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LAST OF THE WHITE ELEPHANTS

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By Eisel Mazard

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The Montréal Review, May 2015

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The Elephant Vanishes by Alice Stevenson (www.alicestevenson.com)

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In Laos and Northern Thailand, women used to say something to me that I could, at first, only interpret as, "Hey, come with me and drink beer through a straw."  The wording wasn't always exactly the same, nor were the circumstances they'd say it in, but that word for drinking straw always seemed to be in there somewhere.

The reply I'd give to deter them was, most often, "No, I've had enough already", usually resulting in laughter.  They knew it wasn't beer that I was saying I'd had enough of, but, just as in western culture, there's something slightly strange about the concept of enough sex, especially for the male of the species, expected to pretend this is something he'll never have enough of.

Eventually, I figured out that they were using a slang term that couldn't be found in the dictionary: it just meant "handsome man", not drinking straw.  The rest of the sentence suddenly fit together a bit more clearly, and the possibility that there was anything subtle about the propositions I had been turning down disappeared.

Simply being a handsome white man in Buddhist Asia provided a sort of mask, and white men would regard one-another through this mask after they'd grown accustomed to the role that locals expected them to play.  The handsome white man wanted every woman he could get, and could get every woman he wanted.  His colleagues, his co-workers, and complete strangers all assumed he was sleeping with the maximum number of women possible --and they knew that the maximum number was very, very high.

For the handsome white man, flirtation accompanied almost every transaction.  Without ever visiting a bar or a nightclub, dead-serious sexual propositions from all genders would come up at least every few days.  In Laos and Thailand, to be blunt, I couldn't buy a bolt of cloth without somebody trying to sleep with me, and I did sometimes resent the interruption of such offers, when I was struggling to ask, "How much does this cost per meter?", in the local language.

Behind the mask, the handsome white men had nothing in common with one-another, but those who had long term jobs in the region came to cultivate themselves in this nearly anonymous role.  The white man might be a trader in smuggled gemstones, and he might be a volunteer with a Christian charity but, in any case, sex was supposed to be his major reason for remaining in Southeast Asia, even if it wasn't the reason for his first arrival.  Married men would slip into the role of being unmarried, and unmarried men could change the details of where they worked and lived, even if it were just for the sake of sustaining a flirtation and repeating a familiar (mutually-flattering) script in broken fragments of Thai or Lao.  It was a stereotype that many were eager to embody, and that was resented by some who didn't meet the local standards for handsome and, thus, couldn't play the game.

I remember one guy who had been living "in character" quite thoroughly, even using a false name along the lines of Jack Smith.  He presented himself regularly at the fruit-juice shop downstairs from my apartment in Vientiane, making a consistent effort to hit on the waitress there.  He was always "dressed up" by the standards of a third-world, tropical country, in a nondescript shirt and tie.  In Laos, the long-sleeve dress shirt was a mark of distinction for a foreigner: it signaled that the man wearing it was not a tourist, and perhaps even had a job.  Simply not being a tourist moved a man from the category of a possible short-term affair into consideration as marriage material.

He wasn't clumsy in flirting with her, he simply had no comprehension of why it wasn't working.  For all I know he'd started affairs with a dozen waitresses before, but, in any case, he had the confidence that came with the role he was playing.  He was, after all, doing what was expected of him, as the insatiable, handsome white man.

The last time I ever saw him, Jack turned to chat with me after his usual attempt to seduce Noy (the waitress), and complained that the owner of the juice shop was crazy.  Recently, he had screamed at Jack and kicked him out of the shop "for no reason".

"Well, Jack, Noy is his fiancée.  You've been coming in here for months now, hitting on the woman he's engaged to marry."

He was stunned.  I'd expected a wry smile or an ironic shrug out of him, but he was really horrified, and his apologies came pouring out.  The mask had come off.  He wasn't, in fact, the carefree womanizer he'd pretended to be.  He was an Israeli Jew, and much more religious than he had been letting on.  As he stammered through his apologies, I could see that he thought of seducing another man's wife as a sin with a capital S (whereas, I suppose, an affair with a single waitress would be a forgivable dalliance).  His real name, it turned out, was over 15 syllables long, and could barely be pronounced in Hebrew.  He actually took a piece of I.D. out of his pocket and showed his name to me while he was explaining himself (it looked something like Pele-joez-el-gibbor-abi-ad-sar-shalom), perhaps feeling some need to prove who he was --or who he wasn't-- in those circumstances.

