National Shame, What You Don’t See
Today the intersection is busy so I watch him wait for just the right moment, make sure eye contact with the drivers takes place, and then as quickly as he can he rolls across the street hoping a baht bus or ya-ba crazed taxi driver doesn’t
cut between the lanes and end his unfortunate life. I’m memorized, like watching the proverbial train wreck in action I can’t take my eyes off what I’m seeing but somehow I manage to park the car in the McDonald’s parking
lot and tuck in behind him so I can watch more closely. My desire to run out to him and take charge and bring him to safety is overwhelming but I check the urge knowing he’s done this a thousand times and probably will continue on his own
for many years. His clothes dirty and torn hang loosely on his gaunt frame and unkempt hair falls down over his eyes as they look right, left, and then right again as he wheels himself around yet another car. Christ, my heartbeat is twice its
normal rate and the lump in my throat won’t go down as I watch a newer Toyota Yaris screech to a stop inches from his left arm as a short older woman pushes herself higher in her seat trying to see over the dash board to see if she hit
him and scratched her new car. His legs barely make it to the edge of the seat, long removed from whatever regrettable cause. Mere stumps, atrophied from decades of non-use, pants tied in rough knots to cover them. As he passes me he looks directly
at me and prepared I give him a smile with a polite greeting but he looks through me as if I’m not there. To him I’m not there, turning in the direction of his gaze I see he was looking through me at two motorsai taxis heading towards
him and I see the first emotion cross his face. The emotion is fear.
He continues on hoping they don’t notice him but they have, in fact I get the distinct impression they’ve been looking for him. Their motorsais form a sort of roadblock and they stop pressed up against his battered wheelchair as the traffic whizzes past just inches away and for a moment just give him a hard look. The rider with the pink hard hat helmet and pock marked face speaks first, so fast I have no hope of making out what’s said. I see him reach under the flap of his front shirt pocket and hand Mr. Pink Helmet a small wad of baht. His partner Mr. Grey Helmet reaches down and starts going through the mans pockets without permission and I see the fear once more dominate his expression. Finding what looks like 5 – 6 20 baht notes Mr. Grey Helmet gets angry and slaps him across the side of the head and they both speak harshly to him before speeding off. Fear, brief anger, and then a look of embarrassment rolls across his face before settling on sullen dejection. He continues in the direction he originally was going and I follow. I can’t help it, sometimes I see something that captivates me and I can’t tear myself away. All of a sudden I want to know the rest of the story, learn about the man and his life, and share it with anyone who will listen. Following him I try to think of something appropriate to tell him when I stop him and start asking him questions. There’s many techniques from the most direct blunt questions to stopping and asking for the time and trying to engage in a directed conversation, and as I watch my step to make sure I don’t step in a hole in the sidewalk or hit my head on the pipe sticking out of the side of the building decide to just observe for now. He rolls down the road, in the road, unable to get up on the sidewalk.
A few hundred meters down the road he turns into a gas station and I wonder why. Rolling quickly now he makes his way to the rest rooms but stops at a garbage can first. Leaning into the garbage can he collects some discarded paper food wrappers and an old cup. Looking satisfied he tucks them between his stumps and pushes his way to the restroom entrance. There’s a rise of perhaps 8 inches and he tries desperately to get his chair up and over the rise, several attempts later he gives up and pushes himself as far out of sight as he can. Taking the cup he wipes around the rim with the food wrappers before unzipping his trousers and searching for his penis. I suppose the seated position pushes his groin area towards the rear making access difficult. Finding what he was searching for he stretches it out with one hand and reaching into a pocket with the other hand he takes out a catheter which is really nothing more than an old used ¼ hose about 20 inches in length. Hawking his throat he spits on the hose and uses his tongue to spread the lubricant around before sliding it up his urethra and past his permanently tightened sphincter and into his bladder. Crap, he’s paralyzed as well! Quickly guiding the hose into the cup relief comes and as relief floods his face for the first time I see him relax a little. I continue to search through my knapsack for appearance's sake while observing him towards my right side. He pinches off the hose and looking around to see if anyone is looking he dumps the urine in the dirt and puts the cup back to catch the rest. When he’s done he puts the empty cup back between his legs and taking a food wrapper uses it to wipe off the catheter hose as he withdraws it from his body before carefully rolling it and putting it back in his pocket. Dabbing at his groin area with the food wrappers he does his best to remove the bit he spilled and then zips himself back up and putting the papers in the cup he then deposits the cup in the garbage.
