I spent some time living in Bangkok, arriving at the tail-end of a ‘red shirt’ revolution that predictably solved no problems and pockmarked the urban landscape with bullet holes.
After Buenos Aires and Christchurch, I was excited to start building a new life in a new city; a place that was still mysterious, still a vague quantity. A place I had heard so much about, but of which I had very little direct knowledge.
Friends told me that the lifestyle in Thailand was wonderful. That the food was delicious, and that the beaches were second-to-none. In short, it was paradise. Many of them never planned to leave.
I learned within the first few weeks why most of the people who fell in love with Thailand fell so hard: because they were white guys.
That statement warrants clarification, because in many places around the world, being a white guy isn’t anything special. It’s generic. Vanilla.
In Thailand, however, a white guy is a meal ticket. A white guy is a way out of poverty. A white guy is a visa to a first world country. A white guy is a tourist who will buy things — potentially many things — and will possibly pay for your time, too.
I rented a room in a hotel a little off the beaten path, near the Victory Monument train stop, but down a side street. I liked it because it was small, simple, away from the hustle and bustle of the nearby highway onramp, and had an air conditioner (vital, since I arrived during monsoon season, the most shirt-drenching time of year).
The place was great, and my neighbors seems friendly enough, if uniformly old, portly, and white. It wasn’t until I was invited out for drinks with them that I realized why they were all in town. They all had ‘girlfriends’ in Bangkok.
Here’s how these types of relationships seemed to work in Thailand:
A guy comes into the city, maybe on a business trip, maybe on vacation, maybe for a bachelor party with some friends. He’s older, or maybe just unsuccessful with women, or maybe does okay with them, but is recovering from a big breakup. The girls in Bangkok show him an amazing time, and though he’s smart enough to see that it’s all for show (and profit), one of the girls stands out. One of them likes him, for him.
They start dating, which usually involves him taking her to places she can’t afford to eat otherwise. Maybe he takes her shopping; shopping dates are big in Thailand, just like the malls. Eventually, they hook up, and the man tells himself she wasn’t the type to put out just for anyone: he was special. He had standards.
One such fellow — a roundish, balding, middle-aged Englishman — regaled me with the tale of how he met his 19-year-old ‘girlfriend,’ and bragged about how he’d hooked himself one of the good ones — a ‘good girl’ in Thai-girl-speaking-to-older-white-guy parlance — but that he’d still gotten her legs over her head on the second date (yes, he used those words).
What these men didn’t see was what happened after they left, when they went back home to their families, their work, whatever they had back in the ‘real world.’
The girls would hop on their laptops (given to them by a ‘boyfriend’) down in the lobby of my apartment building (where there was free WiFi), and one-by-one Skype call their ‘boyfriends’ from around the world, each guy under the impression they were the only one. The girls had scripts they would pass around to each other — or sometimes getting them from their mothers — which they would read off after the right amount of time had passed.
“My scooter broke down,” one such girl told one of her men, with a sad look on her face. He offered to PayPal her money, posthaste.
“My mother is sick,” she said to another, same sad face, same result.
“I am so lonely without you, so I think I want kitten. You know I not hang out with other boys, because you not want me to hang out with other boys, so I am thinking I want a kitten to keep me company.” Okay, no problem, I’ll PayPal you some money so you can get set up with a kitten.
The strangest thing about the entire situation was that I couldn’t figure out who was duping who.
The men were clearly in it because they wanted to feel young and vital — to feel like some cute girl wanted him sexually, affectionately, and so one.
The girls were in it because by entering such relationships, they could become somewhat upwardly mobile; an opportunity that wasn’t available to most of them through other methods (not easily, at least).
In the end, I couldn’t help but see relationships between Thai girls and foreign guys as anything but a very obvious transaction; something much like tourism, where both parties know they’re kind of taking advantage of the other in some small way, both failing to mention that fact because doing so would kill the benefits both were enjoying.
I know this isn’t a universal thing. I know that it’s a subset of the culture that operates this way, and that not all men love the country for the same reasons, and some of the relationships created through these types of set ups probably do turn into something more than a mutually beneficial exchange.
All the same, by the time I left Bangkok, I hadn’t dated a single local. I couldn’t. I couldn’t understand how someone could meet someone else under those circumstances and take the relationship that ensued seriously.
The only dating I did while in the area was with a Japanese girl who was a designer for a local magazine; a perfect example of a person seeking out familiar connection points when all other possible links seem vaguely disagreeable.
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