The night started out just like every other outreach night. We entered the entertainment plaza, passing under the signs that declare this as “World’s Largest Playground. Your Second Home.” Despite the colorful lights and the blaring base beat vibrating the atmosphere, the faces we saw neither looked at home, nor at play. Men and women sat coupled at the beer bars, many physically linked to each other. But, aside from a few plastered smiles, the faces looked blank and unseeing as we walked past. Bouncers held up signs of half-naked women, slapping them with rubber sticks to shock men out of their zombie state and lure them into obsession.
We entered an upstairs bar and the servers motioned us to the back wall. I acknowledged them, but moved past them and sat strategically on the red vinyl corner bench where we could greet the women as they came off the stage. The last time we were in this bar, we sat in the back and were not able to talk with the women. This night, I was determined to make contact with one of the women. We ordered our drinks and I scanned the stage for one who would stand out to me. A sudden movement interrupted the monotonous swaying of unskilled and un-motivated go-go dancers. A woman was turned the opposite direction and was leaning forward to catch my eye. She smiled at me as she lifted her hands in the Thai greeting. The movement took me by surprise, but I smiled and waied her back. I hadn’t chosen her; she had chosen me. Then she turned back around to join the flow of dancers.
As I waited for the shift of 5 songs to end, I watched her from the back. She was thin and, in heels, she looked tall. Her long dark hair swayed as she tried to join the monotonous rhythm. She was inexperienced and even the elementary sway was awkward for her. I had only seen her face for a second, so I hoped I would recognize her when she came off the stage with all the others. Their dark hair, slender figures, bare bottoms, uniformed g-strings, and high heels intentionally blend them together into one branded identity – sex objects. Just as the song ended, a foreign man came and stood in front of us and started undressing. He was blocking our access to the women as they left the stage. Frustrated and annoyed, I waived him off with my hand and leaned to the left to look around him and catch the eye of the woman. The man awkwardly re-buttoned his shirt and slinked away just in time. I caught her eye and the woman came and sat next to me with a big smile. I offered to buy her a coke and watched as she gratefully ran off to get it. Buying her a drink allows her to sit with us, rather than go to the men, but, it also helps her meet the required quota of 60 drinks per month.
The music blared from the speakers hanging over our heads, so I leaned in close to hear what she had to say. “Noy” was from Surin. No surprise there. Most of the women come from that area of Thailand – Surin, Buriram, SriSaket – the largest exporters of women and teens to the sex industry of Bangkok. Noy rubbed her knees and complained that dancing all night in high heels was hard on her legs. She wasn’t used to wearing high heels. Shyly, Noy admitted that she is 40 years old, an unusual and ill-fit for this bar of young women, some as young as 16. Noy didn’t look her age though, and her lack of bar experience and discomfort made her look even younger.
Noy told me right away that she doesn’t like this work. She’s too old. She would like to get another job – anything else, but where could she possibly get a job? I eagerly took the bait, “Do you really want to leave the bar? If you are serious about getting another job you can come apply at my business.” Noy’s eyes widened with excitement and she grabbed my hand, begging to know more. I told her about NightLight’s employment opportunities, fair work schedule and pay with benefits. Noy fingered my necklace and said, “What I really like to do is handwork like this.” I laughed, “That’s exactly what we do at NightLight. In fact, we made this one.” Noy’s face lit up. Concerned about her qualifications, Noy said, “I can’t read. I only went to 4th grade and didn’t learn to read. But I can write my name and pick out a few words.” I told Noy that we also have a class to teach literacy at NightLight. “I want to come work for you!”Noy hugged me with excitement.
Noy came to work in the bar after her second husband and her daughter started having an affair. She had lost her first husband to her best friend and now her second husband to her daughter. She didn’t know what else to do and bar work seemed like her only option. After working here a couple months, Noy had quickly decided that working in prostitution was not for her. Noy asked for my phone number and said she would call me soon. She was so excited; she couldn’t wait to come.
“I don’t know what it was,” Noy told me. “I saw you when I was on stage dancing and “waied” you. I don’t normally do that. But there was something about you.” I told Noy that we always pray and ask God to lead us to someone He wants us to talk with. “You are making merit,” she replied. “We don’t do this to make merit,” I told her. “We do it because God loves us. God helped each of us and we have enough of His love to share.” Noy said she wanted to learn more. She told me that not knowing what else to do, she had been contemplating becoming a Buddhist nun, as an alternative to prostitution. “Now I don’t have to do that”, she said with relief. “You have given me hope!”
Noy’s turn to dance came around again. I gave her a hug and as she climbed the stairs to the dance floor, I called a server over for the bill. We paid and made our way around past the front of the stage. I glanced up one last time to look for her. The other faces still wore masks of blankness, hiding any personal identity. Noy was smiling as she waied us goodbye. The light of hope gave her an identity that made her stand out from the others. Unlike them, she had found a way out. Unlike them, she had found hope. Hope is the seed of freedom.