Cross-cultural Marriage, Control – What Else?
So. I am 55 years old. I was, when I first came to Thailand, and still am an academic – (not a TEFL teacher) and by the way we, five of us, all live happily in Thailand on 1000 baht a day – but not in Bangkok!
I first came here, knowing nothing much about Thailand and certainly nothing about its ‘sex industry’, in the middle 1980s. I had certainly never been to a bar / beer / bar or a go-go..think London 1975…on… .though I was, of course, a child of the sixties! I am not sure now exactly when—( but put it this way, Patong even then had for the most part I think unpaved roads!)
I thought I was going to die. Doctors happily told me I had some unpleasant and quite unidentifiable virus…oh yes, AIDS I thought! With no reason. I would not have known where to find a hooker in the UK, nor a gay partner!
So I went to the two parts of the world I had never visited. I went to the USA, where I had never been because of my disapproval of the Vietnam War, and I came to Singapore on the basis that I had better come to the Far East before it was all over with me. Why? Well I had a Chinese girlfriend who disappeared in Shanghai in the late 60s, early 70s, and I guess I did not get over her.
I finished work in Singapore one Friday in November. I went to the airport thinking, I will get on the first plane anywhere. Off to Bangkok. We got some way towards town and I said to the cab driver:
‘This is awful. Let us return to the airport at once!’
On the same principle : first flight out was to Phuket…where? Never mind; bought a guide book and read it on the plane. Hired a Jeep and drove to Phuket Town. Took a room at the Merlin. About 16.00 following perusal of said guide went to Patong. Sad little seaside town at 16.30 on a wet November evening; all those little alley ways of cheap, dirty, empty bars, sea churning, coconut and casuarinas trees swishing. Clearly this place is not the Asia I was seeking!
Returning to the jeep a 9 / 10 maiden accosts me.
‘Where you go?’
‘Home,’ I said.,.’to the UK’…
No No!. Do not go. It is big festival day Loy Kratong. Come, I will show you what we are making.’
Some 7 hours later, after the construction of numerous kratongs, ineptly of course on my part, I am trying to loy kratongs, in the rain, in the Patong surf, before, to the bewilderment of all retiring to Phuket Town.
Well for me the rest is history.
I went home, booked another ticket, and another, found ways to work all over.
Yeah I had some bargirls, I had some friends…It seemed to me that there was no mileage in relationships with these people. Nice people, good fun. Many of them kind, many desperate, some drugged out of their heads, others fucked to pieces.
But I liked Thailand. I went to work, and live, in Indonesia, Japan, China, Philippines, Malaysia. I gave most of it a go; but I kept coming back, not particularly for the girls..’ they are everywhere’… and far more pretty and intelligent in China and speak much better English in the Philippines..but just for that mix that is Thailand. Patong in those days reminded me of the Antibes of my youth: sea, cafes, motorbikes, girls, music..shame about the conversation.
I did not much like the Thais. All that crap about smiles and cool hearts, and mai ben rai, while wishing to knife you or burst into a frenzied rant and conquer SE Asia.
Then in 1993 I was emerging from a particularly difficult liaison with an abandoned but rather idle lady from Cambridge….and…I went to work in the US. Big University, beautiful town, some great and some terrible people. I could not stand it. After life in Chiang Mai, Phuket, Ubud, Hong Kong, Cebu, it had no attractions. What have I done to myself? Where is home, where the heart is I thought. I don’t really want to go back to the East; so I was thinking maybe I had done the Orient; time for the mud of French winters, English log fires, make do with the Med instead of Boracay and Lamai.
But in May of that year I had to come back to Thailand.
After work and then a terrific month in Samui, I had checked in to an old haunt way out in the 60s of Sukhumvit beyond Udomsuk, well away from any farangs. I was sitting, drinking, feeling fairly badly disposed towards the world, and Thais in particular. It was 4.30 in the morning. I had downed a reasonable number of beers and G+Ts. I was propped on the bar, in no better a place than Thermae, thinking: I was right. Last time. Time to move on. Go home!
I had had my dreams as everyone does. In many ways I had met them. Girls with figures to put Kate Moss to shame, girls with bigger smiles and longer legs than Julia Roberts, girls that could convert any sum into five currencies in their head at the day’s going rate, girls with degrees, girls who had never been to school, girls with all their belongings in a 7-11 carrier bag, girls running million baht businesses. We had had good times, but I was not their dream nor they mine. I was not providing air tickets and they were unlikely to provide well read irony or stimulating support!
So I had said to my friend after the last escapade: there is no future in this. I shall return to the widows of Shepperton. Ha!
I have read my books. Chris Moore, Dean Barrett, My Big Honey, all the US, Aussie and UK academic hand wringing-Jeremy Sandford, the dreadful Bishop and Robinson: Night Market, Stephen Leather etc.
For the record if you want some heavy stuff try Marc Askew: Bangkok: Place, Practice and Representation. Routledge 2002. You will recognise his city.
Then want to know about how the so called Thailand happened?
Try Thongchai Winichakul: Siam Mapped. Sailkworm Books. Chiang mai. 1998
And you wanted to know about women? Read The Lioness In Bloom. Edited by Susan Falop Kepner! University of California Press 1998.
So, to bore on. On June 20 1994, lifting my unpleasantly grumpy face from a bottle, I looked up to see a mop of hair winnowing itself at the back of Thermae. I could not see her face. But she was wearing expensive boots, a khaki knee length skirt, black tights and a black polo neck sweater. Not your standard Thermae wear. That I clocked all this tells me I was perhaps not as under the weather as all that.