His immediate problem taken care of he turns back to the rest room entrance for another attempt at access. Crap, he needs to take a dump and there’s no way for him to get in. By this time 4-5 Thai men have walked by but not before giving him angry looks for daring to be in their way, and not being able to watch any longer I walk the ten meters or so to him, grab the back of his chair, tilt it back so the front wheels are up on the rise, and then just lift him up into the entrance. I didn’t ask, didn’t even look at him. I just pushed him into the rest room and towards the rows of squat toilets separated by thin walls with no doors. This is a typical Thai indoor/outdoor rest room, very hot, flies, strong smells of urine and feces, and puddles of both surrounding the squat toilets. This is hard, I wouldn’t let my dog walk through this place without shoes. And this man, this neglected handicapped and dejected Thai man has no choice but to crawl down on this dirty floor to relieve himself. Reaching into my knapsack I grab the half used roll of toilet paper that I always carry and hand it to him. He looks grateful and quickly he grabs my arm and squeezes while managing a smile and tries to tell me he’ll be ok.
I recognize this look because once upon a time I used to give those caring for me the same look. You see, when someone is kind enough to help you in the most personal ways, even if they’re being paid to do so, you want to take them past that point of awkwardness and embarrassment and let them know how very much you appreciate someone taking the time to help you do what you can no longer do for yourself. The best way I found to do this is to try and convince them that you’re not embarrassed and humiliated and to reassure them that they’re doing the right thing and that you appreciate it at the same time. Looking into his eyes was like looking into a mirror ten years earlier. Putting my hand over his to show I wasn’t afraid to touch him I patted his hand and asked if there was more I could do. He shook his head and told me he was ok on his own. I couldn’t bear to watch, it brought back too many memories and oddly enough I felt guilty because I’d never had to subject myself to such deplorable conditions. I’d been the lucky one.
Turning I walked as fast as I still could back to my truck totally forgetting how badly I wanted to question him. As I walked memories I’d pushed to the very back of my mind vaulted forward and the smells and sounds and voices of the past were forcing me to relive the horrors I was once part of. I didn’t want to cry, I never cry, but all of a sudden my eyes were wet and I could barely see the side of my SUV as I climbed in and leaned back in the seat taking deep breaths over and over again. So many questions, a story to tell, but today I didn’t have the courage to watch and listen. The forced forgotten emotions of humiliation washed over me as this recent experience juxtaposed over my own of the past. Empathy is a strong emotion, layer it on top of similar personal experiences and it can become overwhelming. I thought I’d grown stronger than this, overcome so much. I’d almost forgotten just how close such pain lives next door, once it moves in it’s there to stay and the best you can do is pretend it’s not on the other side of those very thin walls.
Well over a decade earlier I’d made up my mind to give back to the Veterans Hospital that took care of me when I couldn’t take care of myself. I’m not sure exactly why, maybe because paying back this kind of debt in part releases you from at least one of the many emotions you’d rather have not experienced. Obligation. Being fortunate enough to qualify I was one of a few veterans accepted that year into the national Prosthetics Representative Management program. Already educated in business practices we were given a crash course in everything related to the fitting and application of all types of prosthetics and the management of the prosthetic department. Brutally fast paced by necessity I went from specialty hospital and rehabilitation centers to laboratories to surgical centers before spending the last few months of training at the VA Center I was to be assigned. Soon I was prepared to give back to the system and for a few years I gave until I couldn’t give anymore. I reached a point where my need to repay my obligations were outweighed by the strong depression brought on by being back in so desperate an environment that invoked the worst memories.
Corporal Phil was what I called him. You’re not supposed to get close to your patients, but this young Marine had tried to stop an ordinary armed robbery at the corner video store and ended up with a bullet in his spine for his troubles. I started working with him right out of rehab and for a year I was part of his and his wife’s life as we got him used to his wheelchair, self-care, and modified his home. Always outwardly cheerful it was only those close to him who knew the pain and suffering brewing inside. Still very young he was unable to broach the subject of not being able to have traditional intercourse with his young and beautiful wife. If only he had opened up, if only he’d accepted counseling, if only he’d been honest on his emotional assessments, if only…, there was so much we could have done for him. Instead he chose to free his wife from her obligation to him and when he left our world I left the VA system. It was the last of many broken and bent straws. I feel fortunate I was able to learn so much.
