I’ve never had much success in breaking up with Thai girlfriends. After I patiently explain that things are over between us, they never fully exit my life, continuing to send occasional emails or text messages. I suspect this behavior, which I find endlessly irritating, reflects the nature of Thailand, where everything from relationships to ATMs are in a state of flux. Few hard and fast rules beyond saving face. And who knows what tomorrow may bring in the shifting kaleidoscope of a Thai/Western relationship? No harm in trying to stay on the radar of an admittedly soft-hearted guy who might someday change his mind.
My old flame Sontaya was a prime example of Thai perseverance. After our first go-around foundered on the usual cultural misunderstandings (see My Final Thai Girlfriend), there was no vindictiveness on her part. No SMS texts with four letter expletives. When I told her I was done supporting her and suggested she resume working in a bar, that’s exactly what she did, with no further requests for money. Interestingly, she ended up at one of the drinking establishments near the entrance to Nana Plaza just down the street from my apartment. As I passed by on my way home in the evenings, I’d sometimes look for her and offer up a friendly wave. On a couple occasions I stopped in and we’d have a drink together while bringing each other up to date on our lives.
Two years passed. Having failed to make a Western-style relationship work with Sontaya, I contented myself with playing the field, avoiding new entanglements. Catching even a whiff of seriousness would see me retreat as if from a medieval plague. My ex in the meanwhile continued at the bar, waiting for the next boyfriend to magically appear. It turned into an education of sorts for her. When Sontaya had made her initial foray into the Bangkok bar scene, it only took a couple of months before she’d landed a Kiwi who ended up paying support for some three years. Shortly after that ended, yours truly showed up. Now she would learn that those early relationships were essentially a form of beginner’s luck — which had in my opinion spoiled her somewhat — and that decent guys were not an everyday experience.
What ended up getting us back together again was, ironically, an online dating site called Thai Friendly. I had ventured into this in search of a “respectable” Thai companion only to become quickly disillusioned. The first woman I contacted turned out not to be interested in any Westerner who had previously consorted with ladies in the entertainment industry — which eliminates some ninety percent of the expats in Bangkok. The second one would not agree to a simple luncheon date unless I foreswore making any sexual advances, as if the romantic ambiance of the Golden Arches was going to drive me into a frenzy. For whatever issues I’d had with Sontaya, she’d never made me feel like a leper, which is why one evening shortly afterwards I moseyed down to her Nana Plaza bar and brought her back home, we still being on good terms. This time, I vowed, I would not make the same mistakes as before. No more eager-to-please Mr Nice Guy, for one thing (a persona Thai women don’t have much respect for). I would be calmer, more confident and build a relationship (v2.0) that was pragmatic and straightforward.
Our first go-around had lasted almost three months. This time we nearly made it to two.
My First Day of Online Dating
The first official act of my reunion with Sontaya was to proclaim that I would be her “special friend” instead of boyfriend. What this meant was I wouldn’t be supporting her this time around. Before, when I was shelling out eighteen thousand baht a month (@$600) to have a girlfriend at my beck and call, I frankly did not feel I’d gotten my money’s worth and did not want to head down that path again.
In most other respects we picked up where we had left off, with evening swims, DVD movies and wine and cheese, all at my apartment. For Valentine’s Day, we got dressed up and Sontaya took me to the Moon Bar atop the Banyan Tree Hotel. It was a place she had been to with one of her customers and it took my breath away. She’d always been very good at showing me around the city, introducing me to new experiences. It was a trait I both valued and admired.
The magic, however, never really returned. For one thing, the two years of working in a bar had given Sontaya the classic pudgy bargirl figure. It was like she had this large sign advertising her profession and made me a bit embarrassed to be seen with her in public. I also was reluctant to share as much of myself as I did before — such as my tastes in music — having discovered the hard way that the chances of making a connection were slim. Different cultures, different worlds.
Perhaps our second incarnation was not meant to be. But it was strange that it ended up rupturing because of an eight o’clock movie on cable. I had figured that getting back with Sontaya would allow me to have her over on relatively short notice, her bar being less than a ten minute walk away. Doing something simple like watching a movie at my place should not pose a problem…right?
