Sunday, August 9, 2009

Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman

Unedited ramble ahead

I got a mysterious text message from my Thai friend Tay on Saturday afternoon:

"i have beautiful ladyboy friend and we'll go CM tonight to party my friend she open salon shop she live near spicy and ladyboy she want to have farangBF and i dont know how to get for her, Can we meet tonight?"

Translation: she wanted me to help her ladyboy friend get a white boyfriend and a bar called Spicy, which is known in Chiang Mai as the dirty hole-in-the-wall where foreign men and young hookers can meet (okay, and there are non-hookers, and there are lots of backpackers, too).

Anyway, I was excited at the prospect of being a wingman for a ladyboy so I said that of course I would help.

In the evening I got another message:

"What time can we meet? I have some problem because spicy say no ladyboy u know and my friend cant go inside if have no BF can u bring her go inside please."

And again I consented because I thought myself noble and because I was approaching the situation (as I am wont to do) with an air of irony and American superiority (I swear, whenever I am get upset with a Thai person my thoughts sounds like Kushner's Roy Cohn talking about goyim. But that's another rant/therapy session).

Well, I got good and soused in my preparation to pretend that a ladyboy was my boyfriend so that he could go into a bar that did not allow ladyboys so that he could trick a White Western man into being his boyfriend (or maybe it was not a trick, I don't know...though presumably a Farang would feel safe from the embarrassment of hooking up with a ladyboy at a bar that segregates).

I met with them around 1 AM outside of spicy, up the road so that the bouncers would not be able to see us. There were three of them--one my pint-sized friend Tay, second her quart-sized salon shop owner (a female), and third, the whole gallon herself, the ladyboy, whose name I believe was Cream, wearing a light blue miniskirt and a white spaghetti strap top that showed off her shaved-yet-bulky arms. They were all quite sober, and I was quite wobbly, but I remember they thanked me a lot for offering my help, and Christ, they made me feel like I was refereeing at the Special Olympics or something, when really I wasn't doing anything that deserved any gratitude at all.

When the gratuitous gratuity was over, I smiled at Cream and, as though I was Fred Astaire in Top Hat, I offered her an escort's arm, stiff at the elbow, chest held out like they taught me in Cotillion back in middle school; and I thought, Surely this was not the intent of those genteel Southern gentlemen classes, for me to use my escort technique a decade later in order to pass off a ladyboy as my girlfriend in Northern Thailand so that she could dupe a kinky or drunk European into surprise coitus. Probably not what my parents had in mind, either, and not what I had in mind, even in what I consider a childhood of boundless imagination. But anyway, Cream took my arm, her man-hand in the sweaty crook of my bent elbow; and I thought briefly to that coming-out party (an entirely different coming-out party, har har har) back at the end of middle school, when I escorted a squat pudgy unfortunately freckled redhead named Caroline, in her black satin dress and white gloves, down the stairs and aisles in a country club ballroom, where all of the parents and relatives clapped and snapped photographs of the debs and their assigned dates. Cream was not Caroline, and Caroline was not cream, and they had very little in common, very little at all, besides, perhaps, their total lack of sexual appeal.

Cream took my arm and wobbled on her high heels and Tay, from fifteen feet behind, shouted up to me, "Does she look like lady?" And I looked at Cream in her heavily-painted face, thick mascara, lipstick, rouge, gobs of powder on the bulbous nose, and Cream smiled at me so sweetly, so pathetically, as though my answer would be the judgment on the rest of her life--and then I realized that indeed it was the rest of her life, that I was passing judgment on whether or not the only thing she wanted in this her life, her only desire in the world, to be a woman and to be accepted as a woman by a man and by man in general, and I felt my heart tug at my throat and I nodded and said Yes, yes she looks like a woman, and Cream became very shy and she stared down at her toes and said Kharp khun kaaa (this is how you say Thank you, if you are a woman).

As we approached the busy entrance of Spicy, my chest was puffed out not from etiquette but out of self-righteousness and out of the conviction that what I was doing for Cream that night (and for the equality of the human race at large, I drunkenly mused) was exactly what she, and they, and everyone, deserved.

But as we walked up to the door--which has two signs hanging, one with its days and hours of operation and another beneath that says simply "NO LADYBOY"--I could hear the rumblings of trouble behind us. And as though in some Disney movie, suddenly a Spicy Bar worker stepped in front of us, right as we were to push open the entrance.

"No ladyboys," she said, and then she pointed to my escort, my dashing girlfriend, my Deary Creamer.

There was then some polite pleading from Cream's friends (not Cream, who crumbled next to me, her arm going limp, her head hanging automatically) and some of the bar workers, to let them all in; but we were told that we could not go in, not with him. No ladyboys, even with farangBF. We retreated to the street and the girls began to plot their next move--without any indignation, protest humiliation, anger at the establishment, rants about the hypocrisy of equality, diatribes against Thai society, about the Bradley effect, inside-outside politics, plans for Spicy sit-ins or sleep-ins, grass roots organization or mobilization. Only the suggestion that Fabrique allows ladyboys, and that they are open late, too, but without as many Farang.

I do not want to overstate the importance of last night, especially soon after the fact; but I feel shaken and upset by an issue that before I did not even know existed. "And we are a slow to anger people!" I can hear the nameless Invisible Man shout ironically out to a crowd during his first impromptu speech on the streets of Harlem. Again, I hate to do something as radical as compare what occurred to me at a bar in Thailand to a segment of the population that is probably not a hundredth that of the American black population and to a segment of the Thai population that has not suffered like the American black population has suffered; but certainly, the shadows and specters of racism in America whispered something in my ear last night. I am not saying that I will turn into a Community Organizer for the Ladyboys of Thailnd (though I would have quite the cool acronym, if I should decide to be one); but only that what I experienced last night was not an isolated, individual sadness, but a disappointment with a nation and with a culture.

Many words in the Thai language are compound constructs, built of two separate words that ingeniously come together to mean something semantically but which can also embody an emotion, with beauty and humor, and perhaps some poetry, too.

"Pit wahng," the Thai word for "disappointed," is one of these words. It is a word that I learned in a Thai lessons just hours before this incident, as it happened--or as it was supposed to happen, if you believe in fate.

"Pit wahng" - disappointed.

"Pit" (adj. or adv.) - Wrong, incorrect

"Wahng" (v.) - to wish, to hope

Pit wahng - to have hoped incorrectly, to find oneself to have wished for the wrong thing.

To be disappointed.

Can I be anything but Pit Wahng with Thai society right now? I had valued it as a bastion of tolerance, if not of equality, before my arrival, from all I had read and been told of it, and I have previously praised it, even as a majoritarian heterosexual white male (okay, white Jewish male, but still--I had praised its tolerance); and yet it appears that I had hoped wrong, and I feel, looking back on myself, proud of Thailand's tolerance, like some phony old politician on his monthly photo-op junket into the slums or ghettos, shaking hands with the locals, appearing to listen to their concerns, claiming to be a man of the people.

It's hard to pin down. All Cream wants to do is feel like a natural woman, and yet she cannot, in perhaps the one country in the world where she has a chance to overcome biological inevitability and hatred in order to do so, she cannot even feel natural.

And am I only supposed to nod eagerly and ignore the frowns I see more and more in this country, the government-proclaimed "Land of Smiles"?

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