When Asia Spits You Out
As I sometimes did on Friday nights after an evening workout at the Singapore American Club gym, I would wander into the bar to watch some news and drink some cold Tiger draft beers. Tonight it was fairly crowded with several small parties happening in the bar. So I was surprised when this guy sits next to me and says I must be new to the club as he had never seen me here before. I was a little taken aback, not just by his intrusion into my personal space, but that he had noticed. I was new to the club and had only started to visit for a couple of months. He introduces himself as Paul and gives me a big smile and shakes my hand in that distinctive American fashion. I tell him my name and ask if he wants a beer. He does. And over the next few more rounds, I make a new friend in Singapore. Great, I think, I will learn the ins-and-outs of living in Singapore from a real resident. Instead, Paul would eventually teach some of the hard lessons of living in Southeast Asia.
Paul tells me he is a long-time resident of Singapore, having married a local woman and now with two teenaged children. He is a consulting geological engineer in the oil and gas industry, working with a number of companies in the area. His wife is a VP of HR for some big Singaporean company. They have a nice house on the east coast. Hey, that’s where I live, I say. Paul insists we should get together next week for dinner at a good place to eat he knows on the coast. I readily agree as I am always up for new eating venues in a city with endless good eating venues.
This is my first of many wonderful dinners at the East Coast Seafood Centre. We order some crab, rice and vegetables along with a pitcher of beer. With little prodding, Paul launches into his life story. Years ago, when he was a young oil and gas engineer working in the States, he received an offer to go to Singapore. He soon loved Singapore so much he gave up his ex-pat status and took a job at the local branch of his company. He married a Singaporean woman of Chinese ethnicity and two babies followed. They bought a house in the emerging east coast district. A few years later, the industry was starting to wane so he started working as an independent consultant on projects throughout Asia. Now, his wife was a VP and the kids were almost adults, with one already in national service. I was envious as it seemed an idyllic life. As he finished his story, I notice I am having trouble keeping up with Paul’s beer drinking. We are already on our second pitcher, so I turn down his an offer for a third. Yet it is still a good night out with a new friend.
Over the next few months, I would run into Paul at the American Club and we would get together at different venues in the city. The latest was a bar crawl through Mohammed Sultan. After that adventure, he invites me to his house and I meet his wife. She is still beautiful in her 40’s but is strangely quiet, not the usual outgoing Singaporean women I work with. His kids happen by. His son is in his police uniform, which is the branch he chose for his service. His daughter is short and cute and tells me she will soon be joining the US Army. What? Paul explains he registered their births at the US embassy and now they are US citizens. For some reason this is what she wants to do. Except for this brief exchange, they too seem strangely quiet. Oh well, maybe that’s the kind of people they are.
A little while later my sister announces she wants to come for a visit along with her family and my three sons. This is wonderful news as I wanted my sons to visit Asia but I wasn’t sure how they could get here. My condo is big, so everyone will have a place to sleep, but what about meals and transportation? They will be here four weeks but I will still have to work intermittently during that time. How will I manage? When I tell Paul my dilemma, he says I should leave it with him. Sure enough, Paul arranges for a mini-van driver at a very reasonable price, and a maid for an even better one. Wow, how did you do that? Oh, they're friends of mine, he replies.
When my family arrives, the driver meets us at the airport to transport us home. With a little notice, he can transport us anywhere in the city. I meet the maid the next day. Her name is Rita and she is a bright and bubbly Filipino in her late 30’s. She arrives in the afternoon, cleans the condo, does the laundry, and then makes us a terrific meal, a combination of foods from around Asia. She is wonderful to have around. Meanwhile, my girlfriend is brooding in Thailand. I didn’t want to shock my family with a new girlfriend, and she didn’t seem too excited to meet them anyhow. So I ask her to stay away but arrange for her to visit Singapore and stay at a nice hotel, where we can enjoy a few short hours of a conjugal visit. But as my family’s visit continues her mood gets worse.
My family is making the most of their stay in Singapore. We jet-boat to Tioman Island in Malaysia for a few days, then on to Bintan Island in Indonesia to stay at a beautiful resort. We even manage a few days in Bangkok to visit the usual tourist sites. Between these trips, they wander all over Singapore in the mini-van. This is when I can get some work done. Everyone is having a great time so they are truly sad to leave. Especially me, as it was great to see my sons again. When I get home after seeing everyone off to the airport, Rita is there waiting for me. The condo is already spotless and all the laundry is done. She offers to cook lunch for me. I decline, saying all I really need is a nap after four weeks of non-stop activity.
Yet she lingers and does not leave. I had assumed this is the end of our relationship, but she seems reluctant to go. I offer her a drink while I grab a beer. She tells me she is a full time maid for a French doctor who works for a pharmaceutical company. He has a grand house so normally she is very busy. But now he travels constantly and is rarely at home, especially now that he has a gay lover in Bangkok. Still, he wants her to stay on, but her duties are light, sometimes less than an hour’s work a day. That’s not so bad she says, but she is very lonely in the big house. She has enjoyed getting out and being with my family. She says I should visit her at her house. I agree but tell her I already have a girlfriend. She says that’s alright, she is seeing someone as well. We agree to meet again for a Sunday lunch at the big, lonely house of the gay French doctor.
