Friday, March 09, 2007

Kor Toht -- ขอโทษ

I should have known better.

After all, my friend Jerry married a woman who worked in a bar in Bangkok, and he has warned me about all the pitfalls of falling in love with a Thai prostitute.

It's such a tired old cliché: fat aging farang falls for tiny, dark, black-haired beauty. She provides not only sex, but love, all the trappings of a romantic relationship -- for a price. He is smitten, infatuated, reliving his teenage
affairs; she is taking a calculated risk. In exchange for being his girlfriend and lover, she is gambling that he will take care of her, and her extended family. He wants romance and she wants financial security, to leave the bar scene, start a business and support her aging parents.

The Thai countryside, particularly in the northeast territory called Issan, is littered with Thai-farang couples who met in the bars of Bangkok and Pattya and fell into a relationship, romantic on his part and economic on hers. He is from Australia, Norway, Germany, even the U.S., and he sends her money to keep her from returning to work in the bars, and sometimes he even builds a house for her family and spends part of the year in Thailand with them. Some men bring their brides back to the home country, with all the attendant problems that cultural adjustment brings for the women. Some of the marriages even work out. But the internet forums are full of horror stories about how Thai women only want your money, and how their families bleed you dry.

The reality of it is much more complicated.

When I went to Koh Samui in January, I was not unfamiliar with the bar scene in Bangkok. During my previous visits, Jerry had taken me to sample the charms of Nana, Soi Cowboy and Patpong, and I visited bars in Chiang Mai on my own. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of open-air bars in Lamai Beach, each with a bevy of lovely bartenders waiting to service you. The first night in Koh Samui I sat on a stool at one such establishment and got involved in a long conversation with a leftwing coal miner from Australia. After about a half dozen Heinekens, I could barely see the muay Thai ring in the middle of the circle of bars, where lady boxers were battering each other with their hands and feet. I staggered home to my hotel room and awoke with a hangover.

The next night I was more careful, and ordered my second beer at Coco Bar around the corner from my hotel. All the girls had on red tee shirts with the bar's logo, and they were very friendly. The TV was tuned to a Thai soap opera and rock and roll was blaring from large speakers. I noticed a girl on the end of the bar who was quiet and almost mousey. I thought she was rather homely compared to the others with their makeup, short shorts and high heels. I noticed that several of the girls urged her to go over and talk with me. I bought her a drink, a soda, and we played a bar game that resembled an upright tic-tac-toe. I found her to be shy, sweet and charming.

Her name, she told me, was Thim. She was 35, unmarried and with no children, and her parents were poor rice farmers in Udon near the Laotian border. She told me that she had arrived the day before with her younger sister, who worked in a market in Bangkok. Nancy, another girl who worked at Coco Bar, was from Thim's village and she had offered her a job. Since neither of us knew more than a few words in the other's language, all of this information is questionable.

We went back to my hotel room together and she spent the night. The next morning after breakfast on the hotel terrace overlooking the sea, I asked her to stay with me. There were financial details to arrange, how much I would pay the bar for her absence, how much I would pay for her presence. Once the transaction was settled, thus began one of the most delightful times of my life. We held hands in the streets, shared the back of a motorcycle taxi on sightseeing trips around the island, and we bought each other gifts, gold jewelry for her, pants and shirts for me (on display in this photo). She brought strange and exotic foods to our hotel room and fed me while we were seated on the floor. I took her on her first plane ride and we went to the movies in Bangkok where she sat cross-legged in her seat, enthralled for two hours without moving. From the second day she professed her love for this fat old farang and eventually I did likewise. It seemed so easy, if not inexpensive. She also constantly worried about my leaving, and asked frequently about when I would return.

Fast forward to our parting 19 days later at the modern new Suvarnabhumi Airport. I went inside to catch my plane to London and Thim left in our taxi to visit her sister. There was a hole where my heart had been. I mourned her absence all the way home to San Francisco.

