Tim’s got a smile that I could die for. It’s a cute, but mischievous, smirking smile that makes her stand out among her friends. Her smile reminds me of a girlfriend I had in high school. It’s her smile that I remember most about her physical appearance and it is her smile that offers the starkest contrast to the life she leads.
I met Tim at about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning at one of the outdoor cafés serving alcohol on Sukumwit between Soi 5 and 7 after the bars close at 2:00 AM. These cafés offer a bit of a different experience for meeting girls than do the beer bars or Go-Go’s. In the cool night air you will typically find the girls in groups, buying their own drinks and chatting amongst themselves but with an eye out for a potential customer. This was Tim’s arena and it was a near daily ritual for her to go there and drink with her friends.
Tim’s background differs from most girls who work as prostitutes. While she’s from Thailand’s poorest region, Isaan, she went to school until she was 18 and her father is a policeman. She had what would be described as a middle-class life for Thailand. As a teenager Tim dreamed of going to the policy academy or becoming a nurse when she finished school. Now both of these dreams are gone. “Too late. Everything too late for me now,” Tim tells me one night; her face darkening and her eyes to the floor.
A week ago her mother called her asking her to come home for her sister’s wedding. Tim hasn’t been home since she ran away at 18. She tells me she’s “too shy” to go home, meaning she’s too embarrassed to face her parents. She’s worried they won’t want to see her anymore, that they are ashamed of her. I tell her she should go home because if her parents are happy to see her then that is obviously a good thing and if they don’t then she’s no worse off than she is now anyway. It is the kind of western logic that is inappropriate for Tim’s situation. She would be worse off. It is one thing to be separated from one’s family; it is a whole other matter to feel disowned. In a society where family comes first, Tim cannot bear the thought of seeing her father ashamed of her. It doesn’t matter that she left because he beat her. It doesn’t matter that her mother wants to see her. The complicated thread of duty, honor, shame, love and fate that tie this daughter to her family is already thin, but she at least has a family. She cannot afford breaking that thread. There could be nothing worse to her than having no family.
When I ask Tim why she still can’t go to nursing school or the police academy, she simply says “too late.” She says she’s not 18 anymore and cannot do it. I’m not sure if that means that she’s too old to be accepted at 23 or that she’d be too embarrassed to go now. I believe it’s the latter. At 23 she doesn’t feel that she has any options left. She feels destined to live the life she now lives. Is it Buddhism that makes her feel this way? Makes her feel as if she already missed her chance in this life and there is nothing to do but wait for the next life? She tells me that sometimes she thinks it would be better if she just died.
Tim ran away because she was constantly fighting with her father who she said would hit her often. Though her father has a good job, he falls into a typical pattern of male parental behavior too often described by bar girls—the alcoholic, abusive dad. Tim knew nothing about Bangkok when she boarded a bus with 250 Baht in her pocket. She arrived thinking the big city would be teeming with jobs. Tim spent her first day just walking and walking, not knowing what to do but determined that she could not go back. She didn’t know where to go in Bangkok or where to look for a job so she just walked. Some men took her in and were good to her. One of them would become a boyfriend and eventually broke Tim’s heart, putting her off—so she claimed—of Thai men forever, a line I took with some degree of scepticism. Not being able to find a job Tim called someone in her village that she knew had a friend working in Bangkok. That friend worked in Soi Cowboy and soon Tim was working in a bar playing pool with customers. Eventually she graduated to dancing in a go-go in Nana Plaza. She said she hated the go-go because she had to go with a different man every night and just couldn’t take it so she quit and started freelancing.
Tim’s life revolves around the freelance scene on Sukumwit. Her pattern is to drink and do drugs with the other girls who work the same cafés and pick up men when she can. I don’t know if Tim’s drug use began before her “quitting” go-go work or if it was something she acquired afterwards. Tim does point out an obvious advantage of freelancing however—you don’t have to work 28-30 days a month. She says she now only goes with guys when she wants. Perhaps, but as the month was nearing its end Tim didn’t have the cash to pay her share of the rent.
Tim lives in a one-room apartment with several other girls near Ekamai but often stays in a hotel on Soi 6 with other girls. The hotel is 600 Baht a night so if a bunch of them pitch in it’s not much different than taxi fare and it gives them a base to crash and to do drugs at before and after working Sukumwit in the after-bar hours.
One night as Tim is readying the paraphernalia—easily made from the metallic and the waxy wrapper from a stick of gum—to smoke yaba, she tells me she does drugs because she wants to “know everything.” She doesn’t mean this in an existential sense; merely that she wants to try everything. It’s an attitude I hear repeated by girls in the bar scene. Perhaps the sudden changes that come with the scene; exposure to wealth, new languages, new cultures, new people, new ways of life, and new drugs all overwhelm one so much that it is hard to draw any barriers anymore. Or maybe she is desperately looking for some answer that just is not there.
Tim’s life is obviously unstable. This once-potential nurse has found herself sleeping with men for money to pay for her food, drugs and a roof over her head. The sad thing is that Tim fully realizes that her life has no future but seems resigned to her fate; “it’s too late for me.” Tim’s life is indeed tragic and she’s begging for someone to save her.
Part of me wishes it could be me. Couldn’t I do just this one thing? Save this one life from a horrible death by drug overdose or AIDS? Get this one person out of this life? Wouldn’t that make my own life worthwhile?
But it’s just not possible. Tim’s life is engrained in a social network that supports her and allows her and the others in it to survive. To save her I’d have to remove her from all her friends, from her entire world, from all of those who she depends upon and who depend upon her. To cut her off from that sort of emotional buttressing I’d have to replace it with my own and I simply cannot do that. Giving her money, sending her to school, even taking her out of the country wouldn’t replace the emotional bonds she depends on everyday. Unless I was ready to really love her, my efforts would certainly fail in the end. And I don’t love her, I pity her. And I thank God that I see the difference.
I’m also not sure Tim truly wants to be saved. She may tell me of how she doesn’t want to sleep with men for money anymore. She may tell me that she can stop doing drugs, but why should I believe it? It’s easy to just assume that no one in their right mind would want that life, but drug abusers are not in their right mind. They often seek out tragedy and failure as a way to justify their self-abuse. I wonder if even talking to Tim about better things is actually enabling for her. Will she now be able to think, “here is one more man that I thought might be different and really care about me, but he doesn’t, I have no real hope, this is the only life for me.”
Tim is a tragic figure that I cannot forget. I wish that there was something that I could do for her, but there isn’t. Giving her money would be futile and I cannot give her what she wants emotionally, if she even truly does want anything from me emotionally. If she does want a savior I doubt she’ll find him picking up freelancers at 3:00 AM. The roots of Tim’s problems are vast and deep: poverty in Thailand, alcoholism, drug abuse, the role of women in society and of course, her own failings. What Tim really needs is serious psychological counseling.
As I write this I debate whether or not to call her as she begged me to the last time we talked and she kept me on the line until she had used up all the money on her mobile. I want to know what happens to Tim because part of me cares for her, because part of me pities her, because part of me is curious about her life. Maybe part of me even thinks that some gentle prodding can steer her in the right direction. That she could get a job as a waitress or maid and make a normal life for herself. Or maybe the dark voyeur in me sees a train wreck and cannot look a way?
This sure is touching. The worst thing is that there are hundreds of girls in similar situations to this.