Sunday, March 14, 2010

The city, it keeps on going on

It's really difficult for me to relay my experiences of the past four nights to you over the internet, but I'm not as completely overwhelmed by thoughts of attempting to destroy global capitalism as I was after our agricultural unit. On the other hand, before living in the slums and landfill, before even coming to Thailand, I was much more aware of the issues surrounding rural poverty than urban poverty, and this is a whole new layer to be added to the picture. 

In the Nong Waeng slum, I stayed with a family of I'm not really sure how many people. People were constantly coming and going, there were not nearly enough men for the amount of women I was staying with, and I had no idea which of the children were actually related to one another.  (I need to have a conversation with one of my ajaans regarding slum dating culture, so my thoughts on that to come later.) Since school for most children is out for the summer, kids just played in the streets all day long paying no regard to dirtying their clothes or the train rushing past a few times every hour. Maggie and I had many a developmental psych theory on child raising here. Secure attachments look nothing like they do in the States, and parents provide the ultimate example of cultivating independence by not responding to a child's every tear, ever. If the baby I was staying with cried, people would just tell it to be quiet or ignore it, and soon enough, it would stop. If a car was coming and the baby was in the middle of the road, it was it's own job to get out of the middle of the road, although he was sometimes assisted by his 3 year old sister. At the same time, everyone was constantly looking out for everyone else, no matter who you were actually related to. Nothing would happen to that baby, because at least 15 people loved it as if it were their own child. Meanwhile, the baby's actual mother is off working in Phuket to help support her family. 


Since I spent the day with my family on a Saturday, my mae was not going to the school to sell eggs, and instead stayed home to run the noodle shop connected to her home. (Personally, I was given the job of crushing 60 cloves of garlic and deep-frying them to help make the broth of the noodle soup they made.) It amazed me the amount of people that need to be sustained by the few sales that are made at their store every day. The system is so unfortunately rigged so that the poor actually have to pay more for basic resources. Because rural poverty was so oppressive, people had to move to the city to find "better" jobs. However, these jobs weren't as readily available as one hoped, so people couldn't afford to live in the city. Consequently, slums formed on the side of railroad tracks on public land. Now because the villagers in Nong Waeng slum do not have land titles, they do not have access to government subsidized electricity and water, and they either need to buy it off their neighbors who do have land titles or pay continuously for temporary land titles, both options of which are very expensive. 


Mai, Honey, Em, and I play outside our houses 

The other side of the tracks: My house, a few others, and the noodle stand my meh(s) own


The majority of my Nong Waeng family

The landfill, the community I visited first, presented related, but also very specifically different issues, from Nong Waeng. These villagers have a 'secure' job, but it is unsustainable, dangerous, requires extremely long days and nights, the list goes on- these people are sorting through every piece of trash that any resident of Khon Kaen disposes of. "We are proud of our work, because we are doing society a service through cleaning the landfill of recyclable trash." The scavengers have already extended the life of the landfill by 7-8 years, because of all the space they create through their work. The villagers have been stabbed by medical needles, opened a box that contained a grenade, and are inhaling smoke from a fire that combusted within the trash mountain. 

What can you do? Never ever use a plastic bag ever. It is completely unnecessary, not recyclable, and they literally sit in the landfill for the rest of eternity. 

Youth and Education were themes that kept on emerging over the course of the unit- I could not stop thinking about the fact that my privileged upbringing were the reason that I am able to learn and address these issues in my studies and my work, whereas the people who are experiencing them every day may never get the chance to have the opportunity to change their situation for themselves. Additionally, education isn't necessarily about gaining more opportunities, as people tend to see it. Education gives you the opportunity to be self-reflective, to understand yourself, your interests, and your potential, no matter what job you occupy in the future. Education allows you to find a passion that you choose that gives you a lens through which to view yourself, the world, and the rest of your experiences. It's hard to separate these goals of education: the educational system has set us up to believe that the ultimate goal of your schooling is to raise you out of poverty and get you the best job opportunities, and I don't know how to escape that, even personally. I think it's important to separate the skills you gain from education that lead you toward a specific future from the consciousness you gain from education that leads you toward awareness and achievement of your needs and rights. 

