Lately it’s been raining. Around five o’clock the clouds roll in across the paddy fields and empty. Overhead the sky is changing greys; everything is heavier; it is hard to move about. Ann and I rest together on the cooler behind the bar, put baby powder on our faces and our necks. We watch the motorbikes go by, a slow procession. Almost everyone is wearing ponchos, see-through pink and orange. They look like human-shaped balloons. It’s the beginning of the rainy season, which means that people don’t go out as much.
“Do you think it will be busy tonight?” I say.
“Maybe, maybe not,” she says. Then, with effort, she gets up and grabs the incense off the counter which we light to bring the people in. Round here, smoke is magic. Ann lights the incense and puts five sticks in the dirt of a planted pot. Then, out front, she takes a shot of Sangsom and pours a line of whiskey on the sidewalk.
“There,” she says. “Now they’ll come.”
This is how I spend my time, a restaurant in Khon Kaen called DiDines which my friends Josh and Mike bought a couple months ago. Since coming back to Thailand I’ve been working at DiDines from 3 pm to 3 am. I make 300 baht (9.5 dollars) a day, just like everybody else. 80 cents an hour to pour beer, make cocktails, wait tables, mop floors, and deal with foreigners. This is what we do. And Ann is good at it. Really good. Fon and Mae and Luk out front, Jang and Noon in the back, they’re good too. The women here, like most women I’ve met in Thailand, hold the place together.
I, on the other hand, am less adapted, especially when it comes to white people. Foreigners have a habit of expecting things to run the way they do in whatever part of the world it is they come from and of treating Thais, especially the women, differently because they’re Thai, which makes them assholes. I feel this personally because until I speak, nobody assumes that I’m American. There’s a certain kind of customer, always white, always male, who lives in Thailand because they can get away with things they can’t back home, because the world is cheaper here, because the country isn’t real for them. Europe is real, America is real, but Thailand, given its inherent differences and eccentricities, its distance from what they’re used to, is less so. And until a person knows I am fully capable of understanding them, customers speak incredibly freely around me, with crassness and candor. And almost always they speak of money, of women, and of the ways that money and women often intersect.
“How much would you pay for that?” I hear them say as one of the girls walks by.
“A few hundred,” I hear them say.
And now I want their blood. If Thailand were real for them, if these girls were real, they wouldn’t talk and act like this, I’m sure of it. What I’m not sure of is how Ann and the other girls are able to deal with this so gracefully, but they do. Perhaps they have always dealt with this. What do I know? I'm predictably protective. There’s one customer in particular, a small troll of a man who owns a nearby bar and who I want, more than anything, to drag by his collar out into the street and beat.
“You can’t do that,” Noon explains to me one night when we’re all sitting around after-hours talking. “You have to smile so you can take their money, but in your heart you fill your heart with hate for them, and they never know it, and then you will always have their money.”
This, in many ways, appears to be the sacrifice. One learns to separate the surface from the center, the inner from the outer, and the world continues spinning. What a person does, the performance of external social action, is not synonymous with who a person is. This, for me, is one of the harder things to watch, the women who I’ve come to care so much about at times performing a version of themselves for a community of people whose intentions, attitudes, and general disposition bothers me, a version of themselves for which, I trust, they have their reasons, but which also feels so different to me, so something other than the girls I’ve come to love so quickly and to know.
But perhaps it only feels that way. Everyone performs, I get that. We each “prepare a face to meet the faces that [we] meet,” but what that looks like, and what the implications are of that performance, varies from place to place. I get that also. In Thailand it mostly breaks my heart because I let it, a guilt, however well intentioned, that highlights my own real privilege as much as it implicates the foreigners who, like me, create the context in which so many Thais are forced to live and perhaps, realistically, will always live. In this light it is hard to resist the urge to tell the girls which boys aren’t good enough for them because, quite frankly, so few are, but it isn’t my place to make that call, to come to conclusions about a world I can look upon and think about, but never know. Regardless, I can count the boys I’ve met here whose intentions I trust on a single hand. And two of them own the restaurant.