Although only a minority of the white men playing the game were religious, like Jack, most had an awareness of some other set of moral obligations left behind in their country of origin, wherever that was.  They were slipping out of that whole system of ethics ("back home") by adopting the anonymous role prepared for them in the permissive context of Buddhist Southeast Asia --and, make no mistake, the stage that all these dramas played out on was built by Buddhism, even if none of the actors took the slightest interest in the religion.  From prostitution to marriage, the sexual politics of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia all derive from Buddhism, at least as much as Italian sexuality is shaped by Catholicism.  Like it or not, the reason why Jack was more comfortable hitting on a teenager in Vientiane than he would be in Amman or Ramallah was religious in nature.

Jack had struggled to give enough emphasis to his own ignorance: he had no idea the waitress wasn't single.  From my perspective, that wasn't his transgression: he had ignored the more important fact that she just wasn't interested.  I remember sternly instructing him, "When a woman is interested in you, in this culture, there is absolutely nothing subtle about it.  When a woman here wants you, she won't leave any room for doubt in your mind."  I was giving this advice from my own position of pious ignorance: aside from the Canadian girlfriend who had arrived with me, I hadn't been involved with any women at all.

The polite racism of the game inflated egos on both sides.  While the white men came to regard themselves as objects of desire, the locals learned that their own women were somehow superior to the white women these foreigners had left behind.  This was a comforting delusion that almost made the brothels seem to be a source of national pride, rather than a reminder of backwardness, poverty, and national humiliation.  It was a reassurance to everyone (certainly including local men) to imagine that they lived at the destination the whole world crawled toward for sex-tourism because of some special quality that existed only among their own people.  This chased away the thought that the rich simply came here to prey upon the poor, in one place much like another, be it in South America, Africa, or Asia.  No, it was easier to believe that these men had crossed the ocean and given up their own lives (sometimes giving up their own wives) because there's something extraordinary about "us", or "our women".

Meanwhile, it would be difficult for me to believe that Jack could ever get married to someone who wasn't born and raised Jewish, and, by that token, he may have regarded his Asian girlfriends with a certain degree of contempt.  He thought of them, I suppose, as not quite real people, just as the mask encouraged him to regard himself as something less than a real person, merely playing his role, in these relationships.

Noy, the same waitress, had become a complete believer in the principle that Laos had the most beautiful women in the world (and I suppose she'd seen enough white men brought to ruination to prove this to herself).  I had heard the same thing from locals in Thailand about Thai women, and in Cambodia about Cambodian women.

I was both single and celibate for a long stretch of time after my Canadian girlfriend went back to Canada.  At one point, Noy became motivated to find a match for me, and she did explain (in her good-enough English) the logic whereby she believed all white men find Lao women irresistible, and so on.  I was a match waiting to be made, apparently.

"The problem is, Noy, I am a man who reads books.  I am only interested in women who read books."  This was a shockingly new consideration.

"I could marry a woman who reads books about history, I could marry a women who reads books about politics, or I could marry a woman who reads books on some other subject.  However, I could never marry a woman who doesn't read books."  That conversation, in simple English, really did explain why I wasn't a part of the game, and never would be.

Noy thought about the problem for a few months.  She searched her network of friends and family members to try to find a female under the age of 60 who actually read books.  Eventually, she confessed that while she still believed that Laos had the most beautiful women in the world, she had decided that I should try to find a girlfriend in Vietnam instead.  She'd been told that they have women who read books there, and, after all, some Vietnamese women might be reasonably beautiful.  Admitting this, at least, seemed to be a source of national humiliation.