Sorry this is long, but the rest of this post is going to be the profile I wrote of two 13 boys who are currently working full time at the landfill and not attending school. Most children living at the landfill stop going to school in 6th grade, like many of their parents did when they were young. I know it's long, but I think it's important for you to see the different angles of this issue. We all had to do a profile, and as a child junkie, I of course didn't care nearly as much about the adult's views on living on the landfill as I did about the childrens.

13 and Employed: The Life of Children at the Landfill 


Oat and Not, 13, rest atop the "Trash Mountain" from a long morning scavenging 









Like most 13-year-olds I know, Warawut “Not” Jungwaq and Rittidet “Oat” Maochaisong have been to the mountains. They’ve climbed and conquered their peaks, and have found treasures as they’ve explored.

However, the mountains Not and Oat climb daily are not made of rock nor covered in snow or trees, but are composed of plastic bags, glass bottles, old shoes, and food scraps. Where one might expect a biker to be following a rocky trail, a large yellow dump truck rolls up the “trash mountain” toward a line of scavengers awaiting their daily income as it pours out of the back of the truck.

Not and Oat are the most eager among them. “Every time the truck comes, I get really excited,” Oat explains, as I could tell as he rushed to secure the most strategic place behind the incoming dump truck. “I like helping my parents scavenge and find more money- even at night, I come out to help. We don’t really have to buy anything, because I find all my toys here.”

Not and Oat began scavenging in 4th grade, but only on school vacations. Now that they have completed 6th grade, they no longer attend school, and scavenge with their parents full time. Both boys expressed that they miss school and want to go back, and Oat has not relinquished hope that one day he will. While Oat wishes he could still play soccer with all his friends on the fields at the school, Not, who had forgotten how to write his name in Thai since leaving school, misses math class.


Mae Sawat “Wat” Sriboonroung, Oat’s aunt, responded when I asked them why they left school in the first place. She explained that “tuition is still free until 12th grade but families need to pay for transportation, uniforms, and other costs, so it is still expensive for children to go past 6th grade.” In a different exchange, Not’s mother, Meh Pen, emotionally articulated a strong desire for her children to continue their schooling and have more opportunities besides scavenging. She explained that children face discrimination in school because of their upbringing, and lie about attending, which “makes me really sad and upset, because I want them to have a good education.” Paw Come, the village leader believes that education will lead the children away from the landfill, and “when we [the adults] can no longer work, someone else will have to come in a do the work; the government needs to figure it out. I will live here for the rest of my life, but my children can send money back to me to support me because they will have a better job.”

Not believes that he will scavenge for the rest of his life, while Oat has other aspirations. “I want to be a famous soccer player, but if not, I want to go into the city and find a job there, not on the landfill.”

When the mayor of Khon Kaen was confronted with Not and Oat’s situation, he emphasized the importance of education and described the government’s free tuition until twelfth grade, but although he encourages families to continue sending their children to school, the government does not force their way into people’s personal lives. If children would rather work with their parents, or families need more hands in order to sustain a higher income, the government does no more than encourage. He is upset by how many young children are no longer in school, but seemed defeated by the prospect of getting them back in the system.

If the children, the parents, and the government all want higher education for the future adults of Khon Kaen, one would think such a goal could be accomplished. However, the precedent is so strong that hope is waning from each end.

Both boys have older brothers who work within Khon Kaen’s waste system; Oat’s brother drives a dump truck, and Not’s brother finishes the cycle through his work at the scrap store where trash is sold after it is sorted at the landfill.

Talk about a family business.

Not cannot remember how long his family has been working at the landfill, but “it’s been a long time.” Oat scavenges for his parents, but “everyone feels like family.” He laughed when I told him I could not tell who was related to whom.

This sense of community became obvious when I was invited to play with many of the community children on the rice field that afternoon. If Oat was shy to be interviewed, he had no fear to challenge anyone’s soccer skills. Fully accessorized with a Hello Kitty purse, no one dared to attempt to beat his dribble down the field. As Oat shot goals at his brother Jack, some girls pranced through the rice patty ponds or played clapping games, older teens chatted and took pictures on the sidelines, and oblivious babies risked their lives by sitting down mid soccer field. “All my friends are here.”

Not and Oat’s energy never falters although they spend the majority of their days sorting through trash produced by all of Khon Kaen’s residents. The coolest things they’ve ever found? Not responds: “a cell phone that still worked,” and Oat: “200 baht.” “Oh, I found 4B today,” Not concludes. 



Shompoo and Paw, best friends



My Mae Wat hard at work scavenging recyclables 


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