Stickman Readers' Submissions February 16th, 2006

Full Many A Gem

I’d forgotten the name of the lady I met last night in a bar here in Pattaya – indeed I maybe never knew it – but I do remember that, some months ago, she had once administered to my needs. She was quick to suggest another spot of business but I had other fish to fry last night, so I offered to look her up again next week.

“Next week no good,” she said. “Boyfriend America come Pattaya. Then I go America with him for holiday. He fix visa for me. Later, I think we marry, go live America.”

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“Congratulations,” said I, “where in America you go? What city, what state – like, you know, what province?” (I speak bar-English like a native, incidentally, but negligible Thai.)

“Him no say. Only say America.” Then her eyes lit up as she remembered the detail that would surely enable me to pin-point the location, “Have snow sometime.”

Mmmm, I thought, as I remembered hearing that even Florida has had the odd flurry on occasions. “Mai bpen rai krap.”

I left the bar wondering what sort of person, other than a Thai bar-girl, would think about spending the rest of their life in another country half-way around the world without wanting to know a lot more about the place but it had already been my experience that natural curiosity about the outside world was a rarity in the bar-girl species.

And that was what started me thinking again about Mae.

It was several years ago that we met. She was in her mid-twenties then and looked, more or less, like 20,000 or so of the other working ladies that grace our bars, shows and sidewalks. What she did, though, she did well, so I felt, after our first night together, that another day or two in her company might be mutually beneficial.

It was that next morning that I discovered that there was something very different about her.

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We were having breakfast and, as she reached for the naam plaa for her kao tom, I was picking up the salt for my egg. “Buddy,” she said, eyes narrowed and forehead furrowed, “Why fish sauce taste salt? Fish not taste salt.”

“I dunno, maybe they put salt in it.” I suggested.

“Sea have salt too much. How salt get in sea?”

I mumbled something about rivers carrying salt from rocks into the sea.

“Salt white. Sea blue. Why, Buddy?”

“Just eat your breakfast, Mae.” I said.

That was the start of what for most of the next couple of days was to be a constant barrage of interrogation. She just couldn’t stop asking questions. Some very sensible, some less so. “Why they build some hotels high, some not high?” “Why motorbike go slow, fall down, go quick, not fall down?” “Why some bar charge more for beer than other bar but have more customers?”

It was like all those years ago with my kids pestering me “why, why, why?”

But Mae wasn’t asking frivolously. She seriously wanted to know why things were the way they were and would get huffy when I gave her bullshit answers, so I did my best, within the limitations of my knowledge and her vocabulary, to provide explanations. I wondered what freak of nature had given her an enquiring mind, so different to that of the vast majority of the other bar-ladies I had known.

We saw quite a lot of each other over the next few months and it was nearly always the same. Sometimes, when the questioning went on too much or became arcane, I would tell her to shut up but, mostly, when I saw the way her eyes would light up when some idea began to make sense, I was touched by her earnestness, so I started to put a little effort into topics that I thought might interest her.

And, as time went by, I began to be amazed by her ability to absorb quite complicated ideas, especially those relating to economic issues. It had been several decades since my last economics class and I struggled when she pressed me on the finer points of supply and demand. She was keen to relate to situations with which she was familiar, like the number of available ladies in Pattaya bars, the demand from farengs and the money guys like me were prepared to pay for our fun! No doubt there was a certain amount of self-interest at work. Language proved to be the major barrier, however. I found “same, same” a poor approximation for “equilibrium” and studiously avoided the likes of “elasticity”, though I’ve little doubt she had the brains to grasp the concept.

It would, of course, be wrong to give the impression that our evenings together were devoted solely to fact finding; we did find time for the other kinds of gymnastics that normal couples get up to, but I remember once being more than a little concerned that my tuition could prove counterproductive. She spotted a tell-tale bulge in my jeans after a bit of laying on of hands and remarked with a coy smile “maybe when big demand, customer pay more!”

Despite her enquiring mind, she was no different to most of her colleagues in her ability to massage facts and to tell people what she thought would be good for them to hear. She knew I was a lost cause as far as any long term relationship was concerned, so she told me about Sten from Sweden who was keen on her. “He big, strong, handsome man ….” she said, and I imagined her thinking “….not an ugly wimp like you,” but instead she added craftily, “…he not clever, not know everything, like you.” Sweet mouth, I thought. She knew how to appeal to my vanity.

For all I knew, Sten might well have been Swedish Mastermind but there was one thing he didn’t know much about and that was what she got up to when he wasn’t around. He phoned her one night while she was kneeling by my side. She jumped out of bed and ran with her phone into the bathroom, but I could hear as she assured him “I stay room. I wait for you.” And after the usual stilted “what-you-do-today” stuff they exchanged kisses and loving, cringe-making farewells.

“I good lady; I stay room,” I mimicked when she got back into bed.

