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The Telltale Tattoo



Walking past the small shops in an indoor mall in Udon Thani, I was trying to keep hold of my girlfriend’s hand but she was letting it go limp. I looked at her face but she was pretending to be interested in small skirt in a display window. We stopped and both looked it, then I said, “Darling, you know I won’t forget about you when I return to America, and I’ll send for you as soon as I can get you a visa”. It was a phrase I said to her many times over the past few weeks; ever since I found out my overseas assignment in Singapore would be coming to an end the next month. She looked up at me and gave me her best pouting smirk that could induce strong lust or maximum guilt in me. Today, guilt was definitely the message.

It had been a wonderful and wild adventure the last 18 months. The marital separation, the offer to work in Singapore, and the move, all had happened in what seemed like a tornado of new places, colors, emotions and time zones. Until, one day it all slowed down and I found myself in a high-rise condo on the east coast of Singapore that provided a perfect view of the many ships waiting to get into port. Work was easy enough at first and as it was getting close to Christmas; the office was winding down with my fellow ex-pats more concerned with trips back to their home country. One week before Christmas, I was asked to talk to one of our largest customers in Thailand. After meeting the customer, a friend invites me that evening to the Hard Rock Café in Bangkok and 30 minutes later I am dancing with a wide-smiling Thai woman who instantly melts my heart. Two days later, back in Singapore, I am frantically trying to get a flight back to Bangkok on Christmas Eve, but all the flights are booked. Finally, a seat opens up and on Christmas day I am sitting on her family’s front porch at their house outside Udon Thani, drinking Singha while eating spicy larb gai, and wishing this day would never end.

The gollowing months are both wonderful and confusing, as I learn how to do business in Asia and what it is like to have a Thai girlfriend. She is not the most accommodating person at first but I soon realize that there are major cultural differences between a high-tech consultant from America’s east coast and a country girl raised in Thailand’s poorest region. Over the months, I start to connect the dots and map the differences between our cultures, as well as dabbling in Buddhist literature, and soon we start to form an understanding between us that serves both of our purposes; she is free from toiling at her family’s restaurant and I am provided with female companionship free of the anxieties and angst that possess most American women. She is childlike in her approach to all things in life and soon mai bpen rai is my favorite phrase

But, as the Buddha and his minions are fond of reminding us, everything changes all the time, and this was certainly the case with my dream of Asia. The internet businesses that had once fueled a driving economy were now burst and everyone was scurrying for cover. When America sneezed and Asia caught a terrible cold, the ex-pats were the first to go. When I, like many others, received their orders to return home, I feared the worst for my little Thai princess. I knew that when I returned my divorce would be ugly, as only in America can the inevitable be contested. Even after that, the fiancé visa would take some time as well, thanks to the events of 9/11 which had frozen the immigration process, moribund even in the best of times. A visitor’s visa was out of the question due to her undocumented work at the family business. How would my darling survive the months of loneliness with only my phone calls to comfort her? How would I?

As we walked through the mall that day, these were the thoughts on my mind. After we had had the “I won’t forget you” talk for the millionth time, I was also thinking about some way, some grand gesture, that would prove my love to my skeptical sweetheart. And suddenly there it was; in the middle of the mall behind some makeshift walls, I saw the inside of a tattoo artist’s workshop and a brilliant idea burst upon me. I grabbed my darling’s hand and dragged her inside where I announced that here was a way I would prove my undying devotion. She was startled at first, but when she realized what I was proposing, she just as quickly tried to pull me out. But I stood my ground, and asked her to translate to the confused artist what I wanted done; tattoo your name in Thai script on my left arm, as it was closest to my heart. She begged me to come to my senses but I was tired of the constant feelings of guilt; it was put up or shut up. Seeing the resolve in my actions and the redness of a good Singha buzz in my face, she relented and slowly explained what I wanted to the artist. I prepared myself for my first ever tattoo.

The procedure did not take very long, or so it seemed. He slowly penned in the name of my darling girlfriend in Thai script. I asked one of the Thai teenagers now starting to gather around the artist’s chair to fetch me a large Singha. Drinking, smiling, laughing to the ever increasing Thai crowd, I was the crazy farang getting a tattoo from a shop that most of them wouldn’t even look at. After my darling’s name was properly inscribed, the small crowd asked to see it and I proudly brandished my arm like a war hero displaying his scars. I was that day’s reminder to the crowd as to why they should get down on their knees everyday and thank the Buddha that they were born Thai.

After that, the guilty looks stopped from my darling and when they threatened to reappear, I pulled up my sleeve and showed her the proof of my devotion. This minor act of bravado still did not ease the pain of leaving Asia; the last night together, the all night talking, the slow shower in the morning and tearful goodbye at the airport. Back home, I settled into my new job and found the name of my friend’s divorce attorney. I prepared myself for trench warfare; for the divorce, for my new life in America, and for getting my darling here with me.

