Readers' Submissions

She Taught Me To Smile Again

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • April 21st, 2007
  • 28 min read


China Hotel Guide
• Lee Garden Apartments
• Lu Song Yuan Hotel Beijing
• Neimenggu Hotel
• New Dragon Hostel

We’ve all heard the saying “if you love something set it free and if it returns..” Exactly 11 months ago I set her free. It was in the top five on my list of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Other nominees on the top five list include making the decision to take life, letting my ex and youngest son go without guilt or anger, stopping cold turkey heavy doses of IV morphine after close to a year of use, and accepting I’m no longer the physical man I used to be. Coming back from my son's wedding in Chicago we gave each other a quick hug and kiss at the LAX terminal and after watching her head down the stairs towards the baggage claim I turned and slowly walked to my gate to catch my flight back to Bangkok. Effectively for the next year I was to be a single man in Bangkok with no strings or obligations as she was to be free in Los Angeles as she went through the final stages of citizenship. How did we get to this point? The entire story could fill several volumes and indeed I’ll write more about it in coming submissions but with this submission I’ll focus on the highlights that run through my mind every day.

My life has never been easy. To be sure some parts of my life have been extraordinarily easy such as academics, physical challenges, and anything to do with catching the attention of women. Other parts however have been rough and I’m not going to sing you a sob story because lots of people have it rough but I will say the four areas that hit me the hardest were a poverty stricken childhood and broken family, certain duties and tours in the military, becoming a 100% disabled combat vet, and forced exclusion from my sons lives. People who know me, or even people on forums or who read my writings, have often commented that I take life far too seriously, don’t laugh much, always over think everything, and generally am a very difficult person to know in any capacity. I accept responsibility for all these things. I’ve overcome much in my life but until seven years ago never gave due consideration to these specific failings so I own it 100%. Seven years ago she changed my life with a smile and an attitude towards life’s hardships that embarrasses me to this day every time I start to feel sorry for myself about anything. It all began at Mall Bangkapi with the shampoo girl.

Considering it was the mall and that most hair places are staffed by gays and other alternative lifestyle personnel I really didn’t know if the person with the huge smile and bony face was male or female. Short cropped hair like a man would wear, men’s style clothes, tall, it wasn’t until she spoke that I knew it was a woman. She asked me if I spoke Thai (in Thai) because she didn’t speak English. I knew just enough Thai to let her know that I didn’t speak Thai but a little bit. She just smiled and did her job and for some reason I found myself speaking English to her while she washed my hair about things that were on my mind even though I knew she couldn’t understand me. She finished, I got my hair cut by the gay haircutter, and left. That was it.

On subsequent visits I noticed she’d make sure she shampooed my hair and each time her hair was a different color, green, pink, orange, yellow, whatever the management wanted it to be to advertise their products and each time I couldn’t help but notice how very thin her bare arms where and how slim overall she appeared. We’re not talking “Bangkok skinny” like we see hanging on poles in the bars, but sick skinny like the “skinnies” I’d seen in Somalia and other parts of Africa. Still, she’d smile and look at me the entire time while I’d go on about whatever was on my mind knowing she couldn’t understand a single word I said. It’s hard to explain but I started to feel extremely comfortable and happy during that brief time every week when I went to get my hair cut. Soon I’d find myself walking by the place looking in to see if she was there before going in for my haircut. If she wasn’t there I’d go back the next day. Also during this time I never once tipped her. I didn’t know better, I tipped at the cashier assuming they shared the tip not knowing she never saw a single baht.

I’d dated many women in Bangkok, in my MBA program which was in English all the girls I dated spoke great English, had like educations, and seemingly were perfect matches for me. Other girls I dated were business owners, a few models, and even a couple of doctors (including my own). We had good times and I suppose I could have had a more lasting relationship with a few of them but every time it started to go in that direction I ended it. I came to Bangkok for an education, not a wife. Why then was I drawn to this simple shampoo girl dressed like a man who couldn’t speak a word of English? It took me a while to find out. One day I asked a very dear friend of mine who was a very young Thai women to go with me to the mall and translate for me. With my friend there I asked the shampoo girl if she’d have dinner with me after work. Her smile could have lit up the room as she accepted and I agreed to meet her outside the shop at exactly 2100. I asked my friend (someday I’ll tell you why I consider her my Thai daughter) what she thought of her and she simply said that I’d finally shown some sense in the women I dated. Wow I thought, Asian women have this ability to be very direct, especially when they care about you.