About three months ago, Josh and Mike, two American men in their early thirties teaching English in Khon Kaen, unlikely business partners at best, bought DiDines from a French chef who had run the place for as long as any of us can remember. A year ago, it would have been safe to say that Josh and Mike probably shouldn’t, under any circumstances, own and operate a restaurant together. Like most good friends, they have a tendency to drink too much and bring out the worst in each other. They get kicked out of bars. They get arrested. They piss themselves and drive their cars into lakes. If it weren’t for Daow and Guan, the two women in their lives, I’m pretty sure neither of them would still be in Thailand, at least not like this. What Josh and Mike have done with the place amazes me. And it isn’t just the food, which, for the record, is the best I’ve had in all of Issan, and it isn’t simply the fact that the space itself is beautiful, or that the music is good, or that the pool-table, despite its unforgiving pockets, is free, or that it’s the only place in Khon Kaen where a kid from Wisconsin can sit down and buy an IPA and drink it slowly with his whole heart happy, its not just that on any given night the place is filled with as many Thai as foreign customers (a feat of social integration so sadly rare in Thailand), families as well as drunks (equally rare), or that the staff can speak to you in English, can hold a conversation, or that the regulars who come to DiDines appear so glad to be there, no matter who they are or where they’re from or what their story is, the men and women I serve drinks to look and act and feel alive, even the ladyboys who sell their bodies down at Blues Bar. This matters. It matters because one wants one’s customers to be happy and because as long as the bar is filled with happy, decent people, it won’t be filled with assholes. Josh and Mike have gone to great lengths to ensure the energy of the place repels the worst that Thailand has to offer. To their credit, for the most part, it does.
What matters most, however, at least to me, is not the customers, but the staff. When the doors come down at midnight and the lights go out, when the tables are finally in and everyone else has left, we stay. Mike and Noon and Josh buy pitchers of beer for the girls; Ann drinks M-150 energy drinks; Fon buys a horrible minty cocktail we call “Around the World;” Luk goes out and brings back BBQ squid, pork balls, hotdog slices soaked in chilies; and we stay.
The other night we took turns holding the pool cue for each other so we could practice stripper dancing.
The other night Noon explained to the younger girls how to deal with a man if he starts getting rough by breaking his kneecaps with your heels.
The other night Josh drank too much and fell asleep on the sidewalk. I poured water on his face and Jang dried the water off with a bright orange towel.
The other night, on Fon’s day off, she came in anyway and started helping us bring tables in.
“Why are you here, Fon?” I ask her.
“I’d rather be here than anywhere,” she said.
And it goes on like this.
And it goes on like this.
About a week ago Fon was sitting with me behind the bar. She had stolen my favorite hat and was wearing it cocked to the side, which secretly made me happy. Kendrick Lamar was playing on the stereo and she bounced her head and sang along to the words she knew and sometimes she held her hands up and waved her fingers back and forth.
“Fon, I said, “that’s a terrible way to dance.”
“P’ Nick, how come you always laugh at me,” she said.
“Because you make me happy,” I said.
Then she grabbed a book of poems off the counter, Richard Siken’s “Crush,” which I had brought to work that morning, to practice her English.
“Close your eyes,” she read. “A lover is standing too close to focus on. Leave me blurry and fall toward me with your entire body.”
She read: “My dragon-fly, my black-eyed fire, the knives in the kitchen are singing for blood, but we are at a crossroads, my little outlaw, and this is the map of my heart, the landscape after cruelty.”
She read: “I’ll give you my heart to make a place for it to happen…a gentleness that comes not from the absence of violence but despite the abundance of it…a love that transcends hunger.”
This, of course, is what I want for her, “a love that transcends hunger,” for all the girls who work at DiDines, actually, for Josh and Mike and for myself, “a place for it to happen.” Hell, I even want this for the foreign men who fill my heart with hate. But in a country where so much of the love is hungry, where so many of the relationships which are available are tainted by the deeply rooted ways a culture of privilege so often takes pleasure in consuming a culture with less privilege, it isn’t easy. In this context, more than anything, I worry that Fon might not find the person she deserves, that she will, at some point, settle for something less, for someone who will not be as kind to her as she is, but I have to trust her. She, like everybody else, must do their best and work with what there is. This is precisely why DiDines is so important. It is a different place. It changes what is here.