Fear, Love and Historical Method
Four years ago I met a Thai woman, Luna, who became my girlfriend. She is from an area of rural Thailand, near the Lao border, where many of the women who work in the bars, massage parlors and sex industry of Thailand come from. Luna has not worked in the sex industry. But the atmosphere of sexual commerce that lingers over foreign men and certain parts of Bangkok definitely made our relationship possible. It created the context of easy flirtation the helped us to meet. It encouraged the early and open expressions of desire that extended that brief meeting into an encounter of several days, saving us from the missed opportunity that would surely have been the result of our usual reserve. It also made the adoption of a Western boyfriend into her family and rural community relatively smooth, following the example of the tens of thousands of Western men who already built houses and settled with their Thai wives throughout the countryside.
This easy atmosphere of sexual connection also generates riveting stories that circulate widely in the bars and online forums frequented by expat men. They include stories about huge dowries amounting to tens of thousands of dollars for marriages that only lasted a few months; stories about Thai women receiving money sent from multiple foreign boyfriends which they used to support their Thai boyfriends; stories about the many sick buffalos, elderly parents, leaking roofs, busted tractors and police graft that Thai women conjured to get more money from besotted foreign men. Stories about men who built houses, bought cars and renovated farms for their wives only to be locked out once the money was finished. So often the punchline is, “I’d heard all the stories, but I was sure that my girl was different.”
Luna told me similar stories, including variations in which women extracted money from their Thai husbands working in Taipei which they then used to party with their new boyfriends. A couple of times she even translated phone conversations we overheard in Bangkok, when a woman was coaxing money from a foreign boyfriend or discussing best strategies of managing her boyfriends with one of her Thai friends.
Being who I am, I spent much of the following year reading books by anthropologists, sociologists, historians and journalists on rural life and sex work in Thailand. I came across a book, Thailand Fever which, despite the lurid title, is a practical guide written in Thai and English by a Thai woman and American man to help Thai-Western couples better understand each other. Most of the major problems they describe revolve around family and money. They write that Thais gain much of their sense of self-worth by being “generous” and showing their ability to support their families. They would often willingly hand over the bulk of their earnings to be used by their families, under the expectation that their family would take care of them when they were in need. This was very difficult for Western husbands, who resented the unpredictability of demands for money, the constant drainage to extended family, and the general lack of control over their financial choices and future. This could easily degenerate into the wives thinking that the men were stingy bastards who didn’t care about family, and the men thinking their wives were just gold digging whores who didn’t care about building a family with them.
My mom had raised me to believe that thrift and practical financial sense were primary virtues. I showed her this book. She concluded that it sounded just like prostitution to her. Cultural differences or not, it was not love, not family, just financial exchange. I had already spent a lot of money to help Luna finish the roof on her house, pay off her car and buy a tractor. Some of that money was not spent in the way that she had told me it would be spent when I gave it to her. I was pretty uncomfortable about it.
One night, about a year after meeting Luna, I was lying in bed at three in the morning in a jetlagged haze at the edge of sleep. Scenes from my recent visit to Thailand were playing through my head. Suddenly I fixated on a moment when Luna had introduced me to a Swedish man and his wife who lived in the local county town. I recalled her body language and pride in showing me off, his nervous attempts to avoid the eyes of both Luna and his wife, his coldness to me. It was so obvious. He was an ex-lover, she was showing me off to an ex-lover! Luna had always told me that she had not had sex with any man since her husband had died nearly a decade before. She had lied to me.
