Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
A classical statement on the importance of perception is that what we see depends on where we stand. However, everyone who has visited an art museum in his or her life knows that what we see also depends on what we know.
This is something that is increasingly troubling me during my stay in Thailand, because sometimes I feel that I begin to see prostitution, child abuse and human trafficking in everything. I begin to wonder whether this is my selective perception that comes with the growing awareness; whether it is just a realistic view of things, which I´m finally getting to; or whether I´m completely over-sensitized and just going crazy.
Two examples: Some days ago I went to MBK – the mother of all shopping centers – in search of a McDonald´s for a quick dinner consisting of something my troubled stomach would approve (and which was not made of rice!). Shortly after sitting down and starting to eat, I noticed a man – tall and, yes, fat, red-skinned, British, probably in his fifties – standing behind me. I felt slightly uncomfortable, because the man had apparently nothing to do there, he was just waiting, but not even waiting for someone in the queue. Next to me a little Thai boy was gulping down a cheeseburger at a pace that I had never seen before. He was short, perhaps ten years old, of dark skin – and apparently very, very hungry. It took me quite a while until I realized that the man was waiting for the boy, who a few seconds later finished his burger, stood up, and both left quickly.
Now, on the one hand there could be many explanations for this: The man was the boy´s grandfather, stepfather, or had adopted him, and the happy Thai wife was only waiting in the car or shopping. But then, I am not completely naïve either, and this looked pretty much like what I have been reading, thinking, and talking about so much lately. I was so baffled, however, that I had no idea what to do. For all the clarity the case seemed to have, does it make sense to call the police in such a situation? And how would you do that without creating complete chaos in the McDonald´s if they where already leaving? Should I have stopped the two from leaving? Or was I becoming completely paranoid?
A few days later, I walked past the esplanade between Siam Center and Siam Paragon, the two other inevitable shopping centers in the area. As they sometimes do to entertain customers and keep them happy and in a shopping mood, there was a show being performed. Ten skinny young girls with highly overdone make-up were put in soccer jerseys and much too short pants and were supposed to play a game of soccer while moving seductively to the music. The idiotic idea aside, the girls looked so cheap and out of place, that it not only made me feel uncomfortable, it almost made me angry. Now, as a young man in his prime, I normally have no difficulties with seeing a girl dancing insinuatingly, so I was wondering what was wrong. Was it that the show just so bluntly seemed to conform to the clichés? That it played with expectations or preconceived ideas many tourists to Thailand may have? Or is it just so normal in this city that that´s what people want to see in a shopping mall as well?
I don´t know the answers to all these questions, and it feels slightly frustrating. For now, I only know that my perception is changing, considerably, for better or for worse.
Matthias Jaeger, Germany
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2013 Session