I am accustomed to seeing neon lights in Vancouver. The lights shine their brightest at night and have called my attention in the past. Some have even flickered at me like alluring winks, inviting me to come and see.
“COLD BEER & WINE”
After so many years of living in the city, driving up and down the same streets, they have simply blended into the landscape of a rapidly growing metropolis. But the glow of neon lights captured my attention again the night we walked down a busy street in Phnom Penh. Only this time, to a much more somber reality…
Walking the KTV Streets
It was still our first day in Cambodia and in our conversations that day, we had learned that KTV (or Karaoke) bars were where many young girls ended up when trafficked into the sex industry. We asked our friends, Raju & Makara, who are Cambodian locals if they would show us where the KTV bars were outside our hotel. So, they took us for a walk that evening. It wasn’t long before we realized that our neighbourhood was practically surrounded by them.
Outside the stores, there were a few young women who sat on cheap, red plastic chairs while putting on make-up, preparing themselves in plain sight for a typical work night. Not all the girls were out yet, Raju said.
It was about 7:00pm.
“At this hour,” he explained, “they’re just getting ready for work…Most of them don’t come out until later in the night.”
We walked further down and saw block after block that nearly every other store was either a KTV bar, a massage parlour, or a hotel that rented beds.
Locals passed by as well and hung out near food stands, which were strategically positioned outside the bars.
Whenever we passed by a bar, I turned my face away to make conversation with whoever was walking next to me. I was pretending not to appear interested in what was I was seeing, but inside, I was reeling with questions.
“Do you want to go and talk to one of the girls?” Raju asked.
I was shocked by his proposal. Talk to one of these worker girls?! My Western upbringing told me that it was rude to disturb her and that talking to her was the last thing one should do.
“Raju,” I confessed, “I can’t even look her in the eye right now.”
He nodded, and then paused “…and you must ask yourself why that is.”
My heart felt like it was in my throat.
When we had asked Raju and Makara to give us a glimpse into the issue of sex trafficking in Cambodia, I had no idea that the evidence would stare us so blatantly in the face. I have heard and read stories through movies, TV, news, books, social media, and have even attended info nights on social justice, but seeing the girls in person was a whole different experience. Strangely, it brought out in me a gnawing feeling of shame.
There was one moment where I was looking with curiosity at one of the girls and we made eye contact briefly. I tried to quickly look away, but it was too late – she saw me. I felt embarrassed and wanted to hide.
Reflecting on it now, I couldn’t look at her in the eye because she was real. She was another real human being who could stare back at me…have thoughts and feelings, just like me. Effectively, seeing her meant she would also see me.
Our Shared Shame
What I realized that night was that the shame of sexual exploitation was not just hers, but mine also. I am safe here in Canada and in my socio-economic status. I don’t have to sell my body to strangers just to make ends meet. I have a home, I have a family who loves me, and I have friends whom I cherish. Yet when I look at her, I am ashamed of what I have…and more so, for what she does not. I feel like I can’t give her what belongs to me nor can I save her and pull her to safety.
I have heard people find clever ways to explain away the moral justification of trading sex for money, but I would argue that if we actually believe this, then we are horribly deceived. Because when I looked at her, I saw no justice, no joy, no fairness in those eyes.
This is simply not the way things are supposed to be.
I pray that the numb of neon lights would lose its power and we would begin to feel the pain. I pray that their glow would no longer blind us from the reality that this is all very wrong. I pray that they would not just shine for sorrow, but also for opportunity.
Finally, I pray that I would no longer be afraid to truly see her and perhaps one day be moved to compassionate action…
Back at the Hotel
When we arrived back at the hotel, the mood was low. Sensitive to this, Makara and Raju did not say much. They allowed us to sit in the pain and lovingly bid us farewell.
We all went to bed that night realizing that if we would allow it, the next 14 days in Cambodia could change our lives forever.
Lord, no matter where we are in the world or how far we have strayed, you see us and your deep love for us remains. You know us inside and out, and you have not left our side.
Jesus, be our guide. Give us courage to engage with the suffering of the world so that we might be your hands and feet in the ongoing work of justice and mercy. And help us to fix our eyes on the hope of seeing you making all things new.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you. Psalm 139:7-12
Claudia Ho shared her gifts and talents of worship leading in a cross-cultural context in Cambodia while modeling servant leadership and empathy to our team and our ministry partners. In Vancouver, Claudia manages a team in the marketplace, is a creative media developer, and volunteers at Oasis Café.
Tenth has partnered with the Chab Dai Coalition (network of 55 Christian organizations dedicated to stop sexual abuse and human trafficking) for the past 13 years, and Precious Women (empowers women who have been exploited in the entertainment industry) since 2015.