Wrong. After I’d sent the message about the show and when it started, there were troubles with Sontaya locating the bar’s mama-san to get per-mission to depart for the night. I waited, unperturbed. A cardinal rule for living in Thailand is to never expect things to work smoothly and it was only a quarter after seven. Plenty of time.
I didn’t bother to call again as the big hand passed the half hour mark and started climbing towards the hour. If Sontaya was being held up for some reason, there was nothing I could do about it. What I did not know was that an old drinking buddy (customer?) had unexpectedly stopped by the bar and as I patiently sat and watched the clock, my movie date was busy downing a quartet of Rum & Cokes.
It was an interesting scene when my one and only finally got to my place sometime after eight-thirty, fairly soused. First she parked the bouquet of roses she’d brought as an apology on top of the DVD player. Then, after careful aiming, she plopped herself down on the sofa and explained the reason for her tardiness. Deciding not to make an issue out of it (at least for the time being), I mentioned there was a second movie that had just started on the other cable channel that might be worth a look. But after I had turned it on and my date gamely sat up to try and watch, I decided it was best to just put her to bed and forget the whole damn thing.
I threw the roses out the next day.
When Sontaya kept me waiting that fateful night in order to do some heavy drinking with her friend, that was essentially the end of our second attempt to be together. It was simply too big of a red flag to ignore. She’d always had a fondness for alcohol, but back when I was getting to know her and we were having such good times together, this was not a concern. Quite the contrary. It was only now when, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I found the magic turning against me that I began to fully comprehend the trouble. Going overboard on the booze is practically part of a bar girl’s job description as she tries to entice the patrons to buy drink after drink for themselves and for her. Being in this environment for over two years had introduced my “special friend” to some bad habits. Not being a Substance Abuse Counselor, I did not want to try dealing with them.
The only question was when to break things off. Because Sontaya was leaving the next morning to spend a week with her family — some much-needed time off from the bar which my money was making possible — I decided to wait until she’d returned. For the rest of the night I simply did my best to make her comfortable, listening as she shared her troubles and hopes. (It was during this I heard for the first time her desire to someday own a car.)
Once Sontaya was back from her vacation, I sadly bid her adieu. While honesty can sometimes backfire with Thai women, I nevertheless decided to confess I wasn’t comfortable being around her anymore because of the drinking. To try and soften the blow somewhat — few people like being labelled a drunk — I transferred ten thousand baht (@$300) into her bank account as goodbye money.
Sontaya’s graceful reply:
Good after noon M. Thank you for reply my email and Thank you for help me and my son .that is ok if you not feel like to meet me right now.but one day if you are need a friend or want to see me.i am want to let you know. I am will be your friend forever. ..you can call me any time.
And about alcohol I do try my self to not drink to much because that not good for my health. .I can do it ..
Well you tack care of your self.
Now I am know you are ok just don’t want to see me.i will not send you sms for Harry (bother) you…I am always be your friend….
You have a nice day.
God will be with you.
Four months after I’d broken things off a second time with her, Sontaya’s birthday rolled around. Though there was no desire on my part to hook up again, I nevertheless wondered if she might be able to use some extra money for the occasion, so I emailed her about it.
My timing could not have been better. It turned out my ex-girlfriend was going through an incredible streak of bad luck. First there’d been a storm at her sister’s house which had severely damaged the roof and would take thirty-six thousand baht (@$1,200) to fix. Around the same time, the bar she was working at was experiencing financial troubles that forced it to close down for a few weeks. And just when it seemed things could not get any worse, the woman then got hit with some kind of debilitating flu. When I took the Skytrain down to her station to meet over coffee and see what I could do, Sontaya arrived looking like a refugee from a POW camp, her haggard appearance accompanied with fits of coughing. All her jewelry had been put in temporary hock to help pay for the new roof and her bank account was down to its last two hundred baht ($6).
There was a lineup of ATMs next to the coffee shop and once everything had been explained to me, I took Sontaya to the one for my bank. There I transferred forty thousand baht, which would repair the roof and leave her with some money for food and medicine. (Looking back, I wished I’d given more.) She then went to her bank’s ATM and confirmed that my gift was now in her account.