When the face emerged from the mop I gulped and beckoned it with little finger. A gesture neither forgotten nor entirely forgiven by the girl! There had emerged a face like no other I had ever seen anywhere in the East. Thin and high cheeked, with acutely slanted eyes, a straight bridged nose and a vast pair of lips for such a tiny face. She must have weighed then about 40 kilos and been 1.70 tall. So thin? Willowy? I could not say.
‘Oh’, she says to me in passable English, ‘you can smile can you?' We thought you were going to scowl forever!
‘Shall we leave?’ says I.
‘Of course’, she says, ’ but I don’t have much time now. I have been hanging around in this cave for hours. I need to take my dog to the vet in the morning, otherwise he will die. You could, of course, just give me 2000 baht, and I’ll go home.’
Rather unfortunately, as we have both come to see, I declined.
We returned to Soi 6*.
In the morning she lay in bed and talked to me for about 6 hours.
‘What about the dog?’ (Another lie?) Oh he will have to wait.
She told me about her life and I told her about mine.
This is what I did, she said, and this is why I did it.
She never lied, she never embellished the truth.
A part of what she said went like this:
I ran away from home the day I graduated from High School. My father had been hitting me and my mother and shouting at us for about 4 years. I had had enough.
My sister looked after me until I went to University, and then I worked my way through.
I have never taken a boyfriend home, neither has my sister. We would never do so until we knew that we had someone forever so our mum would not be shy.
This was the second time in my life I went to Thermae. I have been to big Hotels and smart discos. I’ve done Ratchada.
All my Thai boyfriends just want to fuck me. For free. They want to tell me what to do. They are incurably jealous of my past life i.e. I had a boyfriend before them. They don’t want to look after me. Indeed they want me to look after them. But they can’t stand it if I go to work or go out alone. They want to fuck around and they want to hit me.
And these are well brought up, middle class, university educated Thai boys.
Now I only sleep with someone for money. I don’t care if they are Thai, Japanese, Farang. But I choose.
Tonight I was so sad for the dog. In fact I was desperate. I needed money. I have good friends who are working girls. In fact it is one of the ironies of my life that when I was being a good girl and later a good student and employee I met some of the shittiest people imaginable. One day, about six months ago, I went to a restaurant in Silom with my sister. It took us about a month to work out what was going on. By the time we did so we had made good friends with many girls. We left, but the girls have remained friends and taught me an enormous amount about Thailand, Thai boys, Japanese and farang men. Things of which I knew nothing.
When I told my Thai boyfriend about it he hit me.
‘But listen, I said, did you, a Bangkok boy, ever hear about this? Any of it?’
‘If you want to be a whore,’ he said, ‘there is no need to live with me.’
So I left.
So that is how I came to think:
Well if I need big money I should try and fuck for it. But I have discovered I am too thin, too talkative and too old.
She was 23.
‘Did you ever work in a bar?’ I asked.
‘Don’t be crazy. Why would I want anyone to tell me what to do. I have my life.
Later that night she phoned.
‘Would you like to come and see the dog?’
‘Of course’, I said, ‘Where is it? Is it dead?’
‘Of course not, it is in my house, where else?’
(I hate dogs)
‘OK, give me the address.’
I never left the house in Lad Prao. After a few days we collected my things from the hotel and cleared the room I had in Sukhumvit Soi 71. She sorted out lingering liaisons, sorted out the thieves who were nicking the water pipes and electric wiring of the beach house in Phuket. It is still there but we do not go much. Old lives.
There was no baggage. Old boyfriends, husbands, customers, malingering or deprived brothers, uncles, grannies. I don’t hit her. She does not blackmail me emotionally or otherwise.
We have been married for 10 years, married, lord help us, in Richmond, Surrey! We try, the bank willing, to spend half the year in France and half here with Granny and an extended family.
We have two lovely daughters and, regrettably, a dog or two!
We have hardly been apart for a day all that time. We talk and laugh all night. We work at our businesses from home, raise the kids, cook, read, garden, go out with our friends. Normal life.
She has taught me more about Thais and Thailand than I ever hoped to learn and is no slouch in explaining my French and English lives.
Is there anything to learn from this? I don’t think so, but it should remind you that nothing is impossible if there is truth, trust, intelligence, love and not particularly in that order!
Yes, of course, it turned out that she was a graduate, and unusual for a Thai. And it turned out I was not a brickie. But also she had a family story of neglect and abuse like any an Isaan bar girl. But of course she was not from Isaan. For her that is the key. I am not Lao she says. I am Thai. She is not, of course. Her father is from Nan, and, though denied, her mother Chinese. But it is still not Isaan.
But it has not been easy either. Language in its subtleties and nuances has always been a problem. It is very easy, still, to come up against a total incomprehension on both sides. She is very proud. Criticism of Thais and Thailand by me, not her, can be inflammatory. Very independent, quite callous. I think there is a quiet brutality, born of hardship, in the core of Thailand. I can still miss that something is an issue of face, not truth.
She thinks I talk too much and think too much, probably true, particularly she thinks I try to understand too much. She thinks my playing with the kids, reading to them, talking to them is excessive. We had big battles about language development.
‘Do you think they are going to grow up unable to speak?
‘Of course not, but what degree of language ability will they have?’
One bizarre consequence is that the kids, though fluently tri-lingual speak English as their mother (father?!) tongue, while we speak Thai together.
We both think that if the kids can have the best of what it is to be a Thai woman and the best of being a western girl, we will have not done badly. What is that? Will it work? We have to wait and see!