I didn’t leave the mall that day, it was 1700 when I asked her out and my friend had long left as I wandered the mall wondering how the hell I was going to communicate with this girl and wondering what I’d got myself into. Getting a bright idea I set about to all the shops learning about the electronic translator they call the “Talking Dic” and several hours later settled on one. I remember the sales lady asking me why I was buying it and I told her I had a date with a Thai girl who couldn’t speak English. The sales lady was attractive and spoke English well and said “why not just take me out, I speak English and you can save your money?” Why not indeed. Putting it the batteries and showing me how to operate the thing she just looked at me with pity as I took off with my new purchase to date this women who couldn’t speak my language. Looking at my watch I noticed it was exactly 2100 and I needed to go all the way across the mall and down two floors and by the time I got there it was 2108 and her shop was closed and dark and no one was there. I stood there with an expensive Talking Dic in my hand feeling quite the fool and just went home.

For the next six weeks I avoided my hair place and got my hair cut elsewhere. I was stood up by a simple Thai girl who looked like a boy and if that wasn’t a loss of face I’m not sure what is. Still, the mall was a favorite hang out of mine and I’d still go there but make sure I never had to walk past her shop. On one such visit someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned to find the gay hair cutting guy and he directly asked me where I’d been. I explained everything to him and he just looked at me like I was stupid and told me the shampoo girl waited as long as she could and then her brothers who pick her up every night made her leave to go home. He told me she cried sometimes because she wanted to go out with me. I wasn’t sure how much of this to believe but I let him lead me to his shop where he summoned the shampoo girl and told her she could have the rest of the day off to go out with me right then. It’s a good thing the Talking Dic was still at the bottom of my backpack.

That day it took over two hours with the help of the Talking Dic to get a single piece of information across to each other. The difficulty in communication was extreme and though I was normally short on patience with just about every part of life I found myself having unlimited patience with my shampoo girl. I won’t go into every detail of the next few months but I will summarize what I learned. She came from a very traditional Thai family, the kind that doesn’t have much money but the mom insists on doing everything in a traditional and proper way as it was done half a century ago. She grew up working in her family’s beauty shop and living on the floors above. One older sister and two younger brothers she was chosen to be the one to not attend school and instead stay home and work so the others could attend the university. Her sister graduated with a marketing degree and her brothers as engineers. She was pulled out of school after the 6th grade and was told because she was stupid and ugly she was being picked to work for the family, take care of the old, clean the house, and basically be a servant of the family. At 27 years old she finally started to rebel and after a few such episodes was allowed to get her first outside job, She’d been working that job for two weeks when I met her the first time. Her family made her wear hand me down boy’s clothes and escorted her to and from work keeping all her money. She worked from 9am to 9pm and travel time was at least an hour each way. One day off a month was all she got. Too tired to eat and only having whatever money she made from tips that she felt she could get away with not giving to her family she became more and more thin. Unhealthy thin. Her mother collected all the money from her children and doled it out as she saw fit and money for food for my shampoo girl wasn’t even thought about much less a priority.

We continued to see each other over the next six months when her friends at work could cover for her for a few hours or she could sneak out late at night. She’d never been allowed to have a boyfriend though once her mom agreed to accept money (a sinsod) for her to marry a rich man as a second wife. This was when she rebelled for the first time and forced her mom to change her mind. The entire scenario made me feel a bit like I was 16-17 years old again with a girl for the first time. Everything to her was brand new and her English quickly improved and soon the Talking Dic only came out for unusual or uncommon words. I still hadn’t even held her hand. I remember on one occasion when she could get away during the day I took her back to my condo to show her how I lived, so different from her own life she was standing looking at the big windows at the pool lost in her thoughts and I walked up behind her and brushing the hair from alongside her neck gently kissed her neck and I felt a long shudder from her immediately followed by an explosion of anger I’d never seen from her. She told me to never touch her again and that if she wanted me to touch her then she’d let me know and if I did it again I’d never see her again. Wow.. so unlike the women I’d been dating in Bangkok before. Quickly taking her back to work I didn’t touch her again fearing another like outburst.

