I have trouble forgetting the hello Kitty hairpins and the squeaky flip flops, the smell of omlette being cooked by a girl squatting on the floor behind a flower pot, in a hotel’s parking lot. I have always had a good memory, damn me, and I don’t think I will ever look at Hello Kitty in the same way.
I am back from Lao Bao, a neglectable little district between Vietnam and Laos. Its peculiarity is that it is what is called an economic corridor that connects special economic zones in Vietnam and Laos, and it’s part of a larger artery that connects Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.
Whoever is interested in the functioning of SEZs in south east Asia can easily find information on the Asian Development Bank’s website, what I want to talk about today is what the development of such zones entails for people living here.
Chances are I’ll fall in the sad rethoric of “economic development = resettlement = poverty”, it is indeed a simple paradigm but I wouldn’t liquidate it as a totally incorrect one. What you see in Lao Bao, everywhere, is billboards advertising karaoke bars and massage parlours. As it turns out +transit = +money = +entertainment. Also a simple paradigm, but one which explains more effectively why the town is flooded with prostitutes. Because prostitution in the country (actually in both Vietnam and Laos) is virtually illegal they are not technically prostitutes but they hang out in hotel lobbies and have sex for money so, well, we may not call them that but that’s what they are.
Being in Lao Bao makes you immensely sad, and angry, and frustrated. I would like to say that it makes you hate men, but I wouldn’t want to feed the “feminists hate men” comments… but yeah, that’s exactly how you feel as the boarder town becomes a small spot on the rearview mirror.
I am launching a project which is also based here (and in other areas in Vietnam and Cambodia), it took months of work and researches and studies. We knew all the percentages, all the hard data, everything by heart. And actually being there makes you feel like Napoleon, who had won every battle, planned everything, reinvented warfare, and yet he had not considered winter in Russia. This is how you feel. You know everything that can be calculated, estimated, forecasted and then you get here and had not though that behind all those numbers there are people, little people, mostly, who wear Hello Kitty hairpins and watch an old american TV show badly dubbed in Vietnamese, until a man comes and taps one on the shoulder.
It’s not a stroke, there is not even that sinful charm of sexual expectation. It’s just a tap on the shoulder, like when you point out to the butcher what piece of roast you want. A tap from an older man onto the shoulder of a girl whose breasts are lost in a bra that is twice her size. And you can do absolutely nothing. You are here for a day or two and thousands of men drive through this town every month, hundreds of girls are breadwinner or, worse, cashcows. Trying to stop a man from tapping on that bony shoulder means that she’ll go home with less money and he will get angry and go elsewhere. Pure, sheer frustration. You are there and yet you are invisible.
Outside my hotel I found an old phone booth with two little buddhas inside, the phone is long gone, possibly in someone’s house or maybe just disposed of by a forgetful worker who left the booth where it was. Right next to it there’s a picture of a girl sensually leaning on a pool table. This is what summarizes this place: buddhas and whores.
Being a person who enjoys sex, travelling and the slight numbness that alcohol gifts us with, I was happy to come home, not drink for a while and a part of me was also happy that my boyfriend wasn’t around. I have wanted to metabolize this experience, think about it, descend in that cave of pain that I felt underneath my bed while I slept on the first floor of the “Tay Ninh Hotel and karaoke bar”.
I want to remember every hairpin, the cheap perfume that soaked my pillow and the buddhas scattered all over the hotel, as if they were put there to protect the “unprotectable”. I want to remember, because sometimes in our job, when you feel hopeless, you have to resort to rage and turn that into the willpower you need to go on.
Today I’m only enraged, but maybe tomorrow this will make me a better professional.