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Thailand to L.A., a Life of Debasement : Thai slaves: The women found in a garment sweatshop were conditioned by their culture to accept fate.

<i> Christopher Scheer is a Thai-speaking writer based in San Francisco. His e-mail address is cwscheer@aol.com</i>

“What level of education do you have?”

It was an innocent enough question and she would answer it as concisely, as politely, as resignedly as she had all the others. And then she would punctuate it with yet another shy, nervous smile.

“Through the third grade,” she said in her native Thai. She put her fine-boned hand to her forehead and pressed it there for a moment. She had a headache. I tried to smile at her, feeling stupid and useless. She tried to smile back, in pain.

Pain was nothing new to this woman, age 30, born a few miles from the ancient abandoned capital of Ayuttha, a place of stone pagodas and ghosts. She had known a lot of it in her life already, and sitting through the chaos of another day in the world of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, she looked ready to endure quite a bit more of it. It was her lot in life, her karma. If she suffered it well now, she might be born anew into better circumstances next time. Perhaps as a shopkeeper or a bird or a wealthy farmer. Or at least as a man.

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She left Thailand more than three years ago, having no idea of the pain that awaited her in a baking L.A. suburb sewing seams and collars, Hawaiian shirts and surfer shorts from dawn to midnight seven days a week.

“Welcome to Friendly El Monte,” reads the baby-blue-on-yellow sign planted at the curb in front of an apartment complex at 2614 Santa Anita Ave. Inside, she and scores of other Thai women would live as slaves, forbidden to leave, beaten if they tried. A few managed to reach the world outside, only to discover that even there, they were the weak, the preyed upon.

Whether trying to survive in rural Thailand, make it through another day in L.A. slavery or understand the tortuous U.S. legal system, the 67 women and four men sprung by an interagency raid Aug. 2 have never been--and probably never will be--in control of their destiny.

While it doesn’t have an overt caste system like India, Thailand has a subtler system that effectively establishes the same power relationships. Everyone is beholden to someone else, everyone “knows their place” in the pecking order, from King Bhumibol at the top down to illiterate farmers, factory workers and prostitutes. The Thai language reflects the obsession with status, having a hierarchy of honorific titles and a special language of self-debasement to be used when speaking to royalty. Even the polite “wai"-- putting one’s palms together in front of one’s face in greeting--is a loaded form of communication: The higher your hands, the more respect you’re showing.

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At the absolute bottom of this pecking order are women like those brought to El Monte--poor and rural, single and defenseless. There is always a Mr. Big lording it over them, a pimp, whether or not they work in the sex trade. It might be a cruel employer, a corrupt cop, a mindless bureaucrat--or even a parent. For in Thailand, drought and starvation sometimes will drive desperate parents to sell their children into forced labor or prostitution.

And by and large, they accept their masters; that’s the tragic thing. Like the mobster who is “good to his people,” the patron/boss is supposed to protect as he exploits. That is how the setup is sold to those down the ladder. “I feel so bad telling these terrible things about our boss,” one of the Thai women apologized to a community activist visiting her on Terminal Island.

Someone is always profiting off these women, but no one really sees them. Their enslavers didn’t really see them, or else how could they treat them like that? And if the INS saw them as they are--scared, small, abused--would they still put them in handcuffs to take them to court? I know I can’t truly see them, no matter how I stare; their experience is too different, too alien. Even the Thai community activists who are so valiantly trying to help these women are divided from them by class and geography and dialect and pity. Pity is a great divider. It is very hard to really see someone when you pity her.

And we are all of us profiting, with or without the pity. I have been paid to write this article. And who knows, maybe I am wearing something that was sewn for less than $2 an hour in a stifling L.A. garage.

For the first time in their lives, these women have become visible, if only in the shadow world of the media. But it’s strange--now that they’re here, everybody wishes they would just go away. They are embarrassing. The Thai consul general wanted them to take a few bucks and get on the next plane back to Thailand. They are staining the image of modern Siam, slavery not fitting in with the Edenesque advertising of beaches, food and sex. And they are certainly embarrassing the INS, which might have freed them three years ago but didn’t, and the United States, which thought it was past this sort of thing.

I guess that’s why when, over the years, a few managed to slip past the rolls of razor wire and emerge into Friendly El Monte (pop. 111,057), no one really wanted to hear their stories. Not the local Thai press, nor the guardians of American justice (except for certain agents whose attempts to help were overruled.)

Now the women’s stories are going to be heard. They will get their day in court and some back wages and a free flight home. They will get these because they have a new set of caretakers, well-meaning and benign, who are trying to guide them through the system. But unless they are transformed, unless they begin to claim their rights for themselves, their victories will be fleeting--just handouts, really. Because this world is run by the rich and by men and by bureaucracies. It is not run by 85-pound Thai women who were harvesting rice at age 7 and sewing dresses at 13. They don’t run anything; they are the run.


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