It was probably a mistake to go to Costco the day after returning home from a third world country.
As I begin to unpack all that I saw over the last two weeks in our whirlwind tour of Thailand and Cambodia, so much of my own regular life feels foreign. Grocery shopping and laundry are a comforting routine after 10 plane flights, 7 hotels, countless tuk-tuk rides, and 2 loooooong van rides along bumpy roads that felt like a real-life Indiana Jones ride. But even as I begin the process of picking back up my life here in Orange County, I know there are some things I don’t necessarily want to pick back up.
There’s something about travel, particularly if traveling with the purpose of learning more about the lives of children who were once trapped in sex trafficking, that can undo deeply held assumptions and expectations about life.
I keep re-playing one conversation from the trip over and over in my head. While visiting one of the project homes, I found myself in a conversation with one of the young teenage girls who lived there. She wanted to keep practicing her English rather than play the games that the rest of my team had planned for the afternoon, so we sat quietly off to the side — pausing our conversation occasionally to laugh as we watched the craziness going on around us.
The conversation stayed light as we covered everything from music to sports, and from boyfriends to learning how to ride a moped. When I asked her what her favorite thing to do was, she quickly answered that she loved studying English. This girl was incredibly bright, funny, kind, ambitious, friendly, and easy to connect with. She had a smile that lit up her whole face, an infectious laugh, and an easy demeanor that made our 20-minute conversation one of the highlights of my trip.
I don’t know her particular story–we weren’t allowed to ask questions about their past–but we did learn generally how most of these girls ended up trapped in sexual exploitation.
Every story is unique, and each girl has undergone her own journey of various hardships. But the most common scenario that played out for many of these girls starts with them wanting to do something to help their family. Daughters will leave their homes and families, and go to the city to look for work. With limited educational and vocational training, many of these girls can only find a job serving as bar girls. It starts simply enough, with helping carry drinks to customers. Over time, customers will ask for these girls to sit with them and the customers will buy drinks for the girls. From there, men will start putting their hands on the girls. When these innocent girls ask the bar manager, called the mamasan, they will be told that it’s normal and that they needs to put up with it.
From there, it’s a slow assault on their self-worth and dignity. Shame builds up as their bodies become more and more of a commodity to be used for the entertainment and pleasure of others. They still need to be able to send money home to help their family, so financial and family obligation coupled with shame form strong bonds that prohibit them from leaving. While they’re not in physical chains, the manipulation, coercion and emotional bondage they suffer under is very real. It’s only a matter of time before these girls are expected to do more than just sit with men and let them buy drinks for them at the bar; sooner or later someone will pay the mamasan to be able to take the girl away for the night.
In what must seem nothing short of a miracle, one day one of the men who shows up at the bar will ask for a girl to sit with him, but his intentions will be very different than the typical customer. Rather than trying to take advantage, he will offer a way out and a new future. This is the work of Destiny Rescue and other similar organizations, sending agents into the bars to find these underage girls and offering them a second chance at life.
Knowing the typical backstory, as I sat talking with this particular girl I could hardly believe that she came from such a background. Where I expected to find despair and fragility, I saw hope and strength. This girl dared to believe that her past would not define her as she looked ahead to a bright future filled with possibility.
There are some things you can’t “unknow.”
I hope I never forget those brief 20 minutes of sitting and laughing with this incredible girl. Her strength and resilience left a lasting impression, and her ability to overcome adversity is something I can only hope to imitate in my own small way.
I don’t fully know just yet how much this trip has changed me. I think only time will continue to tell how much the stories I heard and the things I saw have challenged deeply held assumptions and expectations of what life should look like.
I know I want to be different. I know there is a lot in my life I take for granted. I know there is a girl on the other side of the world who has given me a new perspective on life.
I wonder what a girl who has been rescued out of sex trafficking would think of something like walking around Costco. It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with going to Costco, but it’s just that I can’t quite fit both of those realities together in my head quite yet.
I wonder what it looks like to make small decisions like how I spend my money and time with less entitlement and more gratitude.
I wonder what it looks like to realize that it’s something we have absolutely no control over, like what country we were born in, that can be the difference between two completely different stories.
And I wonder what it looks like to find more ways to be a voice for these girls, to find more ways to fight for justice, and to find more ways to bring hope and restoration to people who are still trapped in seemingly hopeless situations.
I’m so grateful for this trip, and for the work of Destiny Rescue. I loved learning more about the work they are doing, and how it has challenged and unmade some of my assumptions about life. And I’m eager to look for ways to make more of a difference with my life.