A few weeks later I had to go back to the states for a month to spend time with my youngest son and I tried hard to explain to her that I’d be back but I don’t think she believed me. I returned home from my trip at about 0300-0400 tired as you usually are, took a shower, and dropped into bed as tired as could be. I dreamed someone was knocking on the door and then once again. This continued until finally at about 0900 my eyes opened and someone was really knocking on the door. Figuring housekeeping wasn’t sure if I was back or not I went to the door and it was my shampoo girl with a big look of relief on her face and most of that look I could see was love mixed with tears. She pushed her way past the door and came inside and I told her I’d just got in and was very tired. She told me to go back to bed and surprising me she lay beside me and rubbed my back while I drifted off again. When I opened my eyes she was looking down at me and said “I want to make love to you now!” I asked her if she was sure she wanted me to be her first, didn’t she want to wait until she got married, and… placing a finger on my mouth to quiet me she simply said if I didn’t make love to her right now then I’d never see her again. It was awkward, uncoordinated, fumbling.. but beautiful all the same. She feel asleep afterwards and all I could do was watch her sleep. Pulling back the covers I saw her emancipated body with every bone showing and quickly covered her back up knowing that by accepting to sleep with her, that in her mind it was the same as promising to be with her forever. If that was going to be the case she had to get healthy and this meant I’d have to take care of her.

Later when she woke up she showered and came out to the living room where I was watching television and we talked. I told her I wanted her to quit the mall and find a part time job and that I’d make up any difference in pay. She could just tell her family she was offered a better job. Having worked since she could walk at her family’s beauty shop she was quite the talented hair cutter though she hadn’t earned the chance to cut hair at the mall because of seniority or whatever system they had. Within a few days she found a part time job working just eight hours a day at 1000 baht less a month. Her brothers had long suspected she was seeing someone but since they worked all day and could only pick her up at night they never checked on her. It was during this change of jobs that they found out and that I learned they both really loved their sister and really hated the control her mom had over her and even them. In effect they covered for her, the hours she normally worked she’d be gone from home but with me or at work vs. exclusively at work. At the end of the day I’d drive her to the end of her soi where her brothers would meet us and take her the rest of the way home. These were good but uncomfortable times and I knew they couldn’t last. By the end of her first month she’d earned enough in tips to make up the difference and she told me she didn’t need my help for the difference.

One day she told me she’d told her mom about me and that she wanted to date me and if the mom didn’t allow it then she’d move out on her own. Her brothers supported her (they wouldn’t yet admit they knew me) and her sister told her how she was disappointing her mom and should be ashamed. Reluctantly her mom agreed but we could only see each other if escorted and thus began a traditional courting process We went out every weekend with the “family” and were never allowed out of their sight though the brothers always found something else to do when it was their turn to watch over us.

On one occasion I was taken to an “aunt's” house who had worked 20 years in the states and her English was perfect. She told me flat out that her sister (shampoo girls mom) had tasked her with getting the biggest sinsod, most family support, etc, etc, from me as possible. She looked me straight in the face and said her sister was a terrible woman and sat me down and asked me how I felt about her niece. She asked me not to lie or embellish, just be honest. So I told her. I’d been married before and didn’t come to Thailand to get married but there was something special about her and there we were. I told her I didn’t know if I’d end up marrying her but I knew I’d take care of her for as long as she needed me in any way she’d let me. She smiled and told me she’d make her voice sharp at times so her sister would think she was bargaining hard and raising her voice she said sharply what a terrible person the mom was about money and control and how I was a fool to get involved with this family, and then lowering her voice she told me my shampoo girl was always her favorite and her heart went out to her for the hard life she’d lived. She also told me the mom was offering the older sister instead, insisting that since she was more beautiful (debatable), more educated, and “worldly” that she was the better choice for me. Her mom was telling her to tell me my shampoo girl was slow and stupid and ugly and would cheat on me. She stopped and looked at me and said you’d not buying any of this are you? I said no and there ended the meeting. No mention of it for the next few months.

Before I left the house the aunt took me to another room and opened a steel security box and showed me a Thai diploma. I asked what it was. She said my shampoo girl was embarrassed about not having an education and had put away literally 3-5 baht each day from tips saving for books to attend night school while working at her family's business. Hiding the money outside in the yard she finally had enough to attend and when she went to class her mom accused her of having boyfriends and acting cheap and would physically punish her each time she returned. When she finally received her diploma she took it to her aunt’s house to hold for her fearing more punishment from her mom for spending so much money on something her mother considered unnecessary.