From the moment in the coffee shop when I had offered to help, Sontaya had been fighting back tears. I had never seen her cry before. Sometimes it’s difficult to fully understand what people are forced to deal with. As we said goodbye at the station, still a bit bleary-eyed, she asked for a kiss but I substituted a hug, not wanting to risk catching whatever she had. Later I received an email saying she would never forget what I had done for her and her family.
My feelings regarding all this were more mundane. Here was someone who needed help, and I was in a position to provide it. Just doing my job, really. And although I did not know it at the time, this was also a prelude to what would become my most ambitious charity project ever.
True to her nature, Sontaya continued to stay in touch long after I had gallantly come to the rescue when her life was falling apart. For over a year she sent friendly emails on occasion, asking how I was doing. Never begging for money or even suggesting a coffee date. Though I developed a grudging respect for her persistency, I didn’t bother to reply.
Last October, however, after returning to Bangkok from my annual U.S. vacation, I found myself wondering how she was getting along. My relationship with the freelancer I’d met at Beer Garden had foundered when I discovered she wasn’t as reliable as I’d hoped, once again leaving Sontaya as one of the few halfway decent alternatives. The woman was managing to withstand the test of time.
So I emailed my ex, asking how things were going. To my surprise, even shock, I discovered she had left the bar earlier in the year and was now selling clothes at an outdoor market. Intrigued, I had her over that very evening to hear more about this new direction.
For many people, there comes a time in their life when they start to take things more seriously. (I’ve never had to make this transition, being morbidly serious since early childhood.) In Sontaya’s case, entering her mid-thirties caused a major reassessment. Working in a Nana Plaza bar started to look like a dead-end job. The men she was managing to meet had no interest in a long term relationship. Nor, when she looked, was the mirror offering much encouragement. The time had come to get out.
This left the question of how to continue paying the bills and supporting her son. Working in a market stall, unlike the bar, did not provide nearly enough income. To make up the difference, Sontaya decided to take time off from selling clothes and earn extra money by going with a few of her old customers. One of them took her over to Cambodia for three weeks, another to Vietnam. In some ways it was an interesting life, though still a sad one.
As I listened to all this, I began to wonder if maybe here was a person who could make good use of some serious financial help. She’d already taken the initiative to improve her life — a trait hitherto unknown in Bangkok bar girls. Perhaps she’d be worth opening the spigot for.
As our evening drew to a close, I walked Sontaya out to an ATM and put some money into her account to tide things over for a few weeks. Also a couple thousand baht ($60) for a guitar her son had his eye on. Just my usual generosity. The next day, I sat down and did a quick check of my investment portfolio (to confirm the farm money was still there), then began serious calculations on how much aid I could afford to bestow upon the no-longer-so-young Thai lady.
Before I begin itemizing my two months of unbridled generosity, it is important to note that during this period Sontaya and I never really got back together. After she’d come over that first evening in early October, we only saw each other twice again before I’d decided I’d done enough for her. (A nagging health issue kept me from getting out more often.) However, we were able to stay in touch using FaceTime after I spent a couple hours on the phone with her one night to help set up an Apple ID — another convert to the world of Steve Jobs.
The only hard and fast rule for this new project of mine was that there would be no penny pinching. If I saw a way to help, or Sontaya asked for something that sounded like a legitimate need, I’d ante up the money with no further questions. It would be an experiment of sorts to see if it was possible, given nearly unlimited coffers, to truly assist someone in improving their situation.
There were four areas I ended up making contributions to:
1. Sontaya’s personal budget. Instead of feeding her a fixed amount every month and then having to make up the difference for surprise expenses, I simply gave her an even one hundred thousand baht (call it $3,000) with instructions to make it last into the new year. No problem.
2. Sontaya’s son (Natee). Her idea was to someday purchase a car, then if something happened to her, Natee could sell it and use the proceeds to help support himself for awhile. This was a wacky idea, though perhaps not by Thailand standards where a car is seen as a luxury by most. In any event, I had Sontaya open a savings account for her son and transferred one hundred thousand baht ($3,000) into it. (Afterwards Sontaya offered to show me the bank book periodically so I’d know she wasn’t dipping into the funds. I didn’t care — it would only be stealing from her own flesh and blood.)
