While in Malaysia in November, I had a weekend to rest and explore the city. I headed out without a plan, other than the goal to take pictures around the city and river.
After winding through huge markets and different areas of the city, I had finally made it to the river. Spotting a nearby bench, I sat down for a little while to scope out the surroundings.
Shortly after sitting on a small bench, a young woman came and sat next to me. I could see from her poorly done makeup and the way she dressed that I was probably a customer to her.
I suspected her business was prostitution.
She introduced herself as Anette*. I told her my name, and as we sat in silence, my heart began to break.
My question of, “how are you today?” broke the silence. Although she didn’t speak fluent English, she spoke it well enough for small talk. We spent a few minutes talking about the river and the city, small things like that.
Finally I asked what she did for work. She explained in broken English that her job was to have sex. When she said this I could tell she was partly ashamed to admit this and also partly wondering if I was interested.
I told her, “I am not a customer; I am a friend.”
By looking at her somewhat anorexic figure, I assumed she didn’t eat often. So I asked her what restaurants she recommended in the area. After she said the name of a place within sight, I offered to buy her lunch. She agreed and I wondered what I had just done! This woman’s appearance made it obvious about her trade… what would people think?
As we walked I looked to see the faces turn to watch her. Other women looked at her in a disapproving ways, men looked at her and then me as if knowing what was going on.
Out of insecurity of the situation, I explained to her again that I was not a customer and did not want anything in return. She said she understood so I let the situation play out.
When we sat down at this riverside restaurant, I could tell from her body language she felt out-of-place. “Have people taken you out to eat before?” I asked. She said “No, never!”
While waiting for our food, I got to know Anette a little better. She is 25 and travels back and forth from the rice fields for work. It’s the off season, however, so she doesn’t have any work back at her home.
Meaning she has to find an alternative to afford things like food, water, and a place to live.
I asked her a little bit more about her work. She explained, “I don’t like my work but what can I do?” The way she said this made it obvious that she didn’t want to do this work at all.
But she couldn’t figure out another way.
When she locked eyes with me and said, “You are good man,” I took the opportunity to share the Gospel with her. I tried my best to explain it in a way that she would understand, but the language barrier was strong. I tried to make sure that she at least knew the name Jesus.
After that I knew the best thing I could do was show Jesus to her.
I kept prodding about her life and found out that because her mom passed away, she takes care of her 7-year-old sister. I then asked Anette what she liked to do for fun. She said, “I don’t like work but I like having a customer. At least then I’m not alone. I don’t like being alone. Because of travel and work I have no friends.”
After our food came to the table, she asked my permission to get it to-go so her sister could eat some of it. I agreed even after she refused to let me buy her sister her own meal. Then I remembered the market I walked through earlier. I asked her if she and her sister had enough clothes. She said no so I offered to buy her clothes and she excitedly agreed.
My experience in the market was very different this time. Before, every vendor called out to me, “SIR SIR, would you like shirt? Would you like camera?” Whatever the vendor was selling was be called out to me, but not this time.
Vendors saw me with this woman and looked away, embarrassed. It was a lot quieter than before. We eventually found jeans and shirts, and for $32 she was able to get a few outfits for her and her sister, including a brand new pair of shoes.
As we continued to talk and get to know each other, my heart continued to break. It broke for the way people looked at her, it broke for the way she looked at herself, and it broke for the way people looked at us together.
People assumed they knew what’s going on. They looked at her with contempt for what she does and what she represents.