By Kirsteen McLay-Knopp
I wrote this story in 2003, the year after I left Hanoi, Vietnam, where I lived and worked for three years. It gained second place in “The London Writer’s Competition” (I lived and worked in London for a year before returning to NZ) and was published in the competition book of winning entries. As Sarah has discussed, human trafficking has become an enormous global issue: those trafficked usually being “the poorest of the poor,” who are often tricked into their plight. Another very concerning area is organised “child sex tours” where paedophiles, aided by internet networking, journey to poorer countries to engage in sexual relations with children. Individuals, like the man in this story, sometimes journey to specific countries for this purpose also or happen to meet disadvantaged children while on trips for business. Wikipedia has this to say:
Child sex tourism (CST) is tourism for the purpose of engaging in the prostitution of children, that is commercially facilitated child sexual abuse. Child sex tourism results in both mental and physical consequences for the exploited children, that may include “disease (including HIV/AIDS), drug addiction, pregnancy, malnutrition, social ostracism, and possibly death”, according to the State Department of the United States. Child sex tourism, part of the multi-billion-dollar global sex tourism industry, is a form of child prostitution within the wider issue of commercial sexual exploitation of children. Child sex tourism victimizes approximately 2 million children around the world. The children who perform as prostitutes in the child sex tourism trade often have been lured or abducted into sexual slavery.
Users of children for commercial and sexual purposes can be categorized by motive. Contrary to popular belief, paedophiles (those who actively seek out prepubescent children for sex) are not the majority of users. There are preferential abusers: that is those who may prefer children because they perceive the risk of disease to be lower (for example, the risk of HIV). There are also situational users, those who do not actively seek out children but for whom the actual act is opportunistic; there may be a lack of concern to check the age of a prostitute before engaging in sexual activity. The majority of the exploited children are under 12 years old.
Paedophiles use the Internet to plan their trips by seeking out and trading information about opportunities for child sex tourism and where the most vulnerable children can be found, generally in areas of low income. Many governments have enacted laws to allow prosecution of its citizens for child sexual abuse committed outside of their home country. However, while laws against child sex tourism may deter situational offenders who may act impulsively, paedophiles who travel specifically for the purpose of exploiting children are not easily deterred.
While my story is fictional and the characters here are not real, I saw a number of situations like this, or with elements of this story, among the street children, who were one group among many whom I taught English to during my time in Vietnam (1999-2002).
Mai and the Man
By Kirsteen McLay-Knopp
Mai arrives late and disturbs the class. The door at the back scrapes across the worn quarter circle mark on the floor. Harsh, bright, Hanoi sunlight cuts into the room like an infrared ray and the other students turn. The tiles of the floor, although dusty, are old and beautiful: each set of four makes up a picture of a lotus, twelve other green tiles form a surrounding between one flower and the next. I’m lucky to be able to use this room for teaching disadvantaged children and young people. My boss Luong, a Vietnamese teacher of English, says whenever it’s free from our other classes, I can have it for this. Sometimes the room is so full kids have to stand; at other times only one or two show up, it varies day by day. Mai was one of the first to come, her intelligence and enthusiasm for learning inspire other students and encourage me to try to be the best teacher I can. Seeing her is like hearing a voice say,
“Yes, what you are doing is good, it’s really empowering these kids, putting them in a situation where they’ll get jobs and have better lives. With English they can work in tourism: restaurants, hotels, travel agencies: these things have to be better than struggling daily to sell souvenirs in the street.”
Although only eleven, Mai is one of the best speakers of English in the group. When the classes are too big, she sometimes helps me, taking a group of beginners in one corner. Being late isn’t normally her style.
She comes in quietly, muttering:“Xin loi… sorry…”
The others and I look for a few moments: she is wearing a new, red ao dai and… is that makeup on her face? Her feet are clad in red, bead embroidered slippers. She glides across the lotus-patterned floor and takes her place.
