The Zero Zone Beer Garden
I hadn’t had anything to eat since a skimpy breakfast of fruit and toast and several cups of coffee and it was getting on toward eight in the evening. Without much difficulty, I found a place called the Zero Zone Beer Garden, a long fifteen minute walk from the very small space called a hotel room in which I was staying, a hotel where no one spoke English and yet those at the desk and the door were as kind and helpful and deferential as one might find anywhere, something that one consistently encounters where there has been little tourism or contact with foreigners. Tourism in numbers is simply a curse, turning good and kind people into greedy whores and scheming scammers.
To get to the Beer Garden I had to walk through a mazeway of touts and taxis to get an elevator that with its tiny space and black accordion doors was out of another era. Two Burmese men got in at the same time, chatted among themselves without acknowledging me, and then stopped on the fourth floor to get a massage. I got off on the next floor and immediately came into a large garden with flowering plants and palms and twenty-five or thirty tables, enough to seat seventy or eighty people. To my right was a large wooden stage, unlike the rest of the garden in that it was covered with a crude roof, the exposed underside of which showed tattered and drooping thatch, dangling bare wires, and gaping holes of raw lumber.
Several waiters—all young men–were standing about in black pants and white shirts and black bow ties and wearing obsequious smiles. There was little for them to do since there were fewer than ten people who were seated at tables and drinking or eating. I had my choice of where I wanted to sit. I chose a small table for four directly in front of the stage, by all measures the best seat in the house for what was to follow.
I ordered a Myanmar beer, and then a dinner of a whole steamed fish (no idea what kind and it wasn’t indicated on the menu) that when brought to me was cooking beneath a very hot fire. The fish was covered in vegetables and a soy sauce. I also got a plate of rice and a huge bowl of sweet and sour soup.
Before long a young Burmese woman dressed in western clothes—high-heel silver strap sandals, tight pants and a frilly blouse–came to the center of the stage with a mike and stood perfectly still while giving a tinny rendition of a Burmese song. Behind her at some distance was a short and heavy-set man who I could barely see. He was banging away on an electric piano, one that either needed tuning or a complete makeover.
I had another beer and picked at the bony and increasingly overcooked fish, tasty but an effort for the payoff. While eating I keenly watched eight or nine sets of seven or eight young Burmese women who lined up at the far end of the stage—rather distant from me–and then in pairs or twos and threes would walk in the direction of my table, never once glancing at me or giving any indicating that I was even present. Everything about them seemed amateuristic, poorly rehearsed, and it was hard to avoid the thought that some of them were not long out of the village, the city village. Some groupings of the women were dressed in floor-length black or red satin gowns, other sets of different young women (eighteen or nineteen to about twenty-four) were in tight and short dresses that left little to the imagination. And yet there was no obvious attempt to be provocative in how they walked or postured or moved their young firm bodies. From time to time in each of these “parades” one of the waiters would go onto the stage and hand one of the young women a single rose, or put a colorful lei around her neck, some so long that both ends touched the stage floor. Each of these demonstrations of admiration from someone at a table behind me resulted in the young woman getting either 5,000 or 10,000 kyats (six to twelve dollars), a not inconsiderable sum since a garment worker in Yangon is getting no more than a couple of dollars a day for working from seven in the morning until six at night. A woman’s beauty and youth are traits that can never be underestimated in any marketplace where one finds people resembling men.
I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but it did occur to me that whoever had singled out this or that young woman had an interest in her and that soon she would be joining him at his table, either for simple conversation or something that was not so simple and was about more than 5,000 or 10,000 kyats. But the fact is that I simply did not know what was going on. As the evening unfolded, I was not much enlightened by what my eyes were telling me. Those young women who received these small acknowledgments did not repair to the tables from which the money came but returned to a back stage area after taking part in the “fashion” show. They would then reappear eight or ten minutes later in another parade of six or seven young women, this time dressed quite differently than previously.
I had a third beer after I finished the meal, and during this time my eyes fell on two western men seated at a table about twenty feet to my left. They had arrived without my notice after I began eating. One of them was portly and in his fifties and had a full head of dark hair and a puffy face, a face that did not look friendly. The other man, clearly middle-aged, also had a full head of hair; it was salt and pepper and naturally kinky. He had a long braided ponytail that began just above the base of his neck, something I have seen increasingly on expats in this part of the world; I guess they want to be hip as they were not in their countries when twenty.
