Circle of Beliefs
As I was trying to wrap up my work for the day my phone rang. It was Aon at the other end. She said with a husky cracked voice “Can we meet for sometime; I need to talk with you.”
I met Aon first time at an YBAT meeting in their Rangsit facility. YBAT stands for Young Buddhist Association of Thailand. Aon is from a conservative middle class Thai family. Her parents are teachers and have blind respect for Thai tradition. Slowly over time our relationship grew into a sincere friendship. She used to give me a call whenever her teenage mind would get confused, or there was something she wanted to share with somebody without being judged. I used to act like a sounding board for her; more than giving her any advice I used to listen to her ideas and complaints patiently. It gave me the opportunity to observe how social values and true feelings can create painful conflicts in a conditioned teenage mind.
On the very first day of our meeting she told me “I have a boyfriend from UK. Graeme studies medicine..” Whenever she would talk about Graem, her eyes would look dreamy and voice would turn softer.
I thought for a second as I was planning to go to the gym for a workout. But urgency in her voice forced me to change my mind “What about in Black Canyon at Silom Complex? I will take the BTS and wait for you at Sala-Dang station..”
There was a long pause and sound of her sobbing. Then she said in a tearful voice “We broke up. I mean me and Graem.”
Aon is a budding teenager with a fresh mind and heart; I felt her love for Graeme was very genuine. So it surprised me but I checked my inquisitiveness to shorten our phone conversation. I told her “Let’s talk over an iced coffee.”
The home bound traffic was crawling on Silom Road. The bus station below was crowded where people were breathing smoke. One teenage farang was reading a magazine putting his legs on the table. Her eyes were red and swollen. She was trying to organize her mind to start the conversation. I was quite, giving her time to settle down.
She asked me “Can I ask you some questions? Hope you don’t mind.”
I am always a good listener; I told her “Yes you can.”
“Do you know Thai culture and tradition? What do you think about it, I mean it’s good or bad?” I was little confused about which direction she would go from here.
I answered “Well no tradition or culture is good because it is imposed on people and it takes away their freedom. I personally do not believe in culture or traditions unless I value the reason behind it. I believe in my heart and do what it says. When they made culture they did not consult me so it’s not important for me. I think like that; that way I am true to myself.”
There was a long exhalation; then she said “I want to be true like that too but I just can’t. I have lived with this culture for all my life. My ex-boyfriend wanted me to change but I am afraid of changing I think.” She sounded helpless.
I replied “Well nobody can change you unless you want to change yourself and you can only change yourself if you understand things deeply; and you will only understand things deeply if you question them or doubt them but not accept them blindly.”
She looked confused for a moment then found the courage to be more direct “All I want to know is why we can’t have sex before marriage. This is the reason we broke up. I could not explain Graeme why we could not have sex now and he will have to wait for two more years.”
“I think you have fear of hurting society and face of your parents. It is difficult for Graeme to understand your point because it is not backed up by any reason.”
“Yes I don’t want to hurt them.”
“It’s a circle; you do not want to make your parents unhappy but in that process you’re making yourself sad which is slowly breaking the connection between you and your parents leading to an unhappy situation for them. But they should understand that even if you have sex after marriage still the relationship can break and they can be sad and unhappy. Maybe sex is related to child birth so if you get pregnant before marriage then it may create a problem for their life.”
“But if I use the protection?”
“But that’s also probably not the point as Thai men probably value virginity in a Thai lady a lot. It’s a symbol of a good Thai lady for them. That is why this tradition exists; so after sex if you and your boyfriend break up then it can be difficult to get another boyfriend from a good Thai family. But things are changing in Thailand; it’s not viewed with discontent these days. Many University students in Thailand have sex before marriage nowadays with their boyfriends..”
“But it is not the case in west.”
“Yes; so that means if I have sex with him and we break up then I should find a farang boyfriend again?”
“Personally I hate the concept of associating goodness with virginity.”
“Yes me too; but my teacher always says that no guy will pick a girl who is not a virgin to be his wife.”
I replied “Maybe it is an effect of sexual repression as your teacher was not allowed to have sex before marriage she also does not want you folks to enjoy love fully and suffer the same way she did. I do not know the experience of love with a Thai man, but my wife said foreigners respect ladies much more than a Thai man.”