I sat up in bed. Dozens of episodes flooded my mind. She had been lying to me all along. I was just as foolish as the guys in those stories. I turned on the light and got a pencil and paper to write down the evidence, just to make sure I wasn’t getting carried away. I wrote a list of seven things that suggested an affair with the Swedish man, not only in that encounter but also in questions Luna had asked about what I thought about him and what other foreign men had told me. Then I wrote a list of 41 other suspicious circumstances not related to this incident. They included lies she had told me about money; the male foreign “friends” who frequently called her on the phone; the lies she told them; the many stories she told me of friends who manipulated money out of men; her enormously strong libido, sexual skills and knowledge of sexual words in English that belied a decade of supposed abstinence; her attempts to stop me from having contact with other local foreigners; and her general evasiveness on several other issues including her medical problems.
To be balanced, I also wrote a list of things that pointed towards my being able to take Luna at her word. I came up with 19 points. The most significant ones included the fact that she did indeed have successful work purchasing and manufacturing clothes and bags for sale in Italy; she has clearly been a hard worker most of her life and not relied on handouts from others; most of what she had told me about her family and travels seemed to be true; she was not a very good liar and I could usually catch her when she did; she never tried to hide her conversations with other foreign men; the tone of her interactions with other foreign men were very different than with me (helping her get away with lies told to them in a jokey context); and, as she once pointed out to me, if she wanted a rich foreign husband who could give her a lot money she could easily do a lot better than me.
I compared the two lists. The evidence either way was all circumstantial. But it was all specific events and facts, the kinds of things that could be footnoted if I were writing a history book. This was the method of the historian: accumulating facts, developing an argument, and then using that argument to shape further investigation. And the balance of evidence leaned towards the argument that I was being duped about something. How much I was being duped, however, was still unclear. I was sure that she was at least lying about her sex life. I did not have a big problem with that if it was only an issue of modesty or shame. I was a bit more worried about what was happening while I was in the U.S. (casual sex was OK, but not the multiple boyfriend scenario). My real fear, however, was that I was being manipulated out of my money just like the men in those stories, that I was only a sugar daddy. More than sexual betrayal, this was a fear that that generated shame and self-contempt. So I engaged in further investigation.
In our next conversations on the phone and video chat, I started to bring up my suspicions. Luna denied any direct questions about relationships with other men. Her responses were the usual evasions and assurances I had heard before. She persuasively insisted that love mattered more than money to her: a person can always work and make more money, but real love is rare. I could not catch her in any lies other than those she had already admitted. None of my doubts were confirmed. But my fears did not recede—this was still a repetition of the same behavior I had already documented in my lists. Then one day my end of the video chat suddenly cut off, although I could still see her. I saw panic in her eyes. “Where are you,” she typed, “Not leave me please.” And, convinced I had disappeared, she started to cry. I was an asshole. Not only now, but I had been for months. Whatever lies she had told me, she was sincere in wanting to make this work.
Luna and I are still together after four years. All of my suspicions were dead wrong. The historical method failed me. I should have gone with the original gut instincts that brought us together, not the fears that developed later. Some of the problem was cultural difference. The more I believed I was developing an objective, evidence-based method, the more I blinded myself to the culturally-based assumptions that went into the gathering and interpretation of my facts. Sure, I had read plenty of culturally sensitive books about Thailand. I’ve even written academic articles steeped in claims of cultural sensitivity about other places. I was intellectually convinced. But living it was a different matter.
But more important than cultural misunderstanding was the pervasive narrative of fear and paranoia that overdetermined my interpretation. By far the predominant story available in which to interpret my experience was one of manipulation, lies, foolish self-deception and prostitution. This was only reinforced by the general stigma against men who got involved with rural Thai women and sex workers. This had nothing to do with culture. It has everything to do with the way in which media fears predetermine our conclusions.
Our relationship is still very difficult. We have very different expectations about the appropriate circulation of money—cultural awareness doesn’t easily change the basic concepts of virtue drilled into us as children. And Luna is also burdened with the versions of paranoid stories about Thai-Western relationships that circulate among Thai women. These are the stories of “butterfly” men, always unreliable, always looking to get laid with as many women as possible, only out for sex and never for love. Her fears about my infidelities pervade and grind away at our relationship as much as my fears about money.