I approached puffy face and asked him if he had any idea what was going on with these parades, what the girls were up to, if anything. Were they, I wondered, saying: Invite me to your table and we’ll talk price and then we’ll go to your hotel for the night. He leaned toward me and growled in a stringy Irish brogue: These girls are nothing more than mean and nasty little cunts that will rip open your pockets for all they can. Then they’ll eat your balls too. They will.
I was taken aback at the harsh words, as if they were aimed at me—the naïve youngster on the block who was learning to walk and talk and had never been around a hustling whore before. Or had I somehow offended puffy face by interrupting his meal with my question? His words were as harsh and blunt as any I’ve ever heard expressed about women in Asia, whether or not hookers. I waited for further clarification. But all I got was more nastiness, clearly aimed at the youngster who was still learning to walk and talk. I turned without saying another word and retreated to my table. I consoled myself with the familiar thought that expats are losers and bottom feeders and six months from the grave, men on the run who find consolation in their mantra-like simplicities of hate.
I got the bill and it came to just under six dollars. I did a double take: a whole steamed fish—albeit overcooked and species unknown, soup that it would take three meals to eat, plenty of rice, and three Myanmar beers. All for under six dollars, and with the best seat in the house for the local version of a Yangon beauty or fashion show of some fifty or so Burmese women, albeit hardly stunning or likely to be real fashion board walkers anytime soon, even in Myanmar. I had also been treated to hearing four of them belt out their take on some Burmese songs, again not exactly professional acts but certainly worth my time, another chance to get a small window on an aspect of Burmese life I’d never seen before.
As I finished the beer, I thought: Yeah, where am I? I remembered the night in a small town in southern Colombia in a cozy and dark restaurant when I had a filet mignon, as good a steak as I’ve had, and rice and some vegetables and a Coke, and the total bill was seventy-five cents. I remembered working as a senior accountant in Melbourne in that long time ago when I was a mere twenty-five, heading up an audit on a company that grossed one hundred million dollars. There were three young Australians working under my supervision. I was paid seventy-eight dollars a week. It is one of the few times in my life when I can remember exactly how much I made in a week or a month or a year. And the year in which I made this much money.
I paid the bill and headed back toward the elevator, and as I got close I found myself next to four loud Asian men. I knew they weren’t Burmese. I thought they were Chinese, the Chinese having a way of wanting everyone to know they’re about. They must come out of the birth canal shouting at the top of their lungs, and all that changes over time is the volume of their grating voices.
The elevator opened and as I started toward it, the heftiest of the four men, the one who was fat and had a face as round as an oven bent pie plate pushed hard against me with his body, nearly knocking me down. It wasn’t accidental, it was clearly purposeful, about this I had no doubt. I started to turn and say something when this same man now caught me again by surprise by violently grabbing and pinching my ass with a full hand, followed by a bellowing laugh. Then he said: Where you from? His face on my face.
I pushed him a good one and said, Where the f@#$ you from, asshole?
Me from Korea.
And these assholes with you? I said. They’re from Korea too, I suppose?
The five us now in the black-walled elevator from fifty or one hundred fifty years ago, body-on-body and not too much room for throwing a good left jab, I went into a rant that had they understood what I said I am certain that I would have been taken out of the elevator when we reached street level on a stretcher. I said: Why is it that everyone in this part of the world universally agrees that Koreans are the biggest and rudest assholes the world has ever known? And why the f@#$ do Americans, and I happen to be one of them, keep troops in South Korea to defend your fat ugly and smelly asses when you hate us and don’t want us there? I’d much prefer we get the f@#$ out and let you xenophobic and racist pricks find your own way, and maybe after you got your house cleaned in a war with the North you’d start behaving like decent humans instead of rude pricks who think they’re the most important people in the universe.
Yes, I thought as I got a taxi back to my hotel, What is about this class of South Koreans I began seeing in Southeast Asia in noticeable numbers about five years ago? And why is it that every time I talk to a foreigner from the U.S. or Europe who has spent time living and working in Korea, from three months to thirty months to ten years, he rarely has anything like a kind word for these people?
Sounds like an interesting place you ended up on, but no doubt frustrating at the same time not really knowing what was going on around you.
I wonder when Dana will finally send in the article he told me he was working on a while ago titled, "Korski: My Secret South Korean Love Affair"? 🙂