One day I was summoned to the family's house where the mom had found a new English translator and she asked me my intentions with her daughter demanding a huge sinsod and monthly family support. I looked at the entire family who was watching all of this including my shampoo girl and calmly thanked her for her time and respect, but that I would never pay money for a woman I loved so much, that in my country this would be the ultimate disrespect. She then announced that I could no longer see her daughter and that it was time for me to leave the house. I thanked her for her time and walked out the door and down the soi to my truck really thinking I’d never see my girl again. It’s hard to explain to westerners how strong the control and bond is the parents hold over their children <Yes, this is oh so true and really cannot be underestimatedStick> so I won’t try, suffice it to say that I never expected what happened next. Hearing someone running behind me I turned and my shampoo girl was by my side and looking straight ahead with tears in her eyes she said she was no longer part of that family and could I drop her off at her boss’s house where she’d ask to stay with her. I asked her to come live with me and she accepted. Until 11 months ago we’ve never been a part since.

It wasn’t easy. Her mom brought police to my condo gates 3-4 days in a row accusing me of kidnapping her daughter, but my landlord, a nice Chinese lady (someone mentioned her in a submission not long ago, her name is Jennifer), intervened on my behalf and made them go away. The next day the mom brought a new set of police and so it continued a few days at the front of Greenery House.

My world was falling apart again. I’d just learned both my mother and father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and I needed to return to the states. I had duties there that couldn’t be ignored and being the executor of their estates I knew I’d be gone for at least several years. What to do? If it wasn’t for this I’d have drug out the dating process for a few more years but the only thing I knew for sure was that I wasn’t going to leave my shampoo girl in Bangkok as the mercy of her mom and sister. I asked her if we could make peace with her mom by agreeing to a small sinsod to pay for the wedding and party and have a Thai wedding. Meanwhile I contacted a friend who helped me arrange a tourist visa because the chances of getting one at face value were practically zero considering her circumstances. Her mom agreed and I paid baht 50,000 for the party which included over 50 guests, dress rental, food, music, monks, the entire thing. Low key, practical, not the stuff young ladies dreams are made of. You see, my shampoo girl was under the impression I had no money, no real job, and we’d both have to work to have any sort of home. She didn’t know that I’d been having a custom home built during my time in Thailand to replace one that had burned down right before I’d left. She didn’t know I was retired, had assets, or anything past my truck in Bangkok. Somehow when you consider everything that goes on in Thailand and the real reasons girls latch on to men it just seemed wise to omit certain things about myself, Maybe I was too cautious, insecure, whatever.. but this is the way I did it and I shouldn’t hide it for the purposes of this story.

After the Thai wedding which we never registered we boarded the plane for America and made it back in time to spend a few months with each parent and hold their hands as they passed and bury each one as requested. During all this we lived in a small plain furnished apartment and my shampoo girl found a job working under the table at a local Thai restaurant to “help out” with money. Sometimes when she worked I disappeared to my home site to have meetings with my contractor about the finishing touches of my new home. It was on a small ranch in Oregon and every detail from the Canadian maple wood floors to the double sized Jacuzzi tub in the master suite I wanted to be perfect. I was losing my parents but at the same time in some way I was starting a new chapter of my life. My girl stood by me the entire time, massaging my mom when she was in pain and cooking for my father and helping me clean up their homes and do all the heavy lifting after their deaths. No one had ever helped me so much before without wanting anything in return. My son learned to love her as much as any son could love a stepmother, enough so that during our last custody battle he told the judge he wanted to live with us and his relationship with his stepmother was a big part of his decision.

Months after their deaths and still living in the small apartment I asked her on her day off to go for a drive in the country. We headed down the road towards the home site and she remarked how beautiful it was in this area and I couldn’t help but agree. Rounding the final bend to my ranch which revealed the pastures and river through the back yard she gasped and said she’d never seen anything so beautiful. Turning down the long drive I told her the house was just being built and we could take a look because I knew the builders. This was the time the cabinets were going in and the floors had just been put down and it was time to choose the color for the tiles, wall paint, carpet in the bedrooms, etc.. and the contractor asked her opinion and showed her swatches and color chips and when he was done she told me that maybe if we both worked hard we’d have such a place for ourselves some day. The contractor hearing this pulled out the keys to the new locks and put them in her hand and said she’d just made his day, never had he been more satisfied building a home for someone. My wife gasped and almost fell down. She couldn’t believe this was our home. She got used to the idea in the coming months as we furnished and decorated our home though.


