Friday, April 24, 2009

The business of redemption

One of the best things about living in our community is rubbing shoulders with the undergrads. One of my favorites is a young woman named Nicola. She just returned from the semester travel study in Asia that the 2nd years do here. It changes them all. They depart as North Americans and return and citizens of the world. The travel program at SSU is spectacular. As part of the process the students are asked to write blog posts - one before, one during and one after the trip. I have loved the chance to read their thoughts along the way.

Nicola wrote today about redemption and she said it was okay if I let you read too:

Mind-held Thai expressions tease my tongue. Each essay determinately engaging with the SE Asian sex trade…

I have had a line ringing in my mind since our return, mingling with the leftovers of Asian dialects:

In the business of redemption.

What does it look like to be in the business of redemption?

I am reminded of: plant pots made from painted car tires in the Philippines; a Malay man’s obsession with mundane rocks allowing him to find a wealth of value in his collection of unique stones: singing boulders, growing gems, and petrified wood; in eating meat, Asians use the whole of the beast: even if this meant finding pig snout on my plate in the Philippines and chicken feet in a Malaysian curry; a dollar-store toy that we would scorn in the west has found new value in the hand of a Filipino girl, as does the scrap tin finding its place in the sea of huts within Manila or Bangkok.

In the business of redemption. what does it mean?

Perhaps it means finding value in imperfection- in another’s garbage, setting it free from judgement and compartmentalizing snobbery.

I loved Thailand; I could live in Chiang Mai. I would ride to work on an elephant and guide rafts on mountain rivers for a pitiful living, seeking wisdom from aged monks and taking a master’s in sustainable living or linguistics at CMU. However. I have a problem. I can’t get it through my head- you have to help me.

There are over 2 million prostitutes in Thailand; in Chiang Mai all of them are brought from destitute Burmese villages and trafficked through the village of Ma Sai on the border. I was in Ma Sai. I bought a pen. And a necklace. All Burmese teen girls traveling through Ma Sai leave without their virginity and thus their hope for a future and marriage, and almost half leave with an AIDS death sentence from their first few weeks in the industry.

What does redemption mean to a sex slave in Japan, in Bangkok, in Kuala Lumpur? If I see so much of what we call garbage being redeemed throughout Asia, isn’t there a way to redeem the consequences of societal chastity, idolatry, obligatory merit-making, hierarchical systems, and poverty?

In the business of Redemption.

Thai vocabulary, redemptive ideas, thoughts of the summer, and efforts to summarize my year at SSU swirl around my mind. I feel reminiscient of a Hogwarts student awaiting the next school year, or Arnold buckling his seatbelt in the Magic School Bus. I feel like all my life I have been taught to stand on a gymnasium line or sit quietly without being told why, and now my experience has set my mind free from dictated learning. Let me ask questions, don’t break life to me gently, let me dive in and let me experience both the joy and the pain of humanity. What will I learn next year?

I think redemption would be a good business to get into.
via SSU Travels the World


just etchings said...

Thank you to both of you for sharing these thoughts. They are beautiful.

AllisonRhodes said...

What a fascinating post...thank you ~ Allison

Daisy said...

Whoa, talk about your reality check, eh? "In the business of redemption." "2 million prostitutes in Thailand;"

"I feel like all my life I have been taught to stand on a gymnasium line or sit quietly without being told why,..."

Hell of a good point. As a teacher, I've wondered the same thing. By the time they're in kindergarten, half the kids I teach have been "institutionalized" already having been in daycare most days since they were knee-high to a grasshopper. They've been lining up most of their lives and they're pretty tired of it.

I'm going to have phrases ringing in my mind today. Thanks. I needed that.


Governale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Governale said...

(Let me try this again.)

I met Nicola on a bus trip earlier this year.

I wrote an article about meeting her and about her "The Business of Redemption" essay, with a link to this site.

My post is at

Heidi Renee said...

That's awesome John - I'm so glad that I got to play in the middle here - she is incredible, eh? I'm so glad she's got a few years left here in our community. I posted a link to your blog highlighting your interactions with her today.

Looking forward to reading your articles.

Lindsay.Michelle said...

I love Nicola!!!