As expected, the divorce was like fingernails slowly screeching across a blackboard. I sent my darling a little money and spent even more on phone calls to her. Using the miles I had accumulated during my long trips in Asia, I took two more trips back to see my darling the following year. She was always glad to see me when I arrived but upon leaving, I received looks of “what’s taking so long” and of course the “when are you going to tell me the truth”. The old raising of the sleeve trick didn’t work anymore. In fact, after my last trip, I started to have trouble getting her on the phone. Her earlier sorrow at being separated gave way to indifference. Our calls became cold and mechanical, when one day her phone went silent for good. I knew what was happening; she thought that I wasn’t really getting a divorce and now it was time for her to move on with her life. I took small comfort in the Buddha’s words to let go of things you cannot control.

In fact, I often took comfort at the local Thai restaurant where I would tell my sad stories to Thai manager as I was eating fried rice and drinking Singha. One day, sitting at an outside table, he asked me if I had met his sister who had just arrived from Thailand. As I looked in the large front window, a petite but beautiful Thai woman gave me the biggest smile I had ever received. Soon we were dating every Saturday night and one Sunday morning she saw the tattoo. At first she laughed out loud and tried to rub it off. When I told her it was permanent, she looked away and frowned. I said it meant nothing to me now; after all, it was just a tattoo of my old Thai girlfriend’s name on my arm. She turned slowly to me and with a steely look that I have never seen since (we are now married) she told me it was either her or the tattoo. She scared me half to death so I quickly agreed to do something, anything to resolve this problem.

But what? In a show of due diligence, early the next morning I was googling the internet for tattoo removals. I found plenty of doctors claiming their laser removal was the best way, but looking at the before and after pictures, before was definitely the winner. Having a patch of white skin forever (it does not tan after the laser) on my upper arm seemed like it would raise more questions of my character than the tattoo. Looking further, I found some blogs from folks who said if the tattoo was small enough, putting a tattoo over it was the best way to go. A quick chat with my sweetie confirmed that she approved of this plan and not wanting to ever see that steely look again, I instantly put things in motion.

Choosing a tattoo parlor solely on the look of their website, I went down to the chosen parlor and talked to the first artist I met. She agreed with my plan to cover the old tattoo and suggested the type of tattoo I should choose. She pointed me to a stack of huge photograph books and said to bookmark anything that looked good. The books showed a whole range of people who worked more on their tattoos than diet and exercise. I also noticed that most of the customers were women and that my artist did seem a bit butch. Had I wandered into a dyke tattoo parlor? The proposition did not seem outlandish as this was the Mission district of San Francisco after all. Anyway, I did not like anything I saw so I decided to design my own tattoo.

But what did I want? Since I was replacing a tattoo I had received in Thailand I wanted it to be something Thai in nature. Having learned my lesson, I decided that it would not be the name of my current Thai sweetie. A web search of Thai icons and images produced nothing that struck my interest. I had just read J.M. Cadet’s excellent but hard to find translation of the Thai epic story “The Ramakien”, so I started looking for images of my favorite character from that story: Hanuman the monkey general. Further web searches of Hanuman produced some great images, including one old mask from Thailand’s National Museum. With colored pencils in hand, I soon had a good drawing of the mask. I called the tattoo artist and made an appointment for the following weekend.

If I had any doubts that my female tattoo artist preferred the company of women to men, it was confirmed the day I showed up in the studio and my wonderful Thai girlfriend was given the royal treatment. In time, my artist got down to business and suggested a few changes in the design due to the medium she was working with and the fact that tattoos spread out over time. I made sure that she included the jewel in the tongue as this is the defining mark of Hanuman from other Thai mythology characters. I am not sure whether he used this is for felatio, yet he did seem to have more than his fair share of conquests with human females. Anyway, we agreed to a fair price and soon she was at her work; buzzing away on my arm and with me showing a brave face. After more than two hours she was done, but the skin was tortured and had to be padded immediately. I kept the pads on for some days and I took tender care of my new piece of skin. After one week, I proudly displayed my new sign of devotion to my sweetie. She smiled widely and I silently sighed in relief that the steely look would be absent for the near future.

It has been a few years since those happy days of shopping the tattoo parlors of the Mission district. Even though many farangs now sport tattoos, I am still loath to display my bare left arm in polite society. However, in the presence of Thai friends and family, I am always asked to show my arm and they never fail to gasp and smile when they see the Hanuman tattoo. When they ask why I had it put on I always say it was a little gift I received from Thailand. They shake their heads knowingly, yet I know the true reason their heads bob up and down. It’s just another reminder why they get down on their knees everyday and thank the Buddha they were born Thai.

Stickman's thoughts:

That's a really nice story. I have always wondered about guys who had exactly the type of tattoo you got. There is no shortage of blokes with their Thai girlfriend's name tattooed on their body, often all down their forearm.

Now that I remember, one of my mates had his girlfriend tattoo his name on her butt!