Fish out of the Water
Bee’s nose is almost pressed flat against my Toyota rental car’s side window.
“Woaaah! So beautiful! I have never seen before!” she squeals with glee over and over again, much to my own amusement and delight.
We are not even a couple of hours from where Bee has spent living the best part of the last year, yet she has never been here before.
This morning I picked Bee up for a day long joy ride into the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island central range. My idea was to make the most of the day’s great weather <Mate, it's like that every day down there in paradise! – Stick> and drive up to the famous Arthur Pass, about half-way between the island’s East and West coasts, introducing her to the fabulous scenery along the way, and showing her that this beautiful nation has so much more to offer than Rolleston, the small town situated on the Canterbury Plains an approximate twenty kilometers south of Christchurch where she usually spends her days. The town served as a major railway junction point from the 1880s until the late 1980s, when the government deregulated the railways, and Rolleston became a stop only for the tourist orientated Transalpine.
Bee has come to know this small and sleepy, yet fast growing, rural community of roughly 3,800 people very well over the past ten months she has called it her new home. Rolleston’s slogan is “The town of the future”, and for Bee this quite literally holds true, since this is where her husband to-be has taken her to share their lives with each other.
The lucky guy’s name is Tom, aged 33, and is employed as a low ranking petrochemical engineer with one of this planet’s most influential oil companies. As such he frequently has to travel to far-flung destinations all around Oceania, often for extended stays of up to a month at a time. Thus Bee usually doesn’t see much of him, and has lived under the same roof with her fiancé’s unemployed elderly stepmom and boorish teenage stepbrother, an arrangement that has not always been free of problems.
I first met Bee in Chiang Mai by introduction three years earlier. Despite having obtained a BA in journalism and mass media from Chiang Mai University she was working for an expat friend of mine who has successfully run a small, foreign tourist-oriented, car rental shop for many years now. She first only ran simple errands for my him, but not long after employing her my friend came to realize that this smart and talented girl could be trusted with more significant business dealings than just dropping off mail at the post office or keeping his office clean and tidy. Her English improved by leaps and bounds, so that after the first year she was in the position to even take over the front desk, answer the phone, and competently deal with any customer request in person. By then my friend had grown very fond of her, yet their relationship to each other remained strictly platonic at all times.
Tom first met her stepping into the rental agency’s office shopping around for the best deal on a short term motorcycle rental in town about two years ago. He happened to be on his first trip to the Land of Smiles, and was still struggling to make sense of all the unfamiliar and exotic scenes that surrounded him. On that particular day Tom didn’t find a good motorcycle, but something much better in the charming form of a bright, diligent, and hard-working 23 year old girl, void of any significant experience with men and relationships in general, and foreign men in particular. Bee might have never been the best looking girl in the neighborhood, but nonetheless she was more than capable of turning guys’ heads on the street, and once they got to know her caught their attention with her unpretentious, bubbly nature and thoughtful ways. Tom didn’t fail to notice this, and asked her out on a date that same night. Bee loved the attention he was offering her, and Tom in turn soon thought of himself having fallen in love with this adorable creature from exotic lands. Many promises were made, return visits organized, until finally Tom asked if Bee was prepared to join him in his native New Zealand to build a future together. Insanely happy with his proposition she found herself in agreement.
We stop several times at lakes and also at a small gorge. Bee has never been up close to mountains this size before and they clearly amaze her. I was hoping she would even get to see a bit of snow on the peaks towering around us, but it’s early January now, so my hope was in vain. This does nothing to temper her enthusiasm though.
“ Mai pen rai! Mai pen rai! Suay laeow!” she gasps.
We talk a lot obviously, and she shares with me her woes and sorrows. She isn’t sure if she will be able to renew her present visa. Tom, son of a broken home, is strictly against the idea of marriage, which would automatically qualify her for a permanent residence visa. The knowledge, education, and skills she has acquired in Thailand she can’t put to use, and jobs are not easy to come by in a small town like Rolleston anyway. Thus she has resorted to commuting to Christchurch three times per week to attend language school.
Despite having lived in town for almost a year now, she hasn’t really made any friends, a circumstance she wasn’t really prepared for. She had expected that it wouldn’t be easy to meet people and become accepted in a new circle of friends, yet she trusted that her generous and likeable nature would facilitate things greatly, as she never had difficulties to achieve this in the past. The people she meets at the language school are certainly a welcome diversion, but most of her fellow students are from abroad and only in New Zealand for temporary stays. Thus all the precious friendships she made usually never last longer than maybe a month at best before she abruptly gets thrown back to square one.
Living with Tom’s stepmom hasn’t always been easy either. She has come to accept Bee as her stepson’s fiancée, yet their relationship to each other has only ever been lukewarm, and riddled with misunderstandings and problems.
Turning to her own family for support or even just as much as an open ear has never been an option. Bee is an orphan. Her only relative is an old aunt who lives in Lampang and for who she feels responsible for.
At times Bee has been very lonely, even though she has been brave about it. What other choice does she have really?
“Are you happy with him?”, I enquire about her relationship to Tom.
