I had always been told that I look much younger than I am, but until a recent trip to Pattaya Beach, Thailand, I had never been mistaken for a child sex slave.
My mother is a native of Bangkok, and during our recent winter break I accompanied her to our homeland. I was awestruck by the gorgeous Thai temples; I marveled at the intricate handiwork of carved teak; and, proudly, I commended the beautiful women of Thailand (with whom I fit right in) on their conservative, yet trendy styles of dress that I could admire at every turn of the neck. My mother warned me about the summer clothes I packed for our three-day excursion to Pattaya Beach, but I paid her no attention.
Pattaya Beach is a short drive from Bangkok, and a popular tourist destination for foreign men. I would soon find out why. After two hours in our car, we soon found ourselves driving through the narrow, jammed streets of downtown Pattaya. We arrived in the early afternoon, and I quickly noticed that something was amiss. Block after block, the presence of young girls who looked as though they should have been in elementary or middle school was overwhelming.
AFTER A WHILE, the scene was impossible to ignore. What were so many young girls - so many children - doing out of school at midday on a Thursday? Do Thai children not attend school on Thursdays? Was it a non-school holiday? Upon closer inspection I surmised, quite reluctantly, precisely what these innocent young children were doing. These girls were working.
My eyes grew larger and larger as our car shuffled through the streets of Pattaya, allowing countless "odd couples" to dodge in front of us to cross. As the minutes passed I grew increasingly anxious about seeing girls, lots of girls, walking arm in arm with men who were old enough to be their fathers - or, in many cases, their grandfathers. These were the only girls in all of Thailand who wore shorts that were not only above the knee, but barely covered their pre-teen buttocks. They wore ill-applied makeup, and if they were not already clinging to the arm of an older man, they walked the streets of Pattaya, batting their eyes at every farang, or foreigner, who was already lustfully looking her up and down.
By the time we reached our hotel, and after witnessing countless girls on the arms of "dirty old men," I was nauseous and pale, and felt physically ill. My mother suggested that we visit the beach so that I could calm down from what I had seen.
And then it happened.
My mother suffers from poor vision and needed to return to our beachfront hotel to use the restroom. After a long and pensive walk on the beach - which only proved to be more distressing because of the number of child prostitutes with their male abusers there - I agreed to escort Mom across the busy shoreline drive to our hotel. As we waited to cross, a burgundy car approached us and the near 80-year-old man driving it began to toot its horn loudly. He indeed slowed down - we thought to allow us to cross - but he pulled in to our hotel entrance and began waving a wad of Thai baht (money) out of the window.
THE SENIOR scrambled to get out of the car as fast as he could, and he fumbled with his keys as he hurriedly tried to lock the car door. As my mother and I crossed the street to approach the hotel (and by now, toward his conspicuously parked car), the man scurried toward us with the widest smile I had ever seen and continued to wave the folded-over wad of money in front of me. I shot him an evil eye and he passed by, seemingly confused. He then began to walk backward and he looked at me as if to say, "I understand if you can't do business right now. I'll wait for you over here!" The man sat down at the outdoor restaurant attached to our hotel, and he remained there until my mother and I had returned from the restroom. Bewildered, his eyes followed our path back to the beach, and he was finally convinced that I was not a child prostitute. He turned his attention to the other young girls passing by.
I was devastated.
That night, I listened to the moans and groans of a girl who appeared to be no more than 12 years-old. She was in the room next to ours with a man whom we had earlier identified as "someone's grandfather." The sound of an innocent child pleasuring a man who was God-knows-how-many times her senior was so distressing that I tossed and turned in bed, and I cried all night. I never fell asleep, but minor relief would come in the morning.
WHEN MY MOTHER awoke and realized that I hadn't slept a wink, she asked me what was wrong. She was focused on reaching the hotel restroom the day earlier and had not noticed that I was approached for sexual solicitation. When I explained what had happened, she assured me that my unconventional attire - shorts and tank-top - had "given me away" as a child prostitute. What's worse, the fact that I had worn my hair in a pigtail made me all the more alluring and attractive to predatory men because I appeared even younger than I was already presumed to be. She was distraught by my reaction, and we checked out immediately.
As we waited for our car, a hotel employee was posting a sign in the lobby that read, "Children for future, not a slave for trade!" And by divine providence alone, the employee stretched out his hand and gave me two stickers advertising the World Vision Foundation's crusade to end the child sex slave trade in Thailand. I gladly took the stickers, held them close to my heart and vowed never to forget what had happened just one day prior. It has truly changed my life forever.
Since I returned from Thailand, I have taken every opportunity to share my story with anyone and everyone who has lent me an open ear. Being mistaken for a child sex slave in Thailand has been a life-altering experience, and I will be forever committed to bringing awareness about, and ending the child sex slave trade throughout the world.
WORDS CANNOT express how deeply distressing it is to be sexually propositioned by an elderly man who seeks only to enact his girl-fantasies with a child who has no choice. That his repulsive wish was entirely feasible at Pattaya Beach with every other girl who suffers as a child sex slave is disgusting, and must end.
For me, having been solicited for child sex was a one-time mistake-an aberration, if you will. For countless other Thai girls and children, it is an inescapable, everyday, harsh reality. I could refuse the sex offer and subsequently feel outraged - every other child prostitute there could not.
I plan to return to Thailand to join the fight against the unspeakable plight of far too many Thai girls. This time, I will be sure to adhere to the neat and tidy dress code of the beautiful Thai women who have the good but uncommon fortune of not working as commercial sex slaves. I will wear, however, my hair in a pigtail. But this time, I'll be ready.
You can help stop the child sex slave trade by visiting the World Vision Foundation of Thailand at www.worldvision.or.th.
(Editor's note: The writer, a Grovetown resident, is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University in Atlanta. She specializes in multicultural teacher education, and conducts diversity sensitivity training for professionals in her spare time.)