3. The home place. The roof on Sontaya’s mother’s house had seen better days and needed replacing. After being showed a couple pictures of it, I decided a new one was a fine idea: fifty thousand baht ($1,500).
4. Older sister. When Sontaya went back to her home village for a visit in early December, she discovered that her sister (who is raising Natee) was ill and needed to be taken to the hospital. Ended up spending over a week there. I didn’t get the specifics of her ailments, but knew she had been suffering from poor health. (This led to a new experience for me: saying hello to a bedridden patient on FaceTime.)
The total cost for the stay was over thirty thousand baht ($900). It turns out there is a special assistance program for Thai families facing large medical bills, which Sontaya was looking into. I told her there was no need for that and instead gave her forty thousand baht (almost $1,200), the extra money to pay for medicine and any more visits to the doctor.
Part 2: Unfortunately, the sister had to return to the hospital only a couple weeks later. By this time I was winding things down with Sontaya, so I was out of the loop. However, I did chip in twenty-five thousand more baht (@$700). Felt like the right thing to do.
In case anyone is curious, my total expenditures for this noble idea came to nine thousand four hundred dollars, give or take a hundred. Besides the benefits for her mother, sister and son, Sontaya was able to move out of the ratty apartment building she’d been living in for a number of years into a modern, comfortable abode in the same area of Bangkok (her old neighborhood, I guess you’d call it). Though I never actually visited her new digs — and she did let me know I was welcome — from what I saw via FaceTime it all looks very nice. A sure sign of progress!
What brought my grandiose assistance program to an end was Sontaya’s wish for a car. In her view, this was the next step towards a “better life”. To me it was a foolish desire I was not going to subsidize. It is one thing to assist a woman in real need, quite another to boost her status amongst family and friends — one of my ex’s motivations, I’m afraid. No way my money was going to be part of that. (And who in their right mind would want to sit in the stifling heat of a Bangkok traffic jam anyway?)
This trouble was not completely unexpected. I had known from talking with Sontaya the year before how much she wanted an automobile. But maybe my recent tsunami of financial help had caused that yearning to recede. Wishful thinking. Beginning in mid-October, she spent a good six weeks trying to obtain a driver’s license (not sure if she ultimately passed the test), then gave me the “better life” response when I inquired about her wanting a car. This aspiration was never going to go away; should I become involved with the woman again, paying for four wheels would be part of the package. No thanks! I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do. Now it was time to begin disengaging as amiably as possible.
What I ended up doing was awarding Sontaya the relationship equivalent of a golden parachute: two hundred thousand baht ($6,000) to allow her to stay in her upscale apartment at least another year — far longer if she works — and hopefully cover any additional medical expenses for her older sister. I also wanted her to use the time to find a foreign boyfriend to purchase that magical car, me being unwilling — and more than a little peeved that all the assistance I’d provided appeared to have been judged inadequate.
The parachute was only partially successful. Sontaya accepted the money and said all the proper things, but was not able to fully let go. Over the next three months, I received perhaps a dozen emails thanking me, asking how I was, telling me about her new job selling smart phones, admitting she was lonely in her new place, and even confessing her love for me on Valentine’s Day. All part of a concerted effort to stay in touch in the hope I might one day reply. I have resisted that temptation so far, being uneasy and skeptical about our future. We have become trapped in an unhealthy pattern: she stays in touch; I get interested again; we get back together; she disappoints me; I reluctantly say goodbye. When I suggested she find a steady boyfriend, I meant it — we are not able to stay in step.
But compatibility is a peripheral concern here. What is important is that even without an automobile, Sontaya has an opportunity for an improved life. No longer does she need to go with former customers for weeks on end — or visit the local pawnbroker — to come up with extra money to take care of her family. She can instead work a “normal” job and come home to a place that doesn’t feature junk in the stairwells or noisy, five-to-a-room immigrant workers in an adjacent apartment.
It’s a new path she is starting down. I hope it leads to a measure of hap-piness. I hope she learns to dream again.