Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Perils of Benjapes

Many Thais believe that reaching the age of 25 ("Benjapes," from the Pali word for 25) brings the potential for bad luck. Its numerical power is similar to 13 (in my condo the 13th floor has been renumbered 12A). While not all that superstitious, Nan immunized herself against danger by donating gifts to homeless children last Sunday and performing rites at the large Chinese Buddhist temple in Chinatown, Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, on the morning of her 25th birthday Tuesday. I helped by taking her on a dinner cruise down the Chao Phraya River in the evening. As we passed the lights of the Grand Palace, I gave her a diamond ring.

In his best-selling book Mind Management, the popular Thai monk Phra Wor Vajiramedhi, writes that Benjapes "casts its long and ominous shadow on Thais." Somebody approaching 25 "goes through a stage of agitation with the heart palpitating strangely for fear of some unknown, unproven myth, pushing the envelope to see how they will survive the ominous age and land safely at 26." Some even indulge in "weird rituals" which they hope will break off kamma and diminish misfortune. Rather than looking outward to find blame for any bad luck, the monk advises, 25-year-olds should look inward and accept the maturity they have achieved through a quarter century of life.

Both Nan and I consider ourselves very lucky since we met for coffee and dinner seven months ago after first meeting online. She had grown up in a small village in Phayao, a northern province, and worked in a factory after two years at the local college. She came to Bangkok nearly two years ago in search of a better life, and after working with a cousin selling mobile phones she found a good job in the office of a company making packing materials where her computer skills, organizational abilities and English facility could be put to use. Nan's experience with Thai men had been disappointing. One boyfriend got another girl pregnant. It is not easy to be a country girl in Bangkok where dangers lurk, and she'd had her heart broken. Her younger sister had been with an older Thai man for four years, so Nan determined to look for an older farang. And she found me.

I was much older and she was quite a bit younger than the partners we sought, but from the moment we met there was an undeniable attraction between us. She was cautious: the photo she used on the dating web site was of someone else, and some of the details in her bio were invented to disguise her identity. I had met many Thai women online and was weary of the dating game. Soon we were revealing truths about our lives to each other than few others knew. We had fun together. We laughed alot, and when her father was sick, we cried together. We went to movies, to the zoo, strolled in Bangkok's parks, watched a puppet show at the Suan Lum night market, rode scary rides and went swimming at the Suan Siam amusement park, took a weekend trip to the island of Ko Samet together and another to Hua Hin, and we ate at expensive restaurants as well as cheap sidewalk cafés. We slept in each other's rooms. She celebrated my 70th birthday with me, and we consoled each other when her father and then my son died.

After my marriage ended seven years ago, I lived alone in California. While I enjoyed the freedom independence gave me, traveling unencumbered throughout Europe, Latin America and Asia, I missed the joy of sharing a life with someone. The Catholics and the Buddhists have it all wrong when they tout celibacy as the necessary door to enlightenment and salvation (however much theologians praise the laity, it is the sexless priests who are privileged in both religions). We humans are made to live together, and love is our highest art. When I first came to Thailand I tried sex alone and found it insufficient. On my third visit I met a working woman on Ko Samui and lived with her for two weeks. This "girlfriend experience" confirmed for me that it was a full relationship that I ultimately wanted and not serial sex with strangers. I became adept at online dating and met many wonderful women. One of them I lived with for ten months, but we finally separated because she felt my age could not be accepted by her friends and family (from whom she'd kept our affair a secret). This failure did not deter me, and I continued to look for love, despite the advice of a monk who suggested I should be preparing for death rather than pursuing pleasures of the flesh (celibates can only see desire as a threat).

It's not easy being a cliché. Thailand is full of older men in search of younger women. An extreme May-December romance that would be condemned in Europe or America is more acceptable here (although, as noted above, not by all). Men are attracted by a social ethos akin to the 50's in the west before women sought equality to men; here in Thailand, at least apart from urban elites, the gender roles remain separated: women care for the men who provide for them (at least in principle). For women from poor backgrounds, an alliance with a foreign resident or visitor can provide opportunities only dreamed of. I've been tutored in Thai-farang relationships by my friend Jerry who has been married to a wonderful woman from Surin for over 10 years. And I've read numerous books and articles of advice. At times it seemed as if love in Thailand was little more than a business transaction, one involving a solitary foreign man on one side and an extended Thai family on the other.

Until I met Nan, when the theoretical became real. When I protested that I was too old for her, she countered with "you think too much." As our love grew and took shape, she told her friends and family about me. After her father's death, I flew to Chiang Rai to bring her back to Bangkok, and met her Yuan, her mother, her half-brother Nok and her cousin Edward, the young son of Yuan's late sister and her New Zealand boyfriend. As we left, Nan's mother held our hands and blessed our union. Back in Bangkok, we set up house together and the last four months have been like an extended honeymoon.

Last weekend we went shopping for the ring I gave her on the Chao Phraya River Tuesday night. We call it a "boyfriend ring" to show that she is taken. Her sister Anne has one from her boyfriend who is a married man. It's not an engagement ring, with a promise for the future, but a sign of what we mean to each other right now. To Nan, I am her husband and she is my wife. She knows that I cannot afford to marry her family, the usual custom in Thai villages. I can only be responsible for her (and she can, if she wishes, send her family some of the monthly allowance I give her). We were in fact married in the eyes of Thai culture as soon as we began living together.

There are numerous possible bumps in the road ahead of us. I cannot give her children, which she says is fine because she wants to take care of Edward, now seven, the son of her Aunt Ban Yen who died of cancer several years ago. As for me, my children are not pleased that they might have a step-mother younger than they. I warn Nan that my youthful energy and vigor could fail at any time, and that taking care of an ailing old man will be no bed of roses. She dismisses my concern, and shows a sensitivity to my needs that I've never seen in another woman before. Long-term planning for me seems fruitless, but I worry about Nan's future. When I asked her to tell me her dreams, she said she would like to finish the last two years of university to get a degree in business. So I've agreed to pay for her education. She has enrolled in one of the government schools convenient to her work and our apartment and, because she enjoys working and is encouraged by her boss to get a degree, will begin late afternoon classes in May.

We feel confident now that Nan need fear no bad luck from her Benjapes, and that her year after become 25 will be filled with love, adventure and opportunity. I, too, look forward to my year after turning 70 with optimism and hope, secure in the knowledge that I have found the last love of my life. Our challenge in the coming months is to find a larger yet cheaper place to live, an apartment as conveniently located as our present one. Nan is selling the furniture in her room which we've kept until now to store what could not be moved to my condo. I've been less than frugal these past couple of months, and so we must plan a new economy for the long haul. There is so much I want to share with Nan, and she is eager to learn and curious about the wide world far from her village in Phayao. Lest I give the impression that this is a Pygmalion relationship, let me say that in many respects (aside from years) she is my equal, and that in quite a few she is definitely my superior.

Happy Birthday, Nan.


Janet Brown said...

Love and continued happiness to both of you!

stephanie laura said...

Finding your online blog I had to start at the beginning. What a beautiful start to a wonderful life, and a romantic love story! It seems that all of your dreams are coming true. I'm very happy for you and Nan. So glad to be bloggers together in cyberspace.