Why are so many Western men becoming romantically involved with As-ians? Put that question to some of my American countrywomen and you can get some provocative responses:
“They just want their own little slave.”
“They cannot deal with an independent woman.”
“No American lady will have them.”
The first opinion makes a nice starting point for this discussion: the no-tion that Asian women are docile and submissive creatures. Indeed, it is this misguided impression that often initially draws unknowing men into the fold. What they don’t understand is that their new, exotic girlfriend, while on the surface appearing to accede to their every wish, actually has her own agenda along with some subtle means of pursing it. Far from being a master/slave relationship, it’s more often a case of the man ex-periencing the illusion of control even as he scours the fresh produce at the local market on his way home after work, searching for some out-of-season tropical fruit that his loved one has shyly requested for that night’s dessert.
The second and third viewpoints imply that Western men seek out Asian companions due to personal problems or deficiencies. While there’s some truth to this, I think it’s also a case of them wanting a more traditional partner. Less opinionated, perhaps. Asian cultures, with their emphasis on family, education, and aversion to take-no-prisoners confrontation there-fore have something to offer. For many “nice” guys, who often struggle to decipher the expectations of the fairer sex in their home countries, this can be an intriguing alternative: a woman from a stable background with a degree, who does not expect her husband to have an opinion about Hillary Clinton. Someone with a genuine appreciation of kindness and sensitivity in a man, while offering in return an enticing sexuality.
Which brings us to what is probably the biggest motivation for men to longingly gaze East: appearances. Almond-shaped eyes, raven-black hair and lithe bodies…well, sometimes. Regardless, the gene gods have cer-tainly been kind to what has been described as the world’s most feminine women. At the same time, their Western counterparts (read: Americans) have become super-sized — a condition for which they have only them-selves to blame. Happily, McDonald’s is attempting to level this playing field by opening cholesterol-saturated eateries in every Asian country this side of Inner Mongolia, though the West retains an imposing, belt-bust-ing lead.
Ultimately, it’s a tradeoff. Yes, a lonely western man can hook up with an Asian girlfriend whose looks cause traffic pileups, but she will require a special kind of caring and understanding. In return, a whole new world can open up for both people. One complete with unusual cuisine, comical misunderstandings and fresh, thought-provoking perspectives. It’s also an opportunity to discover a few things about oneself, perhaps emerging as a more flexible, self-aware person.
I paid scant attention to the woman coming up the steps. Even in the mid-dle of the night, people are always coming and going in this part of the city (Sukhumvit Road, near Nana Station). As she went by, she playfully tapped me on the back. Continuing to the far side of the overpass, she paused, seemed to make up her mind about something, then began walk-ing back my way.
Her name was Naan and it was hard to tell what she was up to. For one thing, she wasn’t wearing a short skirt or stiletto high heels, which are standard attire for many of the women strolling about at that hour. This made it hard to discern her figure, which from the glances I could steal appeared nondescript. Her short hair was finger-combed to one side and she appeared quite comfortable in a light lavender top, worn jeans and moccasins. Almost looked like she could do a granola commercial.
When it’s coming up on 3:30 in the morning, casual chitchat becomes arduous. I therefore wasted little time in discovering she was offering to give me a massage for the ridiculously cheap price of one hundred and twenty baht ($3.60). I couldn’t bring myself to take advantage of this and told her I’d instead pay five hundred baht, similar to what is charged at the ubiquitous massage parlors here. Why? Well, I liked the way she had found the courage to walk up and talk to me and felt she deserved the go-ing rate.
I brought her back to my apartment and to my delight, received one of the best massages of my time here in Bangkok. When she left, sans any hanky-panky, I gave her a one hundred baht tip and a hug. I also got her phone number — something I often neglect to do — and later texted her a thank you, though this didn’t earn me a reply.
In fact, getting any response out of her proved to be a problem. Over the following week, I twice sent an SMS asking if she was “working”. The first time I heard nothing and on the second occasion, after waiting an hour, decided I’d had enough and deleted her from my cell phone.
It wasn’t fifteen minutes later that I got a return text from Naan, asking me what time I’d like to have her over. I deliberated on this for a bit, then elected not to reply. When trying to get to know a woman from another culture, it’s important they respond to my messages and calls within a reasonable time frame. To be halfway punctual. Naan had not shown her-self to be that kind of person.
