Cambodia Mea Culpa

You ever write something you wish you could take back? Or at least edit? A poorly-worded email, or text message that went out before you meant to hit send? The previous entry is solidly in that category.

After some feedback from friends whose opinion I value, I think I missed the mark on “Crossing to Cambodia,” at least on my attempts at tying together Thai-farang relations, and lines and zones of transaction at the border. In the process, I strained to paint with an overly broad brush and may have offended friends who are in a deeply loving cross-cultural relationships that bear no resemblance to what I was trying to get across. While no one has contacted me about this, I’d like to preemptively say to those friends, I’m sorry. You were not the people I had in mind when I was writing that entry.

In hindsight, I probably should have limited “Crossing to Cambodia” to an account of the weirdness of the border and the visa run, rather than trying to draw larger meaning from what is a subject that is complicated and fluid. (And one in which I have pretty limited experience, really.) It’s not that I got it wrong, necessarily. More likely, I just didn’t get it at all.

What I was trying to get across was that relationships between Thai women and older foreign men—such as those between T. and her older boyfriend—are, unfortunately, often viewed through a prism already colored by lurid tales of exploitation, etc. That’s not say there aren’t fat old sex tourists who come to Thailand to meet beautiful women. And yes, there are Thai women who, in turn, take advantage of these men’s loneliness and predilections. Despite the disapproval of many of relationships like this, they can be perfectly rational economic choices on the part of the women, given the hard village life that may be the alternative.

“The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters” by Richard Bernstein has a lot to say about this, examining as it does the various encounters between Western men and “Eastern” women (which he very broadly defines as being from countries stretching from Morocco to Malacca.) He recounts how once in Manila he saw a gout-ridden former American government employee being helped from his car by a pretty young woman, easily 40 years younger than he. Bernstein said he felt revulsion toward the old man, wondering why he didn’t grow old with some dignity instead of “being an old lecher who clearly had bought the companionship of his FIlipino girlfriend, setting himself up like a sort of Mr. Kurtz in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness,’ subjecting his attendant to what must surely have been disagreeable intimate relations.”

And yet, Bernstein also notes that things probably aren’t so simple:

… The man bore no responsibility for the poverty that induced his companion to be his companion. Presumably she entered into her relationship with him because it was to her advantage. … Very likely she yearned for a situation that would, as Killy [an older Austrian man living in Ban Cao in Issan with his younger Thai wife] put it in his Thai village, take her out of the shit. It is certainly probable that the the money she earned from being his courtesan went to help her family, because it is the case in Asia that many, perhaps most of the women in the sex trade are attached to their families; they are not social vagabonds cut loose from all ties, and they can make a lot more money money, for themselves and their relatives, serving the need from companionship and sex of Western men than they can working as maids or on assembly lines.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying T., our very nice guide, is on the game. What I’m saying is from what she told me about her boyfriend, who is older and enjoys her company only when he comes to Thailand, it certainly sounds like an implicitly transactional relationship.

So given the realities Bernstein points out, there are no clear victims and villains in situations like this. As he says, “To those who would judge the American retiree or his Filipino mistress to be immoral or contemptible, it’s fair to ask, what would you do if you were in the same situation?”

So I erred in two ways: 1) In painting so much of the cross-cultural interactions that happen in Thailand too broadly. And 2) by trying to draw a larger meaning from what was essentially an unrelated phenomenon. Of course, not every guy dating a Thai woman is a Kurtz-like lecher. And of course not every Thai woman dating a Western bloke is in it for the money. And a visa transaction or a free-trade zone that spills over a border area may be no more than what meets the eye. Sometimes, when you buy a cigar, you’re just buying a cigar.

Blogging can be like a jazz solo. You’re out there, improvising, hoping to dazzle the audience with skill and soul, and sometimes you miss the notes and you fall flat. I did that in the last entry. But as in jazz, you can always take another crack at it, and I will do better in the future.

Image courtesy of Chris Allbritton

5 Comments on “Cambodia Mea Culpa

  1. Dear writer,

    I started reading your blog from  “Crossing to Cambodia” , it deeply depressed me to think that Thai women might probably be trade-off every where you have been…of course not.

    However, thank you very much to make it clear on “Cambodia mea culpa” I’ve realised you value not only your experience, but also feedback from readers. 

    Let’s bring to my notice.
    1. “self-made” ladies might work during weekdays.
    2. have you been in local places where are not just tourists’ places? 

    Those would be good idea to find out another bright side in amazing Thailand.

    PS. Is there any problem on you blog? I couldn’t put any comment on blog when using ie. from my laptop, i found difficulties to write via safari with smartphone.