The class is more than halfway through. Mai, usually so enthusiastic, isn’t following… it’s more than just having been late. She smoothes out her clothes and examines her nails. She unplaits and then redoes her beautiful, long, shiny black hair. She examines grafitti on the table tops and stares unseeingly at the walls and ceiling. The silk of the ao dai ripples about her young body as the fan above us turns in an effort to combat the sticky heat. It would be better if she wore something under the top of the ao dai, I think to myself, it’s pretty much see through and, although her breasts have barely begun to develop, they are already attracting the furtive glances of some of the older boys.
Twelve o’clock. Lunch time arrives and, with it, the end of our lesson. The children and young people drift out. I’m starving; teaching always makes me hungry. I hear a rumble: no, it’s not my stomach; the sound has come from Mai, who is still staring into space.
“I’m going for pho, would you like to come?” I ask.
Mai’s trance is broken and she nods enthusiastically.
Pho—thick rice noodles with chicken and vegetables—is one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes. Mai and I have a bowl each and I also order a bottle of lemonade and two glasses.
“You’re wearing a new ao dai,” I say. “Is there a special occasion?”
Mai nods and slurps up some vegetables.
“A friend’s coming to Hanoi tonight. He sent me money to buy these things.”
I know Mai’s father is dead and she has no brothers. Her mother and two younger sisters plant rice in Nam Dinh province. The money Mai sends from Hanoi enables the sisters to continue in school.
Mai nods again.
“My foreign friend. I met him when I was selling postcards by the lake, about two months ago. He comes to Hanoi on business sometimes. Look, he sent me a letter.”
She takes a much folded, pink piece of paper from the waist of her ao dai trousers and passes it to me. An elegant hand flourishes across the paper in black ink:
My darling little Mai,
How I have missed you! I cannot forget the time we spent together before. I keep your picture with me always and hope we will have more good times when I return to Hanoi. Please use this money to buy clothes, makeup or whatever you need. It will make me so happy to see you looking cute and pretty…”
Suddenly, I don’t feel like eating pho anymore. In fact, I feel rather ill. I swallow the noodles and vegetables in my mouth, then place the chopsticks together across my bowl.
“He’s very kind,” Mai is saying. “I bought this ao dai and some lipstick and mascara and these slippers—do you think he’ll like them?”
“I’m sure he will… Mai… how old is this man?”
She shrugs. Her excitement can’t be dampened, even though she’s read the concern on my face.
“I’ve told him about our English class, he promised to come to see our group studying.”
She snatches the letter from me and jumps to her feet.
“I have to go,” she says. “I have so many things to prepare.”
For several days I see no sign of Mai or the man. I ask the other children.
“Hmmm, Mai is busy, no time to study,” one of the boys says with a smirk. “So busy with her old man.”
At the end of the next day, as the students are filing out across the lotus tiles, Mai enters the room; with the man. She’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt today and her feet are clad in a bright, white pair of new sneakers.
“Sorry I couldn’t come to class,” she says. “This is my friend.”
The man is European and in his fifties. He wears khaki-coloured shorts and a black T-shirt. His legs, arms and chest are covered in thick, salt and pepper coloured hair. His head, more hairless than his body, shines with beads of perspiration. On his feet are a pair of white sneakers, very similar to Mai’s.
“Oh, you’re the English teacher, Mai’s told me so much about you,” he says, extending a large, sweaty hand. “Oh, she’s like a daughter to me. I’m glad her English has improved so much since last time I saw her, thanks to you I guess.”
“Mai’s a good student,” I manage to say.
“We’re going swimming this afternoon,” Mai tells me. “I have new swimming clothes.”
“I love to watch her swim,” the man says.
“Perhaps some of Mai’s friends would like to go too?” I suggest.
“Oh… well… you know, I can’t take them all… um… we’d better be going,” the man says quickly.
“See you,” Mai says.
They leave in a hurry; the bright, white sneakers stand out as they pass over the dusty tiles of the lotus patterned floor.
The ringing telephone wakens me as daylight’s fingers curl about the edges of my curtains.
