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When I was sixteen years old my mother informed me that she was taking me out of school to give me an education. What she meant by this was that I was going to miss two weeks of my first term of grade eleven because we were going to South East Asia. It was the 1980’s so we did not have web browsers and social media, there was no way to casually meet people from other countries. I was a kid from rural Nova Scotia my comprehension of the world was limited.
Our itinerary was 3 days in Hong Kong, then flying to Thailand and spending 3 days (nights) in Bangkok and finally 3 days in Pattaya, a beach resort about a hundred kilometers to the south east. It took absolutely no persuading for me to leave school, I did not actually spend that much time there while I was in the country. I am not proud of that fact but it is the truth. Flying time, not including layovers, was twenty hours or so. This was brutal on me, my body does not like to travel, by the time we made it to Hong Kong my feet were so swollen they were bulging out of my shoes.
To this day I do not let being sick keep me from experiencing all that I can, I am not sure if I would recommend this, but again this is not about judging my day to day life choices. We saw as much of the area around Hong Kong as we could get to within our three days. This included a tour of Guangzhou on mainland China. I remember a pretty hardcore open market and school kids singing, the way everywhere around the world gets school kids to sing even here. There was also a temple and a zoo with a panda. I remember shopping in Macau on another day and purchasing my first black market goods, “A Salt with a Deadly Pepa” and “Tiffany”, cassettes that would travel with me for decades to come.
I remember being in Bangkok, but by then I was very sick, so I did not see as much here. I did have the honour of seeing the royal temple and then I do not really remember much after that until we got to Pattaya. Overwhelming poverty was everywhere, I had never experienced anything like it before. I was still too sick to leave the hotel most days, but I could lie by the pool, and by the last day I felt a bit better so that evening I ate at a bar down the street. I have a few vague memories about this place, but they are mixed up in stories from earlier dinners that I was not there for. I do have one memory that I know is all mine. It was the conversation that gave me the education that my mother had brought me to Asia for.
I hate to generalize about people, but the people of Thailand are overwhelmingly blessed with a youthful beauty. Many people often mistook my baby-faced sixteen year old self to be a grown woman. I say this because it makes it difficult to guess how old our server was that evening. My gut tells me that she was under twenty-five and she could easily have been younger than me. Many young girls worked in the bars around Pattaya. Rural families facing starvation sold their daughters to businesses in the towns and cities. We were warned about human traffickers working the beach and for me not to go there by myself.
I am going to call my friend that evening Kouru. This is not her real name, it means lotus which describes her spirit. She also grew through a lot of darkness and still exuded a warm beauty. I do not remember much of what we said that evening, but I remember she asked me what I was going to do when I grew up. I believe at the time my plan was to be a marine biologist.
It was the first time I was having a conversation with someone who was my gender, around my age, and from an entirely different culture. We were chatting like school friends and then she asked the question. It was the first time I realized just how incredibly lucky I am to have been born a Canadian citizen with all of the advantage that comes with. She asked my plans and the mask of vacation disappeared. I saw them emerge in my mind. The number of possible futures the 16 year old me had in front of her in that moment in time felt infinite.
My imagination showed me all of the gifts and privilege that I had been born into. Kouru could see on my face how insecure I was sharing my reality with her. She asked me to tell her, she asked as if I was reading a her a Hugo novel. Kouru was an adventure seeker, she wanted to see what I was seeing so I told her about being able to do anything that I wanted to do. I told her about being able to go to university, and the paths that opened for me. This was not something that was available to most women in the world in the 1980’s. A look crossed her face, a look of such beautiful warmth, she was genuinely happy that one of us could go on this adventure. She seemed so authentically grateful that I had these gifts, it hit me like a punch.
I understood that Kouru would not only never go to university, she was unlikely to have had highschool or earlier grades. Women who were sold to the bars worked in the sex industry. Some were enslaved, some were not, and I do not know her story. People still go to Thailand for the sex trade; at that time it had many very dark corners and I am sure they are still there.
My new friend most likely had a very difficult life ahead of her, and I had infinite possibilities. The randomness of fate along with its cruelties seemed infinite as well. I could not bring Kouru along on my journey with me physically, but today if I need to know something whether something is possible her spirit still lends me her perspective on my options.
I hope fate had a kinder life for Kouru than I imagined. I know that things have changed in Thailand and that women’s roles are evolving the way that they are here.
The education that I received on that vacation has been the most profound of my life. I live where I have access to almost limitless resources. My access to these resources is limited by my imagination. I had the veil of privilege removed for a moment so that I could see all of the treasure that stands before me, not just an education but a gift.