For instance once I had a chance to think about the Thai man’s situation my emotions turned to anger. In the west this man would live in a place where he would void his bowels through enemas in the morning so when he left the house for the day he wouldn’t feel his guts tightening signaling him that he’s about to void through muscles he can no longer feel or control. He’d use sterile self-cathe kits that come wrapped in sterile packets that include lubricant to prevent damage and almost certain infection to his urinary tract, kits which are designed to be disposable and not reused hundreds of times. Even if he only worked for a call center or as a greeter he’d still be employed and a productive member of society. He’d have a place equipped so he could bathe himself, cook for himself, and lead a fairly normal life. After all, the man’s mind was intact and sound and he was capable of performing many jobs that don’t require walking. This man could have been leading a productive emotionally healthy and rewarding life. Instead he was reduced to the life of an animal. Why?
There are so many things in Thailand we never see, but they’re always there in our own countries. Wheelchair access at the curbs, handicapped parking, access in the restrooms, and things like specialized transportation and medical care and job retraining so the person can learn to live as normal a life as possible. We don’t see these things in Thailand. No ramps built into the curbs at intersections, no buttons to push so the light stays green long enough so you don’t get ran over by 100 motorsais before you can make it across the street. No ramps allowing access to buildings and shopping centers, no handicapped parking spots and no modified vehicles the handicapped can drive. Worse, no medical care, no places to live, no food to eat, no clothes to wear for those too handicapped to provide for themselves much less the dream of being trained in a skill that would allow the individual to become self sufficient.
However, there is one retraining program in Thailand for the handicapped. Begging! And the people providing the training further help the helpless by taking everything they earn and leaving them without the means to feed and house themselves. Instead they eat from garbage cans, or maybe a passer-by will hand them something to eat, and when they get tired they’ll find a hole to hide in. We’ve all seen them crawling on the ground dirty and disheveled, pathetic in appearance in just the right proportions to encourage us to reach into our pockets and help them. Too bad the bulk of what’s collected goes in the hands of thugs and thieves and not those who we gave it to. Isn’t it ironic, Thai citizens know this happens and in effect would rather toss a few coins at the beggars crawling along the street KNOWING where the coins will end up, than vote in some sort of tax and trust the government to provide a level of care for the infirm. They’d rather thugs and thieves look out for the welfare of the handicapped than their own government! Is it any wonder Thailand has experienced so many military coups in such a short time? Any wonder they can’t agree on a new constitution almost a year after taking power? That they still haven’t set the dates for the elections? I suppose it’s understandable the Thai people trust the thugs and thieves over their own government to care for their handicapped. Is there any wonder at all, in the least, why Thailand is still well known as a corrupt third world country?
There are some things much bigger we don’t see, some things we see in every western country on an almost daily basis, yet never see in Thailand. The physically handicapped who have families and don’t need to beg, the mentally handicapped, and for the most part the elderly. Thailand is a country which openly and often discriminates when posting for employment requiring certain ages, certain races, certain religions, certain sexes, and even certain levels of beauty. Thailand is a country whose drivers have the right of way over pedestrians. Thailand is a country where classes of people are defined by nothing more than the color of a person’s skin. Thailand is a country whose citizens would rather spend the rest of their lives locked in small rooms at home than venture outside in the general public because they know how the general public perceives them for being in a wheelchair! And the Thai people and the Thai government perpetuate this harsh form of discrimination by not providing the items necessary for their handicapped citizens to come out of forced exile and into the mainstream. In their minds it’s better to throw a few coins at a handicapped beggar knowing the money goes to organized crime, than to trust their government to fairly tax their citizens and provide for the handicapped. The Thai people’s aversion to those who aren’t beautiful, whose skin isn’t white, whose legs are missing and whose eyes don’t see is myopic behavior at its worst. People who are so embarrassed of an imperfect son, daughter or sibling that they prevent them from seeing the very light of day, instead they remain locked inside small dark rooms often severely neglected their entire lives.
I know not all Thai people are this way and I applaud the decent, caring and compassionate Thai people who do right by the less fortunate. Yet, there is no denying that the “culture”, in Thailand when it comes to the handicapped is perhaps their biggest source of National Shame. How can such an outwardly friendly and warm people be this way to the less fortunate? What is it in their cultural makeup that allows them to totally ignore such a large number of Thai citizens in dire need? I don’t have the answer but I do have the verdict. It’s shameful on a national scale! Things we don’t see. Thailand at it’s very worst. A National Shame on a grand scale..
Until next time..
Great submission, even if a little depressing.
I have seen teenagers ball their eyes out because they felt that they weren't beautiful. Don't misunderstand mind you, there was nothing seriously wrong with them and they certainly were not crippled or handicapped in any way, but the pressure to be beautiful is huge here.
You really don't see that many handicapped people in Thailand do you? They seem to be kept in the back room of the house, out of sight from the gossip mongers. It is all rather sad.