That really should have been the end of things, at least for that particular go-around. But no, Naan soon called and quickly hung up. I did nothing. Another fifteen to twenty minutes went by, then a text arrived: “I sorry.” Obviously she wanted to see me again, and in the past I might have been moved to answer. But I have discovered that my initial impressions of these women off the streets are more often than not correct, and in this case I needed to be moving on. It wasn’t like I was breaking off a rela-tionship, or so I thought.
Two days later, I received what I hope is the final round of fun in the form of two more messages. The first was a simple afternoon hello which I ignored. The second came four hours later and read: “f*ck you ha, ha, ha.” I’ve never been treated to the “f” word from a Thai lady before — it is considered incredibly rude here and when combined with the absurdly cheap massage price she initially quoted, makes me wonder if perhaps I was one of her first-ever customers. Or, there might be some deeper, darker issues at play. In either case, I’m glad I didn’t get further involved, possibly ending up in a starring role in some Thai version of Fatal At-traction.
Two evenings ago, unable to sleep, I decided to take one of my strolls down Soi 4, then out along Sukhumvit, one of the main avenues of cen-tral Bangkok. After 2 a.m., when the bars and go-gos close for the night, dozens of tiny street-side bars mushroom along the quarter mile stretch of road running from the near side of the Asoke Skytrain Station to a few blocks beyond Nana Station. These impromptu establishments usually consist of a cart containing a surprising variety of hard liquor circled by a mini asteroid belt of plastic chairs and uncomfortably small tables. Most also feature a rudimentary sound system which provides a thumping soundtrack for the cacophony of shrill Thai voices interspersed with the occasional drunken mutterings from some slumped-over Westerner.
It’s the kind of environment Caligula would feel right at home in.
I’m unsure why I try to navigate my way through this jungle of aggres-sive, bawling hostesses (“WEL-CUM!”) and intimidating gatherings of ladyboys, who can be stroking your arm with one hand while the other is slyly searching for your wallet. I guess I am still amazed, after over two years in this city, at such blatant depravity.
Yet all is not total despair. On occasion, I’ll pass a streetwalker standing or sitting by herself. Maybe we exchange a brief smile, or she gives me a shy hello. I continue on down the block when, suddenly, the urge hits. I turn around, go back, and give her one hundred baht ($3), saying the Thai word for “breakfast”. The woman is often confused at first, not being used to unconditional kindness. But I smile and maybe lightly touch her arm, trying to convey my sincerity. Usually the message gets across and I receive a look of genuine appreciation. Should the topic of my taking her home arise, I explain (in simple, moron-level Thai) that I’m just out for a walk.
The street jamboree continues until around five in the morning, when the first streaks of light appear behind the forest of high rises. The garbage workers, whom I have real sympathy for, begin sweeping up the refuse as the bar proprietors reluctantly fold up shop. Slowly, inexorably, the city puts on its day face with sleepy commuters and clogged traffic, becoming just another Southeast Asian Metropolis with no memories of the wild night.
The sight can be entertaining, enraging or downright depressing depend-ing upon one’s background and point of view: a lumbering, overweight Caucasian, sporting a Goodyear Blimp for a belly, walking down a Bang-kok street hand in hand with a small Thai woman. If an earthquake would suddenly hit, the guy could easily topple over and flatten her. They’d end up having to scrape her remains off the sidewalk.
What are we witnessing here? Is it a deep, lasting bond between two cul-tures? Or perhaps a wayward tourist needs directions. Sadly, it’s neither. What we are privy to is a glimpse of an occupation that has been around as long as Homo sapiens. No, not soccer, but (gasp) prostitution. Right in the heart of the capital city of Thailand. Who would have thought?
Actually, it turns out that a lot of people (or at least a lot of men) have contemplated this. Procuring a lady for the evening can be done in prac-tically every country of the world (with the possible exception of Iran). It’s largely a matter of knowing where to go and whom to ask — a task I never was up to during the course of my many journeys. The Thais are simply less coy about the whole process. It’s as if they are saying: “Let’s cut through the BS, big boy. We know you aren’t here for the food. The ladies are waiting, so quit dawdling and make your choice!” It’s almost as easy as going into a 7-Eleven convenience store, which can also be found on almost every street corner in my neighborhood. (Indeed, one wonders why the Thais have not discovered a way to combine the two services.)
I grew up in a small town in the midwest U.S. where, I think I can state with little fear of contradiction, a fellow did not stumble across available companions on the way to the grocery store. I also, for some unknown reason, happen to prefer Asian women, a condition indelicately referred to by a fellow blogger as “Yellow Fever”. Residing on the fringe of a bar-ridden red light district in Bangkok has therefore presented some over-whelming temptations. At times I’ve contemplated purchasing a pair of horse blinders to keep me focused on my tasks, but that would be defeat-ing one the reasons I chose this area to live in: taking in the sights. At least I’ve trained myself to stop drooling when I see a woman who strikes me as particularly alluring. And when I encounter a fellow Caucasian strolling down the Soi (street) with one of them, my first reaction is now one of curiosity as opposed to condemnation.