The doctor’s house on the outside is nothing unusual. But inside, the décor is a beautiful blend of Japanese minimalist combined with exquisite objet d’art from all over South-East Asia. The doctor or his decorator has a wonderful eye. The lunch is terrific; a light seafood dish along with a fine French table wine from the good doctor’s cellar. Afterwards, we sit in the elegant living room talking. I tell her about my Thai girlfriend and the goofy relationship we have. She tells who her boyfriend is and I’m shocked – it’s Paul.
How did that happen, I ask? Rita says she met Paul at a party at the American Club with her employer (she was sometimes his “beard” on certain occasions). Paul approached her, she was lonely, and soon he was a regular visitor at the doctor’s house. She didn’t know he was married until recently. Now she doesn’t know what to do, as Paul still wants to see her but she is not sure. Rita says she wants a husband, not a lover. How can she stop this, she asks?
Now I know why Rita asked me to lunch. What I thought would be a subtle come-on turned out to be a cry for help from what might be a stalker. Has she told Paul she is definitely not interested? She has tried in the past, she says, but he gets so angry she becomes afraid. This doesn’t sound like the Paul I know. Now I wonder if this is just some weird fantasy from someone I barely know. I tell her to try to end it in a public place, like a restaurant, where Paul wouldn’t be able to lose control. Now I am feeling a little creepy, so I make up some excuse to leave early.
It was only a few days later when a crying Rita phoned me to say she had tried to end it with Paul in a restaurant, but he started screaming at her anyway. She ran from him back to the house and had called me. Now I really didn’t know what to think. I considered calling Paul but I was recently working late hours and dealing with the girlfriend when I got home. I finally got a day off the following Sunday when the girlfriend headed back to Thailand. That afternoon, Rita called me again only this time she sounded scared to death. She was screaming that Paul was trying to break down the door. I could hear a loud pounding in the background. I told her to call the police but she said she didn’t want to get Paul into trouble. So I said she should tell Paul I was on my way. Maybe that would make him stop and wait for me. She said OK.
Even without traffic, it took me 30 minutes to go from the east coast to the north of the main city. When I arrive, I see Paul red-faced outside the front door. I ask what’s happening. Paul said she has my phone. What? She has my phone and I need it for work, he says. I knock on the door and ask Paul to stand back. Rita opens the door and throws a mobile phone out. It hits the sidewalk and shatters into pieces. I walk in the house and Rita shuts the door immediately. She tells me Paul has been drinking all day, and earlier had tried to force himself on her. She was able to push him out the door. In the process he dropped his phone. Rita is really scared so I go outside to confront Paul and ask him to go home. I see Paul, he is on his knees picking up the pieces of his phone. He looks up at me and asks why did she throw his phone? He needed it in case someone called him for a job. Now my rage turns to pity so I help him collect the rest of the pieces. I walk him to the street where we find a taxi to take us home.
In the taxi, Paul confesses his consultancy has being getting less and less business the last few years. As his work waned, his drinking increased. Lately he had been drinking over a bottle of booze every day, sometimes more. He knew his marriage was breaking up and without a job, he would soon have to leave Singapore. He really wanted to stay, but how could he? Maybe if Rita loved him he could live with her for a while until he got back on his feet. I digested all this and realized Paul was having a drunken delusion. His plan was hopeless so I encouraged him to return home and try to reconcile with his wife. He broke down, saying she never would but importantly to him, she would never replace his phone. Now I knew Paul was beyond my help. When we arrive at his house, he thanks me, I am not sure for what, and then he walks alone into his house.
I thought Paul’s phone would be re-activated but every time I call I get the same message that it is turned off. I still had his email and I send him a few messages, but I never receive a reply.
Months pass and I have returned to America. Then one day I receive an email from a strange source. It was from Paul and all it contained was a phone number. I call it and hear a weak voice answer, like it was a hundred years old. It was Paul but not the one I knew in Singapore. He said hello, but did not seem to know who I was until several minutes into our conversation. He said he was living with his daughter in her apartment in Texas. She was in the US Army now and was paying for both of them. He said he was looking for a job but the oil industry was down. I said I was sure he would find something soon. He said if was ever in Texas, I should look him up and we could go out on the town, like we used to do in Singapore. I said sure, that would be fun. But I never did.
With its warm weather, beautiful vistas and even more beautiful women, Southeast Asia at first blush can seem an inviting and idyllic place for many western men. But it’s mere window dressing for the harsh realities people in Asia live their lives; poverty, corrupt officials, economic uncertainty, and few safety nets for when life gets really bad. This uncertainty makes Asia a cruel and competitive place, masked by the calmness most Asians go about their business. Unless you have the money to live above this uncertainty, you also are part of this quandary and need to compete in it just like everyone else. You will need not just business knowledge, but cultural smarts and personal integrity that grant you, a foreigner, the right to live in their world with respect. And remember at all times, you will always be a western foreigner and will always be held to a higher standard.
Paul entered this faux paradise as a well-off, well-protected ex-pat. When he decided to stay, he thought his golden glow would last forever. Even when his fortunes started to wane, his Asian family would have protected him had he stayed loyal to them. But when he started to womanize and let alcohol get the best of him, he broke this covenance and they abandoned him. Now he was a drunkard without a job and without any support. Asia had spit him out; back to the land that created him, like it does with so many who come to live in Southeast Asia thinking is a paradise on earth where all the people are warm and friendly
Very nicely told story! The sad thing is that there are heaps of "Pauls" all over South-East Asia, and many get to the point where they cannot stay any longer (money runs out, visa issues etc.) and they wash up on shore back home in a much worse position than when they left.