Here is the second half of my parents story. Their story is an extension of my story and is part of the history I share with Thailand…
Depending on how old I was I have heard slightly different versions of how my parents met. I’m not sure what triggered my desire, maybe nothing more than wanting to learn more about the father I hardly knew. Chasing after my family history has been, so far a never ending pursuit of asking the same question over and over again. I think Father Time strips away another veil as does my mother’s moods.
She lied the first time I asked, changing the story to one of appropriate innocence. I grew up believing that my parents met in a restaurant. And I told all my friends this. She was a waitress and he was customer asking about her. Eventually I learned the truth. I think.
My mother solved the big problem of money by slowly selling off their household goods like her sewing machine. Whenever Charem asked, “Where’s your sewing machine?” She would reply, “Malee’s borrowing it.” It was a miracle that her former husband didn’t notice that everything in their apartment was disappearing.
Soon she had saved enough money and was ready to leave. Malee had written a letter to her sister to let her know that her good friend would be arriving. But before my mother left her apartment in Bangkok she knew she had to do one more thing to satisfy her anger, humiliation and sadness.
Her eyes fell on Charem’s folded pile of pants. And seized by the texture of the idea she searched through her bag for a pair of scissors. Then she grabbed a pair of pants and cut a hole where the crotch had been. Then another pair, and another, snip, snip, snip, and then she left. Laughing.
Earning a living was a struggle for my mother as it was for most Thai’s but for some it became a little easier as American soldiers spent their R & R’s in Bangkok during the Vietnam War. Many men were also stationed at the Royal Thai Air Force Bases throughout Central and Eastern Thailand – like Ubon. But no matter where the men spent their time off whether it be in Bangkok or Pattaya, they were young men far from home, halfway around the world and looking for female companionship.
Since my mother was not forthcoming, elaborate or helpful in the details of their meeting, I’m left with my imagination and “sources”.
“You can make song, sahm, see months pay,” Dee held up 2, then 3, then 4 fingers, “in one evening.”
“Easy money,” She exclaimed before fishing out a cigarette from the pack with her long nails.
“What’s so easy about talking to an American solider?” Aut fired back.
Dee lit her cigarette and blew smoke in her friend’s face, “Who said anything about talking?”
The women sitting in a circle erupted into laughter.
“I thought you said they just wanted to talk.”
“Yeah, yeah. Talk. Dancing.” Dee wiggled a bit.
Aut looked at Ping, “What do you think? Should we do it?”
“Oh, no. I’m finished with men. Forget it.”
Thoy threw her head back, “So your husband cheated on you. So what. You going to sit around sad all the time? C’mon, go out dancing. Meet an American man. They spend their money like. . .” She looked around, “like Dee smokes and drinks. Never stops.”
Dee pushed her, “Big mouth.”
“Easy money. Just dancing. You don’t have to go anywhere with them. Just stay in the club. I promise.”
“You like money, don’t you?” Dee leaned forward.
“Yes. Who doesn’t?” For a brief instance Ping wondered if she’d always be poor.
“Then come out with us. Dress up, make yourself pretty and wait for an American to pick your number.” Dee smiled, “Because Ping, when they see you they will.”
So that night, my mother went to a nightclub where American soldiers from the Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base were known to frequent. There was a local band playing American music.
During a break, the drummer came up to the bar and got a drink. My mother decided to ask, “I can’t believe you’re playing American music! Do you understand English?”
The drummer laughed, “Oh, no. We just memorized the songs. We have no idea what we’re singing.” Then with a wink he left.
Dee was suddenly by my mother’s side, “Here they come.”
She looked up to see a group of American men come in – they were grinning, pushing each other around and joking as they investigated their new surroundings. She watched a couple more waves of men enter while trying to hide the number pinned on her dress by turning away and avoiding eye contact.
Thoy walked by with a blond man’s arm hanging around her shoulders, discreetly she pinched Ping’s arm. “Stop hiding,” she hissed.
The band started to play California Dreamin’ when my mother noticed a Chinese man leaning over the bar talking to the owner and then looking over at her. The owner called out her number, sip, then waved at her.
Ping’s cheeks burned as she walked towards them.
“He wants to dance with you.”
She stared at the tall Chinese man and back at the owner, “Then why doesn’t he ask me himself?”
“Cause he’s an American. Now get.”
Speechless, she looked at her new dancing partner. She assumed he was a Thai-Chinese when she saw him enter with the other Americans, thought he was their interpreter or something.
“Hi. My name’s John,” He yelled over the music. “What is yours?”
Although she didn’t speak English she could tell he was asking her name, “Ping.”
My father smiled and led her to the dance floor.