Thursday, March 27, 2008

Living the "Last Hurrah"

It's hard to escape the feeling that I'm a walking cliché: a fat old white man in love with a young tan Thai girl. Such couplings can be seen everywhere in Sukhumvit, the area of Bangkok where I live, a western ghetto of sorts strung between two "entertainment" complexes, Nana and Soi Cowboy, where temporary girlfriends can be hired for the night or week in dozens of bars. It makes little difference that Pim is a "good" girl, an employee of the Thai Post Office, whom I met on the internet. We are stereotyped as repulsive and disgusting by many older monogamous tourists as well as the ever-vigilant campaigners against Asian human trafficking who see rape in ever asymmetric relationship.

I am not comfortable in challenging these assumptions which follow me around like a dark cloud, for I am well aware of the problems in our May-December romance. Before I left the states, my daughter asked me not to fall in love with someone younger than her. But I did. When I came to Thailand a year ago, I met a woman in a bar on Koh Samui and we lived together for two-and-a-half weeks. I thought I was in love with her, but the relationship cracked under the strain of long-distance communication. The daughter of a poor rice farmer in Isan, she was half my age. Pim, who comes from a middle class-background in Isan, is younger. Both, perhaps for very different reasons, found me attractive. Obviously I was in search of affection and love. Is this wrong?

This blog is an attempt to answer comments made by Mark in his blog after a recent visit to Bangkok. He and his friends met Pim briefly when she joined us at the end of a dinner at Hemlock restaurant in Banglamphu. I'll admit to being a bit nervous because I feared their typical judgments, but it seemed to me that Pim's charm disarmed them. And when we left, it was hugs all around. Later, however, I read these comments from Mark:
We also met Walter, an ex-pat from San Diego, Ca. A Viet Nam vet, retired merchant marine, age 67 now living in Ko Samui, Thailand. Another middle to late aged Anglo male with a younger Thai girlfriend, a common combo we see all over Thailand. Is this a last hurrah with youth, a mutually workable "arrangement" ...or is this LOVE? Often, I have noticed, that there is minimal verbal communication... lot's of hand signals....She is the guide, he is the provider? ...and they both get a vacation out of the deal? I really don't pretend to know or understand. I do notice that after a dozen or more of these couplings are observed, there are some common threads. The male rarely gives eye contact to other male westerners when with "their" Thai females. One can guess this comes from some sense of being judged... but there are likely many other possibilities. One does see a gov't campaign posted in signs with regularity stating "sex with children is a crime!". In a conversation along these lines with Bob, he pointed out that often these particular Thai women were small and very slight of build... that perhaps there is some form of pedophilia being acted out in these couplings... obviously not in all cases. It is an interesting topic and probably runs the whole range of human emotional possibilities ...like any relationship. To be sure, one must keep in check the tendency to be judgemental on such a foreign topic.
Certainly Mark is trying to be tactful, for I know he knows we read each other's blogs. Since I've never had trouble making eye contact, I don't know if he is referring to me or Walter the vet. Much of what he writes is no doubt true. Hand signals are useful when language differences hinder verbal communication. And in Thai culture, men and women take care of each other according to their abilities. My Social Security is five times the value of Pim's salary, so I provide the money. Pim cleans and irons, and guides me in the ways of Thai life. We both tutor each other in our native tongues. Tit for tat. Love in practice is always a kind of transaction. What's wrong with that?

I've wondered if this is my "last hurrah" with youth, my last love affair, and I accept that this is probably true. Thai women are almost all "small and very slight of build." This is attractive to me, as I find it is for most of the men I talk with here, and perhaps all males who come alone to Thailand. Does this make all Thai women children and their farang lovers pedophiles? Perhaps that helps to explain the short-time holiday sex tourists who fly in to visit the bars and fly back home. But what of the many who fall in love and stay? Love is not susceptible to such an easy diagnosis.

When my marriage ended with a crash after twenty-four years, I wanted desperately to fall in love again to heal the pain. My ex found a rebound relationship within two months, and that seemed unfair. But although I met attractive and desirable women on several continents in the ensuing years, none made my heart strings zing. My first wife was four years younger and my second twelve. The latter had entered menopause when she decided our marriage was over and I vowed to find a partner who was done with the change of life. But what man is immune to the charms of youth? We are conditioned by the gods of consumption to worship nubile beauty. I know of few men who do not appreciate on some level the fresh face, smooth skin, and smoldering sexuality of a young girl.