“Yes,” she said indignantly, “I say I stay room. Not say room me. He know me good lady. He know I not lie.” I wondered what big, strong Sten would have done, particularly to me, if he had known where she now was or what her lying little tongue had been doing while he was dialling her number ten minutes earlier. But I thought it best to say nothing as there was unfinished business to be attended to. There was silence for a moment, then, her familiar puzzled look, “Buddy, why 2 o’clock morning here, 8 o’clock Sweden?”

“Later,” I said, “later. Now, what was that you were you doing before Sten rang?”

Around that time I had been thinking about a trip to Malaysia and I mentioned this to her. “I want go Malaysia with you. Where’s Malaysia?” she said, all excited. “I have passport for go Sweden with Sten.”

“But Sten would see the Malaysia stamp in your passport,” I pointed out.

“I tell Sten I have sister work Malaysia; I go see sister.”

“Do you have a sister working in Malaysia?” I enquired.

“Have friend work Singapore.”

There was evidently some kind of bar-girl logic at work.

I took her with me to Penang. As part of the package we were met at the airport by a taxi driven by a pompous gentleman who looked as if he had once been in military or government service. He greeted me warmly but ignored Mae, having obviously, at a glance, figured her for what she was. He clearly saw himself as an ambassador and, despite his ill-disguised contempt for her, Mae listened to him intently while he expounded the merits of his homeland.

As we drove into Georgetown, he pointed out items of interest. “As you may know,” he pronounced, “the population here is half and half, Malay and Chinese. You will find this showing in many ways such as in the food, for example. But, of course, there are many other influences such as Indian …”

“Excuse me, sir,” interrupted Mae, “but if half Malay and half Chinese, how many percent Indian?”

He turned, slowly, gave her a brief withering stare, and me a look that I read as “Who the f… is this upstart?”

Apart from that, the trip to Penang went well. I found she had a flair for mentally converting Ringgit prices into Bahts though, at the time, the calculation was far from simple. Needless to say, she was keen to examine the wares in jewellers’ shops – and I was relieved that she didn’t think highly of the local gold. There were all sorts of new topics to interest her – I had taken the precaution of reading up on the history of the place, and in the end felt I acquitted myself well in the inevitable questioning. She never seemed to tire of absorbing new information and, in the evenings, when we returned from sightseeing, I would have to listen to a summary of what she saw as significant and of how, in her understanding, it all came together.

And then it was time to return to Thailand. We landed at Dom Muang and when we got to Passport Control I indicated that I would have to join the queue for the foreigners and that she should wait for me after she had gone through the Thai passports desk. It took me about 15 minutes but when I got through there was no sign of her. I walked over to the Thai section and there she was, still standing inside beside one of the little tables with her passport and a form in her hand. I gestured a come-on but I could see her shaking her head. After a bit of arm waving, I asked the official if I could go back inside and speak to her. It was OK, he said.

She looked tiny and pathetic and, as I drew closer, I saw that there were tears trickling down her cheeks. “What’s wrong, Mae?” I asked.

“They say I must fill in paper.”


“Buddy,” and now the tears were uncontrolled, “I can not read and write. I never go school.”

“Oh my God, Mae, darling, why didn’t you tell me?”

“I not want you think me stupid.”

When I heard that, my own tears started. Tears of pity that someone as intelligent as she was felt ashamed of her lack of education. Tears of anger that someone with an enquiring mind like hers had been let down by her family, society and education system. I remembered how in restaurants she could handle the menu with aplomb and instruct the waitresses about what she wanted to eat. I thought about the little diagrams I had drawn for her and how she had followed them studiously. I had just never suspected.

I stood there holding her tight for maybe 10 minutes and people passing who had seen tearful lovers at Departures and Arrivals must have wondered what had caused such emotions inside Passport Control!

When we got back to Pattaya I told her I wanted to pay for classes for her but she said that Sten would be coming shortly and that she would go with him when he back to Sweden. I thought I would miss her and wondered if Sten had a good encyclopaedia at home.

But I had been shaken by the revelation and tried to talk it through with a friend from back home who now lives here. I got little sympathy. “What’s your big problem?” he said, “I’ve had a few ladies here that never went to school and they’re doing all right. Your girl’s getting plenty of money from the bar and from mugs like you. She’s just had a fancy trip to Penang and now she’s heading off to live in Sweden with some big, sexy guy with loads of money. If she’d gone to school she’d likely be working in the local Family Mart for a pittance. Anyway, there’s plenty of people back home that never had an education. Have you never heard of Adult Literacy classes?”

I still thought she had deserved something different but he blew me away with his cold, hard-nosed logic. “And don’t be getting all high and mighty about other people failing her – given what you’ve been up to with her you’re hardly in much of a position to criticize. Forget the moralising – you’re in Thailand now, mate. Wise up.”

The last time I saw her before she left Pattaya, I told her that if things didn’t work out with Sten, she could call me back at home and, if she needed help, I might even be able to go to Sweden and see her.

“Thanks, Buddy,” she said, “you good man. Buddy, how many time zones between your country and Sweden?”

Stickman's thoughts:

Apologies for no comments on today's submissions. I am having a hellish work at week and just do not have the time to add comments today.

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