A friend asked if I was in love. "I am in delight," I answered. I knew that falling in love with a prostitute was an old and well-established faux pas. "They lie," I was told, "tell you what you want to hear." While I have come to see that paying for sex is acceptable in Thai culture (if not in the West), it was difficult for me to accept that a romantic relationship could also be purchased. Did Thim love me because I had a jai dii (good heart), or was she just with me for the money? I was looking at it from my point of view, not hers.

Isaan, the flat agricultural land of northeast Thailand, is the poorest region of the country. Jobs off the farm are rare and pay little. Most of the lowest-paid construction workers and the girls that populate the bars are from Isaan. And becaue family is the ultimate value in Thailand, they send much of their money they earn back home. Jerry told me that a shortening of the bar hours in Bangkok, proposed by successive morally concerned governments, would be a disaster in Isaan. Prostitution is an essential part of Thailand's economy.

Upon my return home, I printed up an album full of photos of Thim and I on Koh Samui and in Bangkok. I talked with her on the telephone several times, but the few stock English phrases she knew (one of them was "you are such a flirt") and the several sentences in Thai that I had learned did not make for an informative conversation. She had gone home to Udon to help her parents with the rice harvest. I told her that I was planning to return to Thailand in August. We exchanged vows and hung up. It cost me $20 to talk for seven minutes.

My fantasy was that I would move to Bangkok, rent an apartment, find a job teaching English, and that Thim would come to stay. The romantic idyll would continue on her turf. I expected her to get a job. She said she would find work with her sister in the market or in a restaurant. I didn't imagine that I would continue to pay her for services rendered, nor did I think about getting married (my two ventures into that realm were both flops). My vision was distinctly western, one where two independent people would freely choose to spend time together. It was a liberal, free-market view. And it clashed with Thai culture.

The internet enlightened me. I've discovered several forums where Thais and Western expatriates exchange information for interested readers. And I've found a web site where Thai women by the hundreds look for farang husbands. It is possible to chat with a variety of ladies of all ages about their expectations and their cultural standards. Most, I think, are not and have never been bar girls. Some have advanced degrees and work as nurses, teachers and engineers. Marriage for them comes definitely before sex, and it is an exchange: you care for (i.e. financially support) me and I care for you. What's more, marrying a Thai girl means marrying her entire extended family. Children are obligated to take care of their parents, and that includes the children's farang husbands. Jerry's extended family includes his wife's mother, two children, and numerous sisters and a brother and their offspring. He built them a house in Surin, and is paying for his step-children's education which includes motorcycles to get to school. In exchange, he says, the family will care for him when he gets too old to work.

From the Thai girls looking for husbands, I learned that many Thai men drink too much and that farangs, although some lied and played games, were mostly kind and generous. Best of all were older farangs, and it was not unusual for 30-year-old women to actively solicit marriage from 60-year-old men. In addition to youth and beauty, they were prepared to offer the Total Woman ideal (all the housewifely chores done with a smile) in exchange for total care and support. The language they use in their profiles is romantic and idealistic, straight out of a romance novel or a chick flick film.

I found two women on the web site who were willing to call Thim and act as translators for our communication. The first worked in an internet store and I asked her to help Thim navigate the computer and use the Yahoo email address I had set up for her. She wrote back to me that Thim told her she expected money from me for her to attend computer school. Another woman had a long conversation with Thim and learned that her parents were both crippled and required help with the farm. Thim told her she wanted me to send 2000 baht (about $80) a month to her. She was waiting for me to return and she was not looking for another job. And she also expected me to marry her as soon as I got there, because that's where love went, didn't it? Love, money and marriage.

I'm sorry, Thim. Kor toht (ขอโทษ). I didn't understand. It was not my intention to hurt you. But I am not going to send you money, and although I may continue with my plan to visit Thailand again in August, I am not thinking of marrying you. My fantasy of paradise is not the same as yours, and does not fulfill your very real needs. I wondered why you seemed uncomfortable when we visited one of the supermalls in Bangkok and walked through aisle after aisle stuffed with expensive consumer goods. Your reality back in Udon, where there is so much poverty that you are forced to sell your body to provide for your parents, is quite different.

If I can ever learn to find the words in Thai, I hope you can forgive me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, there. Long time.
Look me up, if you like.