This does not cancel out the appeal of a relationship among equals. But I never managed to fall in love with anyone my age who could enjoy the passion of physical affection, the adventure of travel and the tussle of a challenging intellectual argument. Women of my years are struggling with the indignities of age which seem to shame them more than men. They pile on the makeup and switch styles of hair in a losing attempt to deny time's swift-moving arrow. Oh, and we men do the same! I am appalled by what I see in the mirror. Still, I would have gladly traded my role as an aging Marco Polo to have been able to grow old with the same person. A quarter century of shared experiences is not chopped liver. But that was not to be.

"Is this LOVE?" Mark wonders in his blog. Ah, the big question. I didn't want to fall in love with Pim. We met to talk about how her heart had been broken by another farang. I offered her fatherly, even grandfatherly, advice, took her to lunch, to the movies. She wore braces and suffered from a pimple or two. I told her over and over: you are too young for me (I was looking for a woman, say, in her late thirties, slightly less than half my age). She wanted my help with her English (which already enabled us to bypass hand signals), she wanted to talk with me. And so we ended up at my apartment, and spent the night together. Still, I told her there was someone else, Nat, whom I took to Laos in October. I told her she should find a young man to love who could give her babies; my tubes were tied. But she was persistent and I succumbed to her attentions. Then in December I left for a month in India. There was little opportunity to communicate.

When I returned to Bangkok, Pim and I spent three wonderful nights together before I left for ten days in Surin to attend the wedding of Jerry's step-son. While there, we sent text messages back and forth. She had decided, for some inexplicable reason, that she wanted to live with me (which in Thailand is as good as marriage), and I felt my heart begin to melt. As we spent more time together, I began to see different sides of her personality, all appealing. She is more organized, more ambitious, and cleaner than I am. I often find myself following her lead, as if she is the adult and I am the child. Aside from Glenna, my high school girlfriend, I have never met anyone as physically affectionate. We touch each other often when not in public (Thais avoid public displays of affection) and cling to each other in sleep at night. After years of marriage when love making was an imposition, Pim's burgeoning sensuality has given me a new lease on life. Yes, this is what men and women are supposed to do together!

Is this love? In a way, it IS a "mutually workable arrangement," as Mark puts it. I am the house husband, the teacher of English, the financier of our life together. She works six days a week at the Post Office and is planning to invest some of her salary (what doesn't go to her mother in Kalasin, or the orthodontist, or friends who borrow from her) in a project to sell clothes from Thailand on eBay. At home she washes, irons and cleans. We swim together in the pool. And we have traveled together, to Koh Samet last fall and to Hua Hin last month, playing, laughing and enjoying each other's company. In this arrangement, however, I remain a secret from her family and friends (although I have met her younger sister and Akira, her five-year-old Thai-Japanese cousin). She says this is for three reasons: because of our age difference, which is almost but not quite as strange in Thailand as in the west; because she would be seen as "bad" if people knew she was living with someone not yet her husband; and because she wants to protect me from those close to her who might bother me for money. Another reason, I suspect, is that she will lose face with her friends when they realize she has not been telling them the truth for so long. Our affair is no small omission.

I am amazed that I have been a secret for so long, and I know it won't last forever. What we do next is still undecided. She has offered marriage as a way for me to secure a long-term visa. But I resist that for fear of trivializing our relationship. We are talking about finding a cheaper apartment with a bedroom and kitchen after my job begins in May, one closer to where we work (she now has a commute across town of at least an hour each way). In two weeks we will vacation in Chiang Mai and Pai over the Songkran holiday. Our lives are now inextricably intertwined. My feelings for her are very strong and deep.

But is this love? Thais seem to worry less about questions like that (and much else besides). Mai pen rai -- it doesn't matter.

3 comments:

Marcus said...

Hurrah!

Bless you both Will, bless you both.

Kaukau Kane said...

You are in a position that I have been dreaming of but could never commit after 25+ visits to Thailand. Your words are exactly written as I had hoped to share. More blessings to you both.

kris said...

Beautifully written. All the best to you two.