That day we left the building site and drove directly to the part of town where they sell new cars. We were still driving my old 83 Chevy work truck that I used for the heavy lifting on my ranch when we pulled up at the Jeep dealer and I asked her what she liked the best. She thought I was playing and picked out a new Jeep Wrangler Sahara and I when I told the salesman I’d take it and wrote out a check she just stood there with her mouth open. Leaving the truck at the dealer who promised to have it parked back at the ranch we took off in the new Jeep she didn’t even have a license to drive yet. It took her a year more to learn English well enough to take and pass her written test in English and get her keys. Until then it sat in the garage and she polished it a few times a week and would sit in it while practicing her English.

Leaving the dealership I took her to the storage facility I’d been renting all this time and opening the door to one of my units she saw my three cars. We spent the rest of the day prepping and getting the 99’ Cobra Mustang up and running and down the street to the Ford dealer to be serviced and detailed after such a long storage. Looking through my storage units she took note of the items I had and asked questions about my old cars and tractor and riding mower and all the things you need for a small ranch. I think the day overwhelmed her and I’m still not sure if it was all the glitter of our new home/cars or that I finally trusted her enough to share these things with her.. but she slept very well and as usual wouldn’t let go of me the entire night. It felt really good to finally share everything with her. More, any suspicions I might have had about her motives for marrying me and being with me disappeared.

Over the following years we were properly married, moved into our new home, sold our new home to follow my youngest son when his mom picked up and left trying to separate us, bought another new home, switched cars, had pets, traveled a lot and took a few cruises to Alaska and generally really enjoyed life. She never stopped working and bringing home a pay check and she never stopped learning English or going to school. Her teachers loved her and became her personal friends and our western neighbors were always knocking at our door wanting to know if she “could come out and play” as they’d cook and sew and totally Americanize her. Over these years I watched my shampoo girl grow from a scrawny bird with two broken wings into a proud and soaring eagle with sharp intellect and a keen sense of self. People seeing her “before/after” pictures can’t believe it’s the same girl. Her loyalty and love never waned but I started to wonder if perhaps.. considering our age difference of 12 years and my disabilities.. if perhaps I was holding her back. It would insult her to ask her outright yet it became uncomfortable for me to watch this girl who used to weigh under 40kg with a man's haircut and men’s clothes who didn’t know anything turn into a real beauty with hair down to her waist, curves appearing as she gained normal weight, and who was highly intelligent and soaking up knowledge and experience at a very fast rate.. wondering if we hadn’t yet met.. if today she’d fall in love with me. Impossible to tell I know, yet I felt the need to set her free and let her experience everything she’d become. It came to be that we returned to Thailand with her leaving a few months later to live on her own, by her own expense and work, in her newly adopted country until such time as she became a citizen. I could have returned with her but I’d just started getting back into my old position again and at my age and considering I’d left before.. walking away again might make this my last real job. I wanted to stay, she wanted to return and complete her citizenship.

‘We gave each other a quick hug and kiss at the LAX terminal and after watching her head down the stairs towards the baggage claim I turned and slowly walked to my gate to catch my flight back to Bangkok.’

In the last eleven months we’ve exchanged only a handful of emails and no phone calls. Last week she sent me a picture of her at her naturalization ceremony holding her certificate and I found myself wishing I’d asked when it was so I could have been there. She told me she’d be returning home exactly one year from the day she left and could I pick her up at the airport. I set her free with no obligations and next month she’s coming back home. I read her email and found myself smiling for the first time since she left, the smile hasn’t left my face since. My uncle once told me that I used to laugh and play like all the other kids but something happened to me while in the military and I stopped smiling and forgot how to play, and that when he saw me with my wife it lifted his heart because she’d taught me what he thought was impossible. He said she taught me how to play and smile again. I’m really looking forward to next month with a huge smile on my face.

Until next time..

Stickman's thoughts:

Now that's a really honest piece. I enjoyed it very much.

The author cannot be contacted.