Dr. Pam Barger talks with me (Melinda Schmidt) about the complexities of Thai culture this week on the Bring To Mind podcast. After taping our conversation in her office on the campus of Wheaton College for Bring to Mind, I still had many more lingering questions. Here, we continue the conversation as she briefly talks more with me about Buddhism, sex trafficking and living as a Christ follower in Thailand.
MELINDA: We talked about “bar girls” and prostitution in the red light districts in Thailand. What is the attitude of millennial Thai women to this part of their culture?
DR. BARGER: For some Thai women, they view the bar girls as just someone earning their living for their family. Some Thai women have pity on the bar girls. Some find it wrong and maybe the bar girls are the ones who just had bad karma (or their family had bad karma) which caused them to end up in prostitution. And there are women who enter prostitution by choice. According to a study done by Chulalongkorn University (one of the top universities in Thailand), there are four types of sex workers: 1) those who are from the rural areas and are trafficked/sold into the trade and working under restraint; 2) single mothers/women with low education to supply money for their dependents; 3) young, attractive, entrepreneurial women who want to earn extra money; they work in Japanese bars and high-end establishments; and 4) women such as students who perform sex part-time to supplement income.
MELINDA: What is the general attitude of Thai people to evangelical Christians in Thailand?
DR. BARGER: Although it appears that Thai people are accepting to Christians coming in Thailand, there are many who don’t want them to be there, especially to evangelize the gospel to them. Many wish the Christians would leave the gospel sharing alone because they are already Buddhists, so why need to change them to become Christians, especially a religion that they considered a Western religion? Again, for the Thais, to be a Thai is to be Buddhist. Many Thais do carefully watch at the attitude and the actions of the evangelical Christians to see if they “walk, the walk, and talk, the talk.” They really are observant of the Christians there, yet they do appreciate the efforts of them helping out with outreach programs, English language training, medical help, combating trafficking, etc.
MELINDA: What is it like for a Christian to live and worship in Thailand?
DR. BARGER: Very challenging. There are many Thai Christians who are nominal, in that they take elements of Christianity and combine them with their Buddhist background. It is challenging in terms of the spiritual oppression that is there.
MELINDA: You were a Buddhist. What are the differences that came to your life after you decided to follow Jesus?
DR. BARGER: Matthew, Chapter 10 comes into my mind as I continue on my journey as a Christian. On one hand, I find assurance knowing that I can find peace through having a relationship with Jesus, but on another hand, I am realizing that the life of a Christian will often bring division to my loved ones and to the people of this world. The life of a Christian is often filled with ironies. However, the biggest difference that I realize as a Christian is that I have the Lord on my side, whereas before as a Buddhist, I was on my own, trying to live a good life and do the best I can, but at times, I fail. I didn’t want to live in a cycle of birth and rebirth anymore. As a Christian, I am glad to know that I have freedom in Christ.
You can listen to the Bring to Mind here: http://www.bringtomind.org
Dr. Pam Barger is the ELIC (English Language Institute of China) Program Administrator and guest professor in the Intercultural Studies Department at Wheaton College Graduate School. Her research interests focus on internationalization, democratization, educational technology, spiritual capital, social justice, religion and gender in education with a specific focus in Southeast Asia. She has guest-lectured in seminars and graduate classes on perspectives on social foundations of education, history of education, TESOL, global outreach, educational research methods, interreligious dialogue, Buddhism, women issues in Thailand, and integration of faith, learning and social justice.
Melinda Schmidt is a visionary who appreciates observing how the complexities of culture and faith influence one another. Her core words are freedom, orderliness, twirling, beauty and seed-planting ideas. For her, life is good when she is free to muse, express and—frankly—eat pizza or her homemade blueberry pie.