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Nung - Leaving Poverty In Her Rear View Mirror
Story and Photographs By Don Coppock
(Editor's note - Don Coppock has lived in Thailand for several years and routinely shares stories of his experience with readers of the Waterbury Observer. Coppock currently lives with Nung)
Nung presents the Thai doll she just made with barely concealed glee...in fact, it appears she's having a difficult time restraining herself from laughing out loud at her own creativity. She's plainly amazed that something so unique could simply appear as if by magic from her manipulation of twine and thread, and I can't help wondering, knowing her as I do, exactly where this joy springs from.
I met Nung in a seedy little club in Jomtien, a beach community just south of Pattaya, Thailand. She was working at a thinly disguised brothel-masquerading-as-a-bar, one of the few daytime establishments of its kind in the area. It was near my house and I passed it daily, where most afternoons a handful of women dressed alluringly beckoned as I passed by.
Nung was one of those women.
At the time she lived nearby in a shabby 10 x 12' concrete box at the end of a dirt culdesac composed of similar boxes. The room was everything you'd expect from an apartment for 500 baht (about $18) a month, with a small refrigerator, a tattered mattress, and a ceramic hole for a toilet. It was a box not unlike thousands of other hovels women crowd into here in the hopes of saving money to send to their families, most of whom are unaware of how their daughters/sisters/mothers are earning that money...because these girls are often looked down upon here in Thailand just as they are everywhere else, even when they often provide for those criticizing them.
To understand why women make the choices they do here, you have to understand a little about their backgrounds. As with many of the women I've encountered, Nung grew up in a poor, dysfunctional family, and began learning tricks of survival at an early age. She had to. Her first memories at 7 years old were of living under a bridge, a shelter her family shared with a number of other families in similar circumstances.
It was a life fraught with all the attendant problems of living in close proximity to the poorest and most destitute scratching out a living on the fringes of society, There were no lights, no water, no bathrooms, no electricity nor any of the conveniences most of us take for granted. She slept with her family on plywood planks, with nets her only protection from the ubiquitous mosquitoes, and recalls being embarrassed as her father bathed her using buckets from the nearby canal while local traffic observed as it passed overhead.
For food, Nung and her brother went to the local wat at 6 AM and waited for monks to return from morning forays. When finished eating, the monks would distribute whatever was left at about 8 AM, which often resulted in Nung being late for a nearby government school most of the poor children were herded into.
The school distributed cheap essential foods to the children as well, which she often brought home and boiled to make a thin soup which often fed the entire family. Nung recalls the teachers as strong disciplinarians who believed they could inspire their charges by berating, bullying and beating them with switches. Initially, she confides, she hated English because every mistake she made was accompanied by a painful flick of the switch, and her learning difficulties were compounded by the fact none of her instructors spoke english particularly well.
Life at 'home' was no better. While her mother struggled to make ends meet and often suffered from beatings when she had the temerity to complain, her father remained jobless, was a womanizer, and drank heavily until they separated when Nung was 11. She recalls her first real home as a one room apartment she shared with her Mother and brother, a tiny flat minus everything but a roof and walls.
As she grew older she recalls being shunted about, hovel to hovel, school to school, living with her grandmother, her aunt, or anyone else willing or able to help provide a roof over her head until she married at 18, not from any quaint notions of love, but because a young man drugged and raped her, and she confesses she was 'too stupid' to know her options. It was a loveless marriage, her husband was a drug abuser, her Mother-in-law a domineering tyrant, and she ultimately divorced after 3 tortuous years, reluctantly leaving her beloved daughter to her abandoned 'family'. Once again, Nung was powerless to do anything.
She has worked in factories for 220 baht (about $6 at the time) a day (overtime-16 hours a day-paid 500 baht.) She has worked in restaurants for 200 baht a day. She has worked 12 hour days in various shops for as little as 100 baht per day, until as she approached the age of 30 she came to the same realization many young Thai women come to; she was never going to be able to earn enough to make a decent living no matter how hard she worked.
One day she encountered an old friend in Isaan (Northeastern Thailand) who had married a farang (foreigner). After seeing that friend happily showing off all the nice things Nung had never dreamed of having, Nung made her decision. She chose opportunity.
When I met her, she'd been working at the Winchester Club for 3 months. I liked her, made her an offer after a few weeks, suggested we see how it worked out and we'd go from there. Not very romantic, I suppose, but I've come to realize most Thais in her situation aren't looking for flowers and candy...they're looking for something a little more solid.
We've been together over 2 years now, and while it isn't perfect, with cultural and age differences, and it certainly isn't 'traditional', I've had few reasons to regret my decision, and she's given me every reason to believe she feels the same.
Nung recently took me to visit her 84 year old grandmother’s ramshackle dwelling near the bridge she lived under as a young girl. The woman was surprisingly spry for an octogenarian who had lived in bitter poverty all her life, and Mother and granddaughter made no secret of their affection for each other. The home itself was a ramshackle affair not uncommon in slums throughout the world, consisting of corrugated tin walls slapped together, planks of wood for sleeping and a dirt floor. Across the road a train rumbled by forcing us to raise our speech and rattling the few pots and pans hanging on the plywood walls. Outside, she showed me the bridge she slept under, the canal she bathed in, the trees she used to climb, and she described them almost wistfully.
Surprisingly , given her history, she has retained her wide-eyed innocence, and takes joy from the simplest of pleasures. She's quick to smile, eager to learn and anxious to please. Understandably, she never wants to feel helpless again, and who can blame her?
Presently, at 30, she's pursuing a university degree while doing anything and everything to better herself. She knits, cooks (recently taking a sushi class), and has taken a variety of art classes, all in an attempt to figure out her own formula to make a better life for her daughter and herself.
And, of course, she makes dolls.