“It’s okay. He’s a good man. I am lucky to find a good man like him as my first boyfriend.”
“Are you in love with him?”
“Yes” she says under her breath.
As I turn to her I see tears running down her cheeks.
Mike, my Chiang Mai based friend and her former employer, had advised her against following Tom to New Zealand. Mike thought of Tom as a decent enough guy, but at the same time considered him as no more than a boy, less mature than he thought Bee needed, and quite probably also less devoted to her than she deserved in his eyes. In order to give her options Mike had even offered to help her along on her road to independence, something he knew Bee placed the highest possible value on. Yet even greater was Bee’s wish to have in life what she had never been afforded with herself, a loving family. Later she learned that her love and hope, Tom, didn’t share her dreams. He doesn’t want kids of his own. “Too expensive”, he says…
Bee is unhappy with his drinking habits and cannot really get used to being around his friends either who don’t much involve her when they all go out together.
“He’s a good man. He can change, right?!”
She looks at me questioningly. I am not certain whether or not she really hasn’t abandoned hope that he will change his attitude and priorities yet, or if she’s deluding herself to preserve that little hope she’s still holding on to in that regard. I give her a reassuring look but leave her question unanswered.
We reach Arthur’s Pass at 1 PM. As good as the weather was on the East Coast, the more cloudy it has gotten further inland and in the mountains. It’s raining now, and there’s a strong gusting wind. We seek refuge in a nice café in Arthur's Pass village.
Initially having in mind to drive up to the Pass and then backtrack down the Rolleston I change my minds and decide to drive on all the way down to Greymouth and even further to the famous natural attraction Punakaiki, also called Pancake Rocks, on the West coast. It’s obvious how much Bee has been enjoying our excursion so far, and I certainly don’t feel like cutting it any shorter than absolutely necessary.
The weather doesn’t get better on the way down the pass to the other coast, often obscuring the views, but neither one of us minds really, engulfed as we are in our sometimes cheerful, sometimes more serious chat. Again Bee is visibly impressed by the scenery and doesn’t stop thanking me for taking her. While driving she leans over and rests her head on my shoulder. It’s a nice and affectionate gesture, and very sweet of her.
In order to avoid backtracking all the way to East Coast via the same route I opt for continuing along the coast northbound until Westport and then cross back over the Alps via Lewis Pass instead. It is one long drive for sure, more than four and a half hours altogether, but I feel up for it. Tom is on a business trip these days, yet I still feel obliged to take Bee back to her home this evening, even though it would have been a lot more comfortable to break the journey and stay overnight somewhere along the way.
The sky clears again by the time we descend from the pass to the plains of the East coast. I quiz her if she’d prefer eating in a café or having a picnic for dinner, and she opts for the latter, so we head to the supermarket and shop for bread, spread, ham, tomatoes, and cookies.
With all these provisions we walk down to the shore of a small mountain lake where we find a table and benches to sit on. Bee is delighted with all of this. When I had mentioned picnic she thought we would buy some ready-to-eat snack in a shop and then just have it while continue driving. Turns out she has never had a picnic in the original sense before.
We stop in a few more places to take in the views, snap photos of the two of us using my tripod, and finally enjoy an idyllic golden sunset together from the last mountain pass before descending to the flatlands of the East coast for good.
We reach Rolleston at 9:30 PM and I drop Bee off at her stepmom’s house. At 10 PM I reach my motel and fall straight into my bed, dead tired and exhausted. No surprise after 10+ hours of driving and more than 700km on the road. Quite insane really, but given how much Bee, and also I, enjoyed it, it was well worth the effort.
In the late morning of the following day it’s time to say goodbye. I stop at her stepmom’s house on my way to the airport; we hug repeatedly and wish each other all the best.
I very much hope things will turn out well for her. She’s just such a good girl at heart; it’s very easy to tell. It was my joy and pleasure treating her to this short weekend.
We are almost as far geographically apart as it is possible living on this planet of ours, yet I am glad she considers me a good friend now, and we keep in touch via email and the occasional phone call. Bee’s story may not be unusual or particularly interesting. Yet by knowing her and having learned a bit about her gracious and kind personality it has touched me in ways that I cannot easily put on paper.
I actually feel sorry for Bee. It's like she has a dream, a dream that will never likely come true. That Tom does not wish to marry her and that she wants kids and he doesn't seems plenty of reason for her to call it a day and move back to Thailand. Knowing the mutual friend, he knows some good guys he can fix her up with. I do seem to recall he has a decent friend in Austria who might be a good fit for her…
I have always said to Thai women destined to marry a foreigner and move abroad that there are three places in the world they should aim for – Australia, New Zealand and California. All have a decent climate, English is the local language and there are big Asian populations so they should be able to find some of their own kind there and generally be accepted. But small town New Zealand, especially small town South Island New Zealand, is hardly ideal. The scenery might be stunning and the people as decent as you'll ever find, but they are awfully conservative and a young Thai lady is going to be bored out of her wits.
That mutual friend should send the Austrian an email…