“I had Thai boyfriends too and they all wanted to have sex with me.” After a pause she said “Yes they do; I mean foreigners do.”
“The very fact that Thai men associate goodness with virginity is disrespect towards ladies. So if you do not want to get married to a Thai man then you should not bother about that tradition.”
“I've thought about that and now I’m afraid that my next boyfriend will change after that.”
“Well if a man loves you deeply then why should he change? But the problem with a relationship with many Thai men is that they wait for the day when they can have sex and after that they lose interest and go for other ladies. That is why many marriages with Thai man are unsuccessful. Sorry to say this but this is my observation. A Thai man is good before marriage but naughty after marriage.”
“That's true. My ex-boyfriend said that too. I used to ask my mother if she had sex with dad before marriage; she didn’t and now my father still loves mum as he used to; he never cheated on her.”
“I have seen that too but that is rare. I must say that your father loves your mother not because she was virgin at the time of marriage but because she is a good caring loving person and loves your father too..”
“I have seen too many Thai ladies who got cheated after marriage. Just after they have baby, the husband tries to find another lady. This happens because the purpose of the relationship is to have sex and constant attention. So they never loved their wife. They just married her to win her virginity. Do you think this tradition is good for a healthy relationship?”
“It is not but why can’t I do what I want to do?”
“It’s up to you not up to your parents. As long as you can take responsibility of your life and be happy, they should not have any objection.”
“But I’m only nineteen; don’t you think it's too fast for doing that?”
“So when should it be appropriate? What do you think? And why is nineteen too early?”
“I just feel guilty. You know Thai students don’t work so our parents pay for our University and everything and they expect me not to do that. So if I do it, it will make me feel really bad and guilty. Parents are the important persons for me.”
“Yes I can understand your point; because they are solely responsible for your life, you do not want to disobey them because you can not be responsible for yourself. Well, so maybe it's not appropriate to have a boyfriend at this stage of life. Did you talk with them openly about this subject?”
“No; I don’t dare, both of them are against everyone who does that.”
“Then you and your parents do not have an open flowing relationship.”
“Once mum told me that if you do that don’t let me know.”
“Did you ever ask why they believe in this tradition?”
“Because they think it's good.”
“Why they think it is good and another one is bad?” I repeated again as she was not giving me the answer. Maybe in that state of mind it was difficult for her to listen to my question properly.
“I really don’t know how to change them? They can’t understand me and they will never understand me. They can’t accept that Thailand is changing now; for them it is bad to have sex before marriage. The children of my neighborhood have babies. They are all the same age as me. Mum said that when you meet someone who is right for you, you will regret when you love him but have nothing to give him. I don’t agree with that; for me I can give my husband my love, not just sex and virginity.”
“Yes, your mum’s thinking is wrong and it is probably because she was brought up in a male dominated Thai society. It’s my guess.”
“Maybe; and my dad loves my mum more than anything. That's why he pleases her so much. If my mum says anything, he will do that.”
“Well it is nice that your dad loves her but for sure it’s not because she was a virgin. Thai society associates the concept of purity with virginity. To me it is some kind of male perversion. Love is nothing to do with that concept; it is about understanding, knowing and feeling for others deeply.”
“But you can not change them so you may have to accept the way they want and be happy with that and in that case it is better not to look for a farang boyfriend. But if you move to UK then you can work and be self-dependent, and then can get married early. Your parents should not have problem in that case.”
“I can’t be happy with that but I will accept it.”
“I know many Thai ladies face the same situation. They just can’t break the barrier.”
“I love Graeme. We broke up because of me.” Her voice was choking with tear. She looked outside.
I asked “How is he doing?” I felt concerned about Graem.
“He calls me everyday. I feel so bad. He is not doing well but if we are back together again, we will have to break up because of this reason. I can’t have sex with him this year or next years or even in the next two years.” Her voice vibrates an utter helplessness.
“Well, why can’t you get married now?”
“I cannot study in the university, if I get married.”
I was shocked “Why? Is it a law?”
I asked again because it was really something very difficult to believe “So no married people can go to university? Are you crazy?”
“Every school and university has this rule.”
“Then why don’t you study in the UK?”
“I don’t have enough money.”
