Last Friday my wife Betty and I enjoyed lunch with the Idaho Writer’s Guild while we listened to guest speaker and author, David Schmahmann, read from his book, The Double Life of Alfred Buber, (The Permanent Press, 2011).
I have not yet read the book, but from what I learned at the luncheon, it’s about a married and successful American lawyer who has an illicit relationship with a Bangkok, Thailand bar-girl.
As Mr. Schmahmann read from his book, my mind drifted into my own memories of Bangkok. In the early fall of 1967, I left Khe Sanh, Vietnam and flew to Danang and from there journeyed on to Bangkok for R & R.
We flew into Bangkok via Continental Air and after debarking were whisked to a room in the city loaded with service personnel from Vietnam: Navy, Army, Air force, Marines. An E-8 United States Army Top Sergeant marched into the room and delivered the skinny on hookers. Yes, I said it, hookers. It was strictly business. “Don’t deal with hookers who refuse to provide a look-see at the health card that proves they are in the government hooker provision program (or something official-sounding like that).” A program financed, I assumed, by the good old American taxpayer. At first it didn’t seem fair that the United States government should participate in disintegrating the social fabric of an alien society, and on top of that, a society that was assisting us in our fight to defeat Communism. But then I thought about it as the top sergeant talked the dos and don’ts of visiting another country, another culture, the need to respect conventions and customs. But it was hard to pay attention to instructions on how to shake hands or look someone in the eye when your main intent was to carnally know their daughters.
But his Top-Sergeant barks kept me listening. It makes sense, I thought, because us young dudes are coming here with a single thought in the back of the brain: It may be my last chance to get laid. Yes, I said that too, Get Laid. To party, to smooch, to dance, yes and we will look at some pagodas and the beach and buy some cameras and some sapphire rings, but really the trip here is to…get laid. And since we are going to be testosteroned, drunk, dreamily dazzled by the beautiful Thai women (and they are beautiful) in their miniskirts and low cut blouses, then why not get a handle on it, keep the VD and the STD and the pregnancies, the pimp-generated violence, to a manageable level. Made sense to me, in the often-twisted, practical way the military approaches attempts at proactivity.
At the club where we hooked up with the women, I wondered about how the Thai people saw this…this…what, this invasion? Cultural exchange? Did they like the fact that we were there, breeding with their twenty-year-old and younger women? Or was the cash we carried more important than the ramifications of what we left behind: half-caste children, a Thai-American patois punctuated with every vulgar, four letter word you can imagine, flavored with slang from Minnesota, NYC, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Wyoming, California? And who knows what else.
The girls acted like they loved us and told us so, as long as we coughed up the daily rate, which was cheap, five bucks a day for a rent-a-wife, a rent-a-wife and a whole lot more. As long as you fed them and bought them jewelry and clothes, they loved you, nuzzled you and did most anything you asked. We could have left it at that, sex, but I was interested in other things, too…the golden pagodas, the happy people, the strange culture. We went with the hookers to where they lived. Back behind the western-world façade of buildings that lined the thoroughfares, to entire communities on stilts, with bamboo walkways, teeming with people, shops with dried fish and crackly dried squid, rice, dried spices; families with 10 or 12 people dwelling in little rickety 800-square-foot domiciles perched on legs that made them look like giant water insects. Other than a toilet that drained below into the swamp, there was a kitchen, sleeping space and of course a place for the TV. We went in and met the people who lived there, their stoic faces appraising us as what, monsters? Saviors? I could not tell and have for years wondered about what seemed to me a backward world that demanded that young daughter shook Yank servicemen to keep families fed, clothed and sheltered. How did those people feel as we came in and threw our money around, insulted (even if it was unintentional) their customs, violated their daughters? I wonder now what kind of long-term ramifications that created. And I also wonder, given similar circumstances, if we could do any better than allow our children to prostitute themselves. But then a lot of Americans think we already do that, allow our children to prostitute themselves for a few bucks and a mortgage.
Don’t get me wrong, I whooped it up with the best of them in Thailand, and on my second R & R in Kuala Lumpur, too; but I wondered then, and I still wonder what kind of effect my ephemeral passing had there. Did it dry up like spent sperm or did it dig itself in and create something more, something better, or something worse?
My liberal friends often decry our involvement in the affairs of the countries we try to help with our military intervention, occupation, industrialization, globalization. They say we aren’t helping at all, altering the culture, leaving unwanted children, our customs, our violent ways, forcing our religious beliefs on the locals, our system of government, our military extravaganzas. Not to mention raping their natural resources and misusing their cheap labor pool. But I don’t think it is that simple.
And my conservative friends would say that we are doing all these places a favor, showing up, helping them conquer illiteracy, disease, converting them to the true religion, showing them the benefits of democracy and capitalism, helping overcome their internecine civil wars and revolutions, or in some cases, like Libya, helping foment revolution . But, again, I don’t think it’s that simple.
I don’t think our excursions into the affairs of our neighbors near and far are necessarily bad. Nor do I think they are all for the good. What I do believe is that when we show up to do good or maybe not do so much good, we bring the whole potato with us…our customs, our business, our culture, our music and TV, our movies, our religion. You can’t get the missionary or the military man to come help you without the business man following. If you want our help, we are going to sell you something, we are going to buy whatever you have that we want, and we are going to try and buy it cheap, and we are going to sell you something else in return, and we are going to try and sell it high. And when we bring the well rigs to help you drill for water, we will bring the Constitution and the Bible and the Book of Mormon, too. We will bring Britney Spears along with Abraham Lincoln. And yes, we will spend our tax dollars to help you fight AIDS, or poverty or a rancorous enemy. Hell, we might even arrange to have a particularly sorry leader assassinated. But whatever you get from us will be more than you bargained for.
And I have often wondered what I personally left behind there in Thailand. I left a considerable amount of cash, relatively speaking, and my innate curiosity led me to try and understand people, and not exploit them, but even though I didn’t want to exploit them, I believe I probably did. Not intentionally, but does that matter? In the long run? I wonder if I left children. For all I know, there may be Ken (or Kenneeneth) Rodgerses running around in Thailand and Malaysia, caught between the bone crunching drive of the old Buddhist culture of Siam versus the fast dance attack of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Otis Redding, B. J. Thomas.
And if I did, what are those children now, or did they come here, refugees from the world I, at the time, helped defend, the surviving world I helped create? Maybe they are trapped between two cultures that don’t really want them and what they represent: our attempts to help, and sell, and buy and proselytize…to help.