Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On giving thanks

A few hours ago, I was sitting near the spot of Jesus' ascension on Mount Olive. The sky had just unleashed a torrent of rain, and the dark and foreboding clouds were still rolling over the hills and valleys of the Jerusalem. A few rays of light pierced the clouds, falling on the shimmering golden facade of the Dome of the Rock. Before me lay all of the Old City of Jerusalem, its massive walls, the imposing Temple Mount, and the sweeping hills soaked with history and memories and war and suffering and hope. And I felt so far from the tiny town that I came from.

My family didn't have much when I was growing up. On my dad's side, my grandfather was a construction worker and my grandmother was illiterate. My mom immigrated from Taiwan when she was 16. Her parents were divorced. And her mom did data entry at a hospital while her dad had gambling problems.

My parents weren't able to finish college. They started a family while they were young, and had only a small apprentice salary in the beginning. At first, they could only afford a tiny attic apartment in rural Pennsylvania, but they slowly saved up for a small house. I think sometimes about how hard it must have been, all the sacrifices they made to save money and provide for their kids. I remember the cold nights during the winter because heating was too expensive, so we huddled around the fireplace and chimney to do our homework. I remember sorting through coupons at thrift stores and clipping them from newspapers, as we tried to save every penny we could. I remember the recycling centers where we could bring cans and jars to exchange for money, and I remember the dry milk and large bags of kashi cereal. I remember the slow painstaking renovations on the house every weekend. Our weekly and nightly ritual of home construction.

Despite everything, my parents provided a lot for my brothers and me. We would take vacations every year, epic road trips to Canada and Wyoming and Montana, sleeping in the car or cramming the whole family into small hotel rooms. They taught us to be good people and take care of those around us, provided us all with great educations, and gave us opportunities that they never saw. By the time I was in highschool and heading to Princeton, my parents had built a comfortable life for themselves and their family. I don't know for sure what the American dream is, but I'm fairly sure that I lived at least part of it.

Someone recently commented to me that she hoped I'd find experiences, memories on this trip that would make me feel grateful. I know I have, but even more than that, the trip itself, just to be in Jerusalem, makes me feel grateful. I'm here because of hundreds of different choices I've made, but more importantly, I'm here because of all the difficult choices my parents made. For the values they instilled in me, the education they gave me, and for the opportunities they provided me.

I'm in Jerusalem, and I'm very far from home. But I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my home. And despite all its craziness and complications, for that I'm very grateful.

Happy thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Victoria. Her name was Victoria.

I met her my first night in Turkey. It was in a dimly light upstairs club in Istanbul. She was brought over to my table by some of the waiters at the club. I had ended up there after meeting a Turkish man when I was walking around the Hagia Sofia late at night. He approached me claiming to be visiting from Cyprus, and after a short conversation, he offered to take me to a local bar. It was a standard scam for young solo male travelers, and I decided to play along and see where it led. We took a short cab ride to the club, and that’s where I met her.

Victoria was tall and pretty, and sat next me. She moved close to me, put her hand on my leg, and I remembered how good the warmth of flesh felt. She said that she was 20 and from the Ukraine. Ukraine is only a few hours flight to Turkey. I knew Turkey to be a common destination for trafficked Ukrainian girls. The most common route is to move the trafficked girls overland through Georgia and Bulgaria, or cross the Black Sea from the Ukrainian port of Odessa.

At the club, there were many girls dancing on the stage. Mostly young and pretty. All in short tight skirts. She said that they were mostly from Eastern Europe. My host sat at the table next to me. They brought an older Turkish woman to the table with Victoria. The Turkish woman sat with my host. It’s common for a Madame to work at places like this. She may have been trafficked herself, or have a relationship with one of the traffickers. She becomes an insider and enforcer of sorts. For the Madame, it may have been a way to escape the violence and brutality of the industry, a way to gain some position by turning on those caught in the same trap. She may have been there to watch Victoria, to observe and ensure Victoria played her part. My host tried to push drinks on us and said Victoria and I should get closer or dance or something.

When my host left the table, I asked Victoria if she was ok. I asked her if anyone hurt her or mistreated her. I asked her whether she could leave when she wanted and whether she felt safe. She said she did. She said no one hurt her.

After a little while, I left the club. My host was clearly annoyed that I wasn’t spending more money. On the car ride back, he made up extra charges – an entrance fee, a cover charge, an additional charge for the girls. He said I had to pay him more money. I said I wouldn’t and that I didn’t agree to those charges. He told me that I come to Turkey and “fuck but then don’t pay.” He then said he left his phone at the club and we had to go back. I tapped the driver on the shoulder and I said I was getting out. When the car stopped at a light, I opened the door and left. I walked back to my hostel through the winding deserted streets of Istanbul.

I don’t know if Victoria was a victim of human trafficking. I don’t know if behind her smile and warmth was a story of hardship and pain and brutality and suffering. I don’t know what, if any, hell she went back to. I don’t know if she was willingly playing along with the scam or coerced into it. I don’t even know her name.

Victoria. Victoria was almost certainly a stage name. She may have picked it herself to protect her identity. Her cover at the club. Or it may have been picked for her. A way to isolate and control her, to prevent any well-meaning person from finding a way to reach her. The truth is for all I know about human trafficking, I knew nothing about her. I had no idea how to help her, or whether she even needed help. Human trafficking is a crime wrapped in the disguise of consent. And this bramble of uncertainty leaves us powerless. Lost in its vines, unable to unravel the story, or even learn her name.

She said her name was Victoria. I did all I could. The lies we tell in order to survive.

Post-script: If you want more information about human trafficking, you can check out my article on domestic sex trafficking, Finding Safe Harbor, which was recently cited by U.S. House Judiciary Committee. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is also a great resource if you think you've witnessed human trafficking or want more information.