There’s only one thing more disgusting than having nothing to sell at the market than rodents. That’s being the insensitive tourist who wants to take a picture.
I was on holiday in Laos before the Corona virus news went viral, packing only flip flips and a few things. That’s when I was informed by my director that I’d be flying to Kuala Lumpur to help at a sister school until things settled down. Since my raggedy jeans would break the school dress code, I got up early to go to the street market in Vang Vieng to purchase a sinh (a traditional Loas skirt). Laos women wear sinhs daily as it’s a formal country, women being viewed as the mother of tradition. Every morning in their colorful sinhs, Loas women make their way to the wats to give alms to the monks, carrying woven baskets of food, marigolds and incense.
I didn’t go to the touristy night market for a sinh, but the morning market for the locals, one that closes before most tourists are out of bed. Everything is laid out on mats on the dusty road, the vendors swatting flies away with fans, others scrolling through their cell phones.
When I saw the sinh lady in front of the café with old sewing machines, I got dizzy gazing at her selection. She had stacks and stacks of colorful designs and materials, each one prettier than the previous. Purple silk. Intricate stitching. Shimmery purples and deep blues.
I held a few up to my waist causing a spectacle with the women, each having their own opinion on what would look best. They had no idea I had to be practical and think which would look best with the three T-shirts in my duffle.
After picking one and paying a whopping ten American dollars, I continued to carouse the market looking at what was for sale. Fish covered with flies, piles of krill and mountains of eggs. There were plucked chickens, greens and long beans, mini bananas. No grapes, mountains of oranges, mangosteens or spiky durian that you’d see in Thailand or China. But as I left the market, I passed a peculiar lonely vendor. It was a young woman, her eyes distracted by inner worries, her cheeks sunken with sadness.
I look on her mat to see what was for sale.
A few fish, squirrels and…
No. My eyes must be playing tricks on me. It looked like…
The rodents were laid out on her mat with the same precision the sinh lady displayed her pretty material.
Rats? Is she selling rats? That means… someone is desperate enough to eat them.
And….that means, someone is desperate enough to eat them.
I tried not to stare but my eyes were glued to the same creatures seen on yellow warning signs in Chicago alleys.
I pulled out my phone to take a photo but the woman shooed me away with her hands, her eyes as cold as my actions.
How awful of me.
She, I am sure, wished she was the sinh vendor selling pretty skirts that the tourist would pay top American dollars for. That she would make enough money to buy a chicken or candies for her kids.
But no, she was the rat lady at the edge of the market. People knew her as the rat lady. That was all she could bring to market and hoped to sell.
I felt disgusted, not about the things she had to sell. I was disgusted with myself.
I felt like I did when I killed a squirrel with a BB gun as a kid. My cousins and I thought it would be fun to shoot the birdseed pilferer, that is until we actually hit him. We watched his bushy tail fall to the ground, then gathered around the critter on the grass, his sharp teeth hanging out of his mouth, his eyes open, his claws frozen, blood trickling. We never played with that BB gun again.
But this was worse. I’m not a kid anymore who out of sheer luck, killed a squirrel. Today, I am a sharp shooter judging someone because of their poverty.
She had no choice. I did.
That wasn’t the first time I was guilty of this sin. Last year while in Pai, Thailand, my Gilligan’s Island-style homestay was near a Karen village. No, it’s not a group of women all named Karen. They are the women with the long necks adorned with coiled brass rings. As I kid, I wondered why these women had slinkies around their necks when I saw their pictures National Geographic magazine. My father would explain, “They are not slinkies and if the women remove them, they will die.”
I was torn to see them or not, billboards of their village plastered next to the kayaking tours in town. I tried rationalize going, saying it wasn’t for me but for my inner child. But the grown-Ginger decided no until I discovered the Karens were a five-minute walk away from my hut.
I knew it was a bad idea when I had to pay admission, just like you do to see animals at a zoo. What did I just do? Pay to see people? Why not keep them in cages as they are trapped in the tourist machine? One was weaving, a second was straightening out her table of souvenirs while another was calming her fussy toddler. I decided against taking pictures until I saw something peculiar pinned to a wall.
Photocopies of their work permits, their neck coils off.
I always thought their necks would collapse if they took their rings off. I was confused. But that was then, this is now. At this particular Karen village, their coils create the illusion of a long neck as they force the shoulders down.
I snapped a picture of their naked necks.
I felt shammed and ashamed. A Karen could go into a Seven-Eleven for a pack of Skittles and no one would glance twice.
Was it disgusting for them to take part in the tourist trade? Or, was it more disgusting for me to pay for it?
I take the blame.
I have met many folks in my travels who work with non-profits.
I met a guy in Kunming who did a pro-bono project for the Canadian “FBI” as a lot of pedio-pervs fly out of Vancouver to Cambodia. He was working on a photoshoot in Phnom Penh, bringing awareness to the sex trade. His heart broke when a little girl of no more than five tugged his pants and asked, “Do you want to play a game, sir?”
The girl has no choice. The johns do.
This entire Corona outbreak also makes me feel disgusting. It’s not just the racial slurs from brain trusts like Fifty Cent and angry white men on Twitter. It’s because I, along with other American staff at my faith-based school, had to evacuate China due to Uncle Sam’s Level lever-four travel warning. Meanwhile, my Chinese colleagues have to stay in Yunnan and are being blamed for a virus they didn’t create. What do my actions say? Is my health more important because I’m American? What does it say about my faith? Am I like Ruth who stays with Naomi in a troubled country or like Judas who betrays a friend?
When I wear my sinh in Kuala Lumpur, I will pray for that lonely vendor in Laos, those involved in human trafficking and others who do not have the luxury of choices that I have.
I will pay my penance.