Interestingly enough, the longer I stay here, the more natural these every-day pay-for-sex affairs appear. My wholesome all-American upbringing, by contrast, strikes me more and more as being rather uptight and not as healthy as I once imagined. But that is one the reasons why we travel: to gain new perspectives.
The word is out! Thailand is becoming the destination for people visiting Southeast Asia. In response to this, the country is striving to present itself as a safe and friendly place. The effort appears to be paying dividends. Two years ago, I could take an evening stroll through my beloved red light neighborhood and the only Westerners I’d encounter would be my fellow horny, middled-aged compatriots. But now some misguided men are actually bringing their families to take in the sights (“Look junior! There’s a pros-ti-tute!). It’s a bit much for an old-timer like myself
On the other hand, I can understand the newfound interest, at least here in Bangkok. Name almost any kind of mainstream international cuisine and chances are there is a restaurant somewhere that features it. (And if you into Indian cooking, welcome to nirvana!) For sightseeing, there are tem-ples, museums, parks and open markets galore. Enough to keep a tourist busy for a month with the skytrain and subway systems making getting around an easy proposition. And for those with a hankering to see more of the country, the city’s central location is a convenient springboard.
But if one is going to spend some time here, it’s important to understand a little bit about the Thais themselves. An illustrative example would be the manner in which they endured World War II. In the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese overran much of Southeast Asia. The resulting occupation was harsh and brutal, engendering a bitterness that in some places lingers to this day. So what did the Thais do? Well, they more or less collaborated with their new rulers. Maybe that is too harsh a characterization. Let’s just say they put up with them. An Amer-ican acquaintance of mine, who speaks the language, says the Thais don’t give a sh*t about foreigners, an attitude I believe allowed the country to emerge comparatively unscathed from the war.
This means a visitor here will not be hassled. You won’t be gawked at, or have people pointing their fingers at the silly farang (Thai word for for-eigner). At least not in Bangkok. But this indifference should not prevent you from being friendly with the natives. The Thais are also a shy people, meaning it’s up to you to smile first, often to be rewarded with a genuine one in return. The country is in fact known the “Land of Smiles”. This doesn’t mean they are all Happy Harrys, but interactions with them (taxi drivers excepted) can be pleasant and worthwhile.
Today I received an SMS from one of my streetwalker acquaintances, Gai, informing me she is “yaritai”. This is an informal Japanese word meaning “want to do”. Want to do what, you may ask. Well let us just say she’s not coming over to my place to debate drone strikes in Pakistan.
I’ve known Gai for over a year, but had gone awhile without seeing her until we bumped into each other down on Sukhumvit Road a few months back. I was returning home after an evening of Eight Ball while she was just beginning her “day”. Upon seeing me, she gave me a big hug, telling the other ladies that I was jai dii — good hearted. (I appreciated the com-pliment.)
Like most Thai women in her profession, Gai’s life has been difficult. Her husband died a dozen years ago, driving while drunk, leaving her to raise their daughter. Thailand can be a hard country, especially for single mothers. Though wages have risen noticeably in recent years, most wo-men still only make ten thousand baht a month at best ($300). Not the kind of money that leads to a better future.
Both this year and last, I have paid part of the school tuition for Gai’s daughter. This was done on my own initiative. By Thai standards, I am unimaginably wealthy and there are occasions when helping one of them seems like a good idea. Admittedly, there’s no shortage of Bangkok bar girls and go-go dancers who are simply out to see how much money they can extract from a naive farang (white foreigner). But the solitary street-walkers who linger on Sukhumvit into the pre-dawn hours are in general far less predatory and manipulative (and, unfortunately, less attractive). In some cases they have been dealt a very bad hand.
Such as Gai. This year, her seventy-six-year-old mother has become very ill and is possibly dying. Though it sounds like there are numerous child-ren around to help out, the primary responsibility for her mom’s care has fallen on Gai, meaning she can no longer work the streets and thus has no money coming in. Again, I have provided assistance by paying for two hospital visits, the most recent involving a CAT scan. Nowadays, when-ever we talk on the phone, Gai has her mom say a few words of simple Thai to me, expressing her gratitude.
Guess I truly am jai dii.