How Bangkok Made Me Stare My Own Privilege in the Face

You know how in Eat, Pray, Love Julia Roberts’ character finds herself after traveling to three different places and they each showed her a different lesson? This is a similar story. Except I’m not an Oscar winning actress playing out the autobiography of a New York Times bestseller onscreen.

Instead I’m just a regular human — current resident of planet Earth. But I did travel to three different destinations that taught me three very important lessons.

PART 1:

BANGKOK (THAILAND) - Where I learned the weight of privilege.

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Bangkok wasn’t my first rodeo, but it was the first rodeo to throw me. I was born abroad -- raised between countries and cultures. I was used to traveling. I love to travel. There are very few things and places I consider outside my comfort zone. Occasionally I fool myself into thinking I know all there is to know about being on the road -- but late one summer night, 8000 miles away in Thailand, I’m proven wrong.

My first brush with my own privilege came at the currency exchange center in the airport. There were two windows with two attendants working. I approach one, two young men approach the other. One of them attempted to flirt with the window attendant. It was going terribly.  

I then found myself in a peculiar position. Being an English speaker, I understood him -- far better than her. I understood all the cringe-worthy jokes he was offering up. I understood the underlying sense of entitlement in his tone. I understood that he didn’t understand her. Because while I didn’t speak Thai, woman to woman -- some things were universal. I turned and informed him that she wasn’t interested and pointed out that he was holding up the queue. He seemed startled. He hadn’t expected to be observed by someone; but even more so, he hadn’t expected to be corrected by someone who looked like the person he was exerting his privilege over. And he certainly hadn’t expected that person to be holding the same privilege as him.

When he left, the attendant smiled at me. I smiled back. It’s okay, her smile seemed to say. It was her job. But it’s not okay, I realized. A traveler should never walk into someone’s city like they own it just because their home country’s currency goes farther than their destination city’s.

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On my second night in Bangkok, my friends and I wound up at this bar. Many, many, many drinks later -- we had invited our hostess and her friend to spend the next day with us. It was a careless invitation, tossed out in the adrenaline of the night. At first, the hostesses refused -- citing that they couldn’t take the day off because they had to work. My friend, Aaron*, tossed out the idea that we would cover their wages for the day, pay them for their services in being our tour guides, and cover the cost of any activities we participated in. I did the math in my head -- it would cost us $100 USD. It was a steal and a win-win. The women agreed.

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The next day they met us outside the same bar. We spent a great day together. They took us to all the tourist things; they took us to all the local things. They negotiated our taxi fares; they introduced us to regional cuisines. They took us by car, by boat, by tuk-tuk. The night ended at our place with casual drinks.

In the more intimate surrounding of our living room, one of our new friends asked me a question that had never crossed my mind.

Does it bother you what I do for a living?” Anne* asked.

My immediate response was, “No.” But my follow-up was, “Why?”

Her next words were careful, but I was made to understand that there have been those who were bothered. In fact, many. That we weren’t the first foreigners she had interacted with. That not all of them were interested in just local tours of the city. That not all days were like today.

“My life isn’t like yours,” she explained, “I do this for my daughter. I had her when I was eighteen. Her father is not around. And now my teenage daughter has a baby. Everything I make, I send it to her.”

And she continued to explain to me -- that while this occupation put her at the bottom rung of the societal ladder, put her at the mercy of capricious foreigners, it made her a sizable sum of money.  It made her enough to support her family.

“You should come to LA,” Aaron* interjected, “Come and we’ll show you around.”

“No it’s very hard to leave Thailand so unplanned.”

“Come on, I’ll buy your ticket. You can stay with one of us. Very low cost.” I knew Aaron*. He really would have.

She was grateful, but the biggest hurdle would be obtaining a visa from the government for travel. I had taken for granted the ease of having an American passport. Again, I was confronted with my own privilege.

“You and your friends are the nicest foreigners I’ve ever met,” she concluded.

When the night ended, I walked the two women downstairs and I gave them the money we had agreed upon.

“Aaron* already paid us this morning,” they tried to give it back to me.

“No, keep it. Consider it a tip.”

They started crying. I was immediately humbled. Anne* calmed herself enough to explain to me, “You probably spend this easily, quickly. This is a month’s rent to us. And you’ve given us two months’ today. Now you understand why we are crying.”

As I watched them leave in their taxi, a strange thought crept in -- I was born in a country just like this one. I didn’t look that different from the people who lived here. My own privilege is circumstantial. What separated me from these women was a roll of the dice. And suddenly the things that kept me up at night felt insignificant. Suddenly all the emails I wasn’t answering quick enough seemed not to matter. Suddenly all the disagreements I’ve had with others seemed irrelevant. And suddenly I found myself asking -- what does one do with this privilege?

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*Names have been changed.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2 (MARRAKECH).

travel, cultureMinh BuiComment