“Miss? It’s Lam.”
“Lam? Ah, yes…”
A thin, quiet boy of about thirteen who usually sits at the back of the class and doesn’t know much English. Lam makes his living as a shoeshine boy. I wonder how he got my phone number.
“Miss, it’s about Mai.”
“Mai? Is she OK?”
“Miss…,” his voice trails off and I hear a sob.
“OK, where are you? I’ll come right now.”
The Rouge Hotel is one of the most expensive in Hanoi. The street children often wait outside, hoping to sell trinkets, shine shoes or just beg for money from the hotel guests. Lam sits on his his wooden shoe shine box in front of the small fountain by the hotel gates, expectantly waiting for me. His face is grubby and tear-streaked.
“Mai’s in there,” he says, “with that man. I saw them go in last night and Mai hasn’t come out.”
A flush of red crosses his face. I remember Mai helping Lam with his English, the two of them laughing together as he stumbled over pronunciation. He cares very deeply for her.
“They won’t let me go in,” Lam continues. “Mai told me her friend is in Room 409. They said I’m just a dirty shoeshine boy, but… can you go? They’ll let you in for sure.”
“OK,” I say. “Wait here, Lam. Don’t worry.”
The morning sun is already beginning to burn hotly. The hotel interior smells of newness and the chandelier in the lobby glistens like ice.
“Um… I’m enquiring about my friend. He’s in Room 409,” I say at reception.
“Ah yes, do you want me to call him?”
“No… I’ll go up to his room if that’s OK.”
Up in a lift with mirrored walls and multiple ceiling lights to a carpeted corridor with a hospital-like smell of freshly applied cleaning fluids. 407…408…409. Taking a deep breath, I knock. Silence. I knock again, more loudly. Scuffling from inside. The door opens and the man, naked except for the same khaki-coloured shorts as before, stands in front of me, a questioning look on his face.
“I… um…,” I feel shy, but force my eyes to meet his. “A friend of Mai’s is worried about her. He said Mai slept here last night.”
“Why would she do that?” the man asks. “Look, what are you trying to…”
There’s a movement in the room behind him. My eyes travel over his shoulder to the crinkled white linen on the bed. Black hair fans out across one of the pillow cases: it’s Mai. She sits up, pulling at the sheet and revealing her bare shoulders. Catching sight of me in the doorway, she gasps, as I do at the sight of her. An instant later, she pulls the sheets up over her head. I have time to observe the tangled mess of her jeans, T-shirt and underwear on the floor in front of the bed, before I’m pushed out into the corridor by the man. Steadying myself against the opposite wall, I turn to see him standing in front of the closed door, arms folded across his bare, hair-covered chest.
“This is our business,” he says. “Mai’s and mine. She chose to come here.”
“But she’s a child!” I shout, feeling tears of rage come into my eyes. “How can you do this? How can you live with yourself after doing this?”
“Spare me,” he says, with a look of scorn. “Go back to the school and teach the other brats, school teacher. You can’t prove anything. The hotel staff need the money and so does Mai.”
Some days later, while taking an evening walk round the lake, I catch sight of Mai selling postcards. She wears the white sneakers, jeans and T-shirt. At first, she tries to avoid me, but then gives in and responds when I greet her. We sit on a seat under a tree, away from the heat and noise.
“Why?” I ask.
“Money,” Mai says. My sisters need to go to school. Our father is dead…”
“But Mai, you are so clever, you could be anything! Why this?”
“He pays me more than any other job I could do. You don’t know what it’s like, day after day, having this life… you taught me English… now I can talk to foreign men… I can do lots of things: fix the roof on my Mum’s house, buy pigs and chickens, send my sisters to school so they won’t ever live… like me.”
Mai’s words tumble forth like cascading water, then cease suddenly as tears make their way down her cheeks. I begin to cry with her; we both sit and shed silent tears as the sky darkens and the moon comes, casting its light across the surface of the lake while the floating lotus flowers slowly close their petals for the night.