students of all ages. From stupid inside jokes to deep talks about their experiences in Myanmar, I have fallen in love with these kids. They make me laugh to the point of tears and they appreciate all the stupid quirks I have. They embarrass me, laugh with me (and at me), and share their feelings with me. I have never felt so needed and so loved in one place.

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When the camp ended, we drove back and it took about 2 hours to drive each student to their home as they live so far away from one another. We went into the deep jungles that were surrounded by the lovely 5 star resorts. Still, the students would point to the farangs and say, “There’s your friends, Sophie!” Please. Those pina colada-sipping, lounging farangs would never be as close to me as my Myanmar students are. And that’s never going to change.

I guess what I want you to get out of this blog is the sheer amazement of the luxury paradox. With such wealth and luxury in one place, it seems ironic and contradicting to have such poor, destitute migrants sharing the same piece of land.

Thailand is a country where everything must be taken into perspective. You can choose to visit this country, remain completely blind to the poverty that surrounds you and obliviously carry on with your exotic holiday. Or, you could open your eyes to your surroundings and see the truth.

Something to think about for your next vacation overseas.

3 thoughts on “Poverty in Paradise

  1. I saw on Facebook several days ago that you had a new blog post, but I waited until now so that I could take the time to enjoy it. I was not disappointed. 🙂 Asia is such a land of paradoxes: old vs. new, insanely rich vs. terribly poor, etc. On the whole, we westerners do not have a good track record in this part of world. It will be very difficult, if not impossible to remedy the mistakes that we have made and that we are making, but nothing will ever change if the only westerners to visit Asia are those who come to sight-see/make money. Change will come one person at a time–when one person makes the decision to pour themselves into the life of another person, loving because He loved them first, giving and blessing with a servant’s heart modeled after the greatest Servant’s heart. In short, change comes about through people like you, Sophie. You’re a great example to people of your generation; press on!

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