Preadolescent children are selling thornless roses to a crowd of white dreadlocks and grubby sandals pumping their fists to this week’s Billboard Top 50. Performers twirl batons of live, dancing flames in front of the unshaven western backpacker in khaki shorts yelling to his mate about the “whore” who tried to “grab his dick.” A girl in a neon “I Heart Thailand” t-shirt is throwing up in the alleyway. In his native tongue, I ask the man sitting beside me why he’s selling bracelets hand-stitched with the words “I love Lady Cock.” He laughs at me, but his laugh follows with a sigh. He tells me that tourists don’t buy his traditional, hand-made bracelets, “they only buy these inappropriate ones.” These scenes are not uncommon; rather, they accurately depict the landscapes of Thailand’s tourist nightlife, and I imagine these scenes are fairly tame compared to the massive beach parties found along the country’s coasts.
I bring in this scene to paint the backdrop against which I understand and conceptualize transnational politics. When someone tells me they want to backpack across Southeast Asia, I think about all the run-ins with backpackers who enlighten me on their massage parlor experiences. When someone tells me they want to want to ‘partayyy’ at Thailand’s full-moon parties, I think about all the times mass herds of drunken tourists unflinchingly smashed beer bottles near my body and other locals. And when someone tells me they want to live among Thai monks and “experience” Buddhism (cue montage from Eat, Pray, Love), I think about beautiful temples that have been desecrated—turned into another pit stop for a never-ending parade of tour groups.
I don’t believe we can ever discuss the “freedom” of American liberties without recognizing that it sits upon the poverty and abuse of the developing world. And when fixtures like BuHo exist on this campus, it is important to acknowledge their role in perpetuating mindsets that allow for the pervasiveness of structural violence in our current society. Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies Bui recently held a talk on Asian women and Orientalism at the College of East Asian Studies. In brief, he described the Western depiction and treatment of Asian women as “robots” and “sex machines” and traced the origins of this depiction to the Cold War, which exploited Asian bodies as “rest and recreation” entertainment for American soldiers. When the Thai government realized American soldiers meant profit for the Thai economy, policies such as the 1966 Entertainment Places Act were passed in Thailand to encourage and regulate sex work around American bases; the number of prostitutes in Thailand went from an estimated 20,000 in the late 1950s to more than 160,000 in 1964 (a more than 800 percent increase). Ever wondered why Thai food is so commonly found in the United States? When American soldiers returned home from war they craved the lifestyle they so cheaply possessed. I guess Thai food was easier to bring back than Thai bodies.
Buddhism in the Western hemisphere was just another commodity that was brought back into the developed world. Buddhism is practiced by a majority of my birth country, Thailand. Like many other Thais, I grew up going to the temple and in the years I did not live in Thailand, my mum never found a shortage of Thai temples to drag her two children. Buddhism is not so much a religious practice as it has become a cultural practice in Thailand, and to see it disrespected here at Wes goes beyond campus politics: this issue goes deeper than identity politics and one person’s discomfort with the way that Buddhism is presented here. Rather, Buddhist House represents for me the harmful Western practice that continues to erase, pervert and/or exotify East Asian, South Asian and Southeast Asian communities around the world.
I understand that the people of BuHo have no active intentions to perpetuate harm, and from my discussions with past BuHo residents it is clear that the residents themselves do not believe they are contributing to any harm. I understand that when you sign up to live at BuHo you are not doing so to be offensive. You are signing up for the laidback, crunchy granola community. Whether intentions are pure or not, there should be more campus discourse on the impact this space has on our community and how the existence of BuHo functions as campus complicity in the violence committed by the Western world. The practice of Buddhism extends beyond sporadic meditation sessions and occasional talks that BuHo hosts on campus. As it stands, BuHo in the wider community is to many perceived as a space that exists to provide music concerts. If Buddhist House seeks to be an interest space for Buddhism then I will hold them accountable for the culture they attempt to depict and the practices endorsed under their name—and everything endorsed by this space—is currently serving as an inaccurate depiction of Buddhism. I do not believe BuHo’s current presence is upholding its mission statement to “provide students with a place to practice various forms of Buddhist meditation, study, and lifestyle.” BuHo’s mission statement claims to be a space “to meditate regularly, observe silence on occasions, and hold in depth retreats and speakers,” and yet only after approaching several past residents have they vaguely hinted to me that these services were being fulfilled.
I have no problem with Buddhism being celebrated on this campus, but as it stands I have come to see the practices of BuHo as simply another case of white people taking shit that isn’t theirs. Let me remind those who seem to forget: the image of the Buddha and the Buddhist religion is NOT some chic prop to accommodate your myopic White hippie playground. We have many Thai people on this campus (as well as other practicing Buddhists of all different cultures) and it’s not a coincidence that none of them live in Buddhist House. Much like how we saw frats on campus as fixtures of male-dominated spaces, I see places like BuHo as fixtures of white-dominated spaces. As a new cycle of residential applications comes out this semester, what this house stands for and the people it attracts is imperative for the culture of the house next year and years to follow. If BuHo fails to promote the inclusivity and awareness that it suggests, what does it say about the level of social, economic and political consciousness we are comfortable practicing on this campus? Are we currently comfortable with the state of selective consciousness at Wesleyan? Take a moment to ask yourself, honestly, how comfortable you are with your own complicity.
I want to end this article by clarifying that I do not wish to see BuHo shut down. I am urging that we take the proper steps to change the name of this program house to one more fitting of the community it seeks to create. Being conscious—or “woke”—is only the first step. I want to practice better activism, and I want all of us to practice better activism.
Williams is a member of the Class of 2019.