“Yes I know that but you and Graeme can get married. Then you can work and study together in UK. For example my friend got married with a man from UK and she is working and studying there.”
“But I’m nineteen I can’t marry. Well I can but my parents have to agree with it.”
“You may talk with your parents.”
“They would be angry and it would show in my id card that I’m married. So I never can go to a University in Thailand.”
“If you study in UK then why do you care about University in Thailand?”
“My parents will get embarrassed if their daughter runs away with her farang boy friend in UK. My mum is a teacher. If we get married, I have to come back to Thailand again to get the marriage visa and it would show that I’m only nineteen. If a Thai girl marries when she is under 20 without her parents' agreement that's illegal. They will send me back to Thailand. I have to be a daughter that everyone could proud of.”
“But why should you run away; before you take such decision you have to talk with your parents.”
“But they will not let me do that. I hate Thailand. In my life, I’ve never disappointed them till I went out with Graem. I am a straight edge, a good daughter, I got A in every subject my parents are proud of me but if I wasn’t virgin I would become bad, I really don’t understand..”
“So your parents love an idea of a good girl and want you to conform to that. That is where most parents make mistake; they don’t care about what makes you happy because they do not have a deeper connection with you. They should know you deeply if they really love you. I am sorry to say but they love a projection of their idea more than you.”
Her voice carried the frustration “And you know even if I was not virgin, I would still be their daughter who could make them happy with her love. But more than anything they care about my virginity and grades. Thai people care so much about their children's grade you know?”
“Yes I know. Not fun; even the education system is so boring here.”
“My friend had sex with her boy friend and she could get into medical.”
“So what about her parents they don’t know?”
“No she never told them that’s why they are so proud of her. If they knew that, they wouldn’t be like that my friend said.”
I was surprised “So parents force their kids to lie and cheat because they do not give them freedom. I feel you are a victim of this society so as your parents. If you have the courage then you can come out otherwise you have to accept it and live with it.”
She said “I wish I could be more independent.”
“Take it easy. May be you should be more frank with your parents..”
“I will try.” Her voice lacked the confidence. It was just a casual promise.
“You know once you start talking with them then it will be like a mirror; they will also see their face.”
“May be I will have sex but I will not let them know then they will never hate me.” It was so very interesting to observe that she was trying to protect her face from her own parents, the most loved ones. I felt a rigid framework of social tradition had planted the seeds of fear and deception in every fiber of life. At least she would have to find the courage to find a connection with her parents based on truth otherwise one day she would face the same challenge of offering a genuine relationship to her future partner.
“If you tell them everything truly then they will listen. They love you so they can not ignore your feelings. It’s just that they still think you are their small baby. Time has passed since then and they lost touch with you. You have to take the initiative to bridge the gap and open your heart to them. You should show them who you are now, may be they will get a shock but for sure they will try to understand you the way you are now. Also that will be an opportunity to for you to know your parents well. Beyond their prejudiced mind lays a heart which you have to touch. Then over time acceptance will follow.”
“Remember my mum told if you do that, don’t let me know. I hate this problem..”
I said with a firm tone “You can not run away from this problem because this is your very life..”
The light from other side of the road was reflecting on her eyes. “And thank you so much for your advice. It makes me feel a lot better.” Her voice was warm and a hint of smile was floating on her lips.
It was nice to see that the freshness was gradually returning to her face. I said “You are welcome. And by the way you may gift a book to your parents “Thailand Fever.”; you should read that too.”
On my way back I was reflecting upon our conversation. It came to my realization that Thailand is a country with many conflicting dimensions. At one end of the religion one can observe the rituals, merit-making, people with multiple amulets tied in a gold chain symbol of blind faith and fear; and at the other end of the spectrum lays the forest monastery cultivating strict Theravada Buddhism. Beside the most flourishing flesh-trade lays a culture which values virginity. Through the narrow gaps between high-rise buildings one can see the sprawling slums. The teenagers like Aon are growing amidst these dualities with conflict and confusion. They are caught up between traditional values and their authentic self which is slowly destroying the ability to trust their own heart. They are walking with one foot anchored in the past and another in an abyss. It is an individual journey for each one of them to find a way to unmask the face and to come out of this circle of beliefs.
I really enjoyed this submissions and liked the way it explained a major issue that so many of these girls face.