Love in the Time of Kitty
Once Love Is
The meaning of love has never been an easy nut to crack. Plato waxes philosophical on the matter and tells us there is something absolute, something brilliant, inspiring and pure that two people can mutually feel. Needless to say his treatise on love has been misinterpreted by most modern folk; we tend to think Platonic love means, simply, not having sex. The origins of platonic love may not sit well with the same aforementioned modern men and women when we learn that as a definitive example of love Plato invoked pederasty, meaning the love between an older man and a young boy. Whether or not the relationship had to be chaste was always up for debate between the ancient Greeks. Chaste or not, pederasty in the modern world is not what most people generally think about when concerning ‘proper’ love. Plato did at least get the ball rolling in the debate on the meaning of the word. Amongst today’s heart shaped cushions, ‘Love Is’ fridge magnets and exhaustive pre-nups, the meaning of love is arguably less debated in the metaphysical sense, we just roll with it, and wait for everything to come right or go wrong. We do however enjoy using the terms ‘unconditional’ and ‘soul mate’, which is partly what Plato was talking about.
Smash and Grab Love
Having had a slight strain of Asian fever in my youth, I made my way to the east as an adult. My priorities whilst in Asia were to buy cheap toys I didn’t need, stay away from bugs and, apropos this story, have a relationship with an Asian woman. I had in mind a hybrid made up of Indian mysticism, Japanese fetishism and Thai utilitarianism. Years later in Thailand I exchanged ‘love’ for ‘rak’, a straight translation, no kooky nuance like many Thai/English translations; love, I thought, meant the same here as it does there. Pom rak khun = I love you. Easy.
A much recognised slogan, or rather pre-nup, was written on the t-shirts of the girls whose acquaintance I met during my first few days in Bangkok, “no money, no honey.” I quickly learned about the pragmatic kind of love, and the desperate kind of love that is often born out of real poverty. The ‘you ta’ care me’ sort of love seemed far from my ideals, and I wasn’t lonely enough to believe it was. I no ta’ care good . . . sorry. One of my first affairs was with a recent graduate of the countryside who’d run away from an arranged marriage with an old Thai man. I say arranged euphemistically, truth is, her parents flogged her. Being a newbie to Thailand this ‘arrangement’ seemed rather unethical . . . call me a prude. She left me a note after we’d had what I thought was an incredibly drunken one night stand: “As if one’s heart could break…” written on a scrap of paper pushed under my door a few days later. She could only speak rudimentary English, how she came up with her Victorian sentiment I don’t know. This was my first run in with the ubiquitous ‘broken heart’. Incidentally, back when I taught English, my students would often state a ‘broken heart’ as a reason they were too ill to attend class.
A friend of mine, new to Thailand, had his first experience of short time love recently. He showed me his phone messages: “I miss you very mush.” And then when he didn’t reply a day later she sent him what was obviously song lyrics expressing a deep love that had unfortunately ended. They’d had one date so he was naturally confused. “Observation”, I told him, “not reasoning!” Don’t try and make sense of it. I told him how one night driving home with a girl I’d known for one movie at Airport Plaza she asked where I’d be going on the weekend. When I told her Bangkok with friends her bottom lip quivered and soon tears where running off her chin, gripping the steering wheel she cried, “You don’ care me, you go to Bangkok.” I thought at first she was joking, but she wasn’t. I remembered the car wreck scene in the film Vanilla Sky and hoped for the best . . .
The Unbearable Lightness of Loving
I dated someone who loved to read novels (I didn’t know at the time how unusual it was for a Thai girl), and so we had something in common. Her favourite book was the ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being’, a story, for the most part, about love. She worked hard, she was intelligent, kind, personable, but when Eros got the better of me she felt obliged to explain the prerequisites of being a ‘good’ Thai girl. I had not come across a ‘good’ girl before, or the concept of one; my first date was an adolescent grope in the knickers with a lass called Donna in a middle school Christmas disco. Maybe my cerebral girl was a Platonist. We parted misunderstood.
In a country seemingly over spilling with attractive, ostensibly single women, a country with an endless canon of love stories, soaps and love-soaked songs, it was a tough place, for me, to find a relationship that endured longer than a few hours.
It seems in Thailand, and certainly in Japan and Korea, there are elements of paedophilia in what is presumed sexy. Many young women act and smile awkwardly in front of cameras as if they were pretty little children. Dental braces, whether real or fake, add to this image of infantilism, as do teddy bears and Mickey Mouse apparel, which you will find scattered around every cute Thai girl’s bedroom. I say girl, I mean young woman. One young woman, way too old for cartoons, gave me a Hello Kitty pop-up book for a gift. It was a good, albeit short, read. I put it on the shelf, in alphabetical order, next to Kafka. Admittedly the braces and “vye vye” farewells on the telephone provoked a certain amount of doubt, my girl was pantomiming a child, how should I react to this? I wondered, is she serious? And she always told me, “you are too serious.” Maybe we both had a point. In the end though, I knew nothing about cosmetics, Kitty or Thai soap stars and she didn’t like Shakin’ Stevens so we called it a day. I wasn’t sure I would find a khu rak, soul mate, for my rak, it was looking like the only rak I had to give was my nam rak . . .
A friend of mine says that most Thai women would make great detectives. He’s had a lot of experience, more than me. His first girlfriend had cracked into his itemised phone account _ clever girl _ and called the numbers she suspected to be girls then interrogated them. I knew a girl who could do a visual DNA test on hair, I knew another who knew exactly where I’d been from the scents that had wafted on me: Wawee, work, Wayne’s house, Warm Up: Wham! She checked my messages not for evidence but for consolidation. I told her about Hegel’s master/slave human condition and how we could trust and be equal and be happy, with tears in her eyes she listened intently, we talked about Freud and repressed negative memories and fears of rejection and we believed in a mutual future. Until the next evening when I came home and found her rooting through my sock draw.
Finding or understanding this word love in Asia has admittedly been a total failure. But I’m in Oscar Wilde’s camp when I say that if it were not for all the mistakes my life would have been very dreary. So what do I know about rak in Thailand? Not much, but I know it’s intense. As I am trying to end this I find another Oscar Wilde quote while looking for his quote on experience. Let’s imagine he’s talking about the meaning of ‘love’, not himself.
“Be warned in time, James, and remain, as I do, incomprehensible: to be great is to be misunderstood.”