One of my white, western employers (in the humanitarian sector) had fallen in love with a Lao girl of perhaps 15 years of age.  After first meeting her on assignment in a remote village he courted her in the most traditional manner possible, by volunteering to work on her father's farm in his spare time.  He spoke the language well enough that he made connections with the girl's whole extended family by working alongside them.  He insisted that he'd never had sex with the girl, neither before nor after she had turned 18.  Although foreigners could get away with ignoring local customs, the larger part of society did conform to what were, ultimately, conservative Buddhist values, and he apparently chose to play by those rules, while breaking pretty much all the rules he had been raised with.

When he got drunk he spoke at length about his yearning for this farmer's daughter, who had by then just finished college.  He had ended up married to some other woman several years into his courtship with the teenager, and he didn't have much of an explanation as to how or why this had happened.  He had shocked and disappointed the girl's whole extended family by breaking off the engagement, which they'd regarded as a done deal for years (and he made some formal compensation, helping to pay her tuition, as I recall).  I don't know how the girl herself felt, in learning she'd been freed from the obligation to marry a man whom her family had come to an agreement with when she was perhaps 15.  He didn't describe her as heartbroken.

He was my boss.  I kept my opinion to myself, aside from pointing out to him, on one occasion, that he told the same story about this girl every time he was drunk, and that this had happened (on the job) several times already.  Just hearing this astounded him.  He thought he'd been keeping it a secret.

Although he now had a wife and child, the same impulse was still in him.  When we were on our way to the docks of a dirt-road village on the Mekong, he happened to catch sight of a girl of perhaps 15, who was being chaperoned by her brother, and stopped to flirt with her.  He sat with the two of them, on their bamboo terrace, for some time, discussing this girl's prospects for marriage.  Their conversation was entirely proper in terms of local culture, but it's hard to imagine a western context in which it wouldn't be sneered at.  He was visibly excited by the whole situation, and I can't say if he was really reacting to this particular teenager, or if he would have felt the same way about any other girl who could represent the same fantasy for him.

How he must have looked in the girl's eyes is easier to imagine: a leering, 40-something white man, suspiciously fluent in negotiating these types of "family arrangements" in the local language, after many years of experience.  I don't know how many teenagers my boss had flirted with, and I don't know how many waitresses Jack had flirted with.  It's possible that both of them were simply wearing the mask and assuming the confidence that comes with that role, but it's also possible that they'd acted out these same scenes I witnessed many times before, with and without consummation.

He was still turned on, even trembling a bit, as we walked away from the hut on stilts, when he suggested to me, dramatically, that I might marry the girl myself.  He started filling in the details of this fantasy, that he obviously wished for himself, but projected onto my future for the sake of conversation.  My whole life could change with this chance meeting in a remote village, he explained.  It never occurred to him that another man would regard the game he was playing as unappealing, repugnant, or even immoral.

He was my boss, so I spoke carefully.

"Do you think I want to get married to a teenager who is not literate in any language?"

"Do you really think that a woman without even a primary-school education is a good match for me?  You've read my C.V., you know my work and my research interests, do you really think this teenager is the type of woman I'm going to marry?"

It's always better to phrase an accusation as a question.  I was asking about myself but, really, it was an accusation directed at him.  This was his fantasy he was being asked to question.

He had a haunted look in his eyes: I was bringing back the memory of so many things he had been raised to respect and value, but now didn't want to think about, didn't want to ever hear again.

There was a time when he recognized that his family expected him to care about a woman's education, to care about a woman's employment prospects, and --simply-- to care about a woman's mind.  For him, that was a long time ago, long before he had started hanging around that rice farm, to arrange his wedding to that other teenager.  He had buried all those misgivings long ago, and who was I to dig them up again?

As foreigners in charity work, in research, or even in English teaching, we all knew that a large number of the people around us were motivated by sex more than any other factor to be doing what they were doing, where they were doing it, regardless of how honest our jobs may have been on paper.  Perhaps my boss had arrived, in the first place, with sincere humanitarian interests, but why had he stayed for more than a decade?

It was the teenager in the bamboo hut, or, at least the idea of her, that had kept him coming back, again and again, and that motivation, really, made the whole pretense of humanitarianism seem despicable.

Was he there to help people, or was he there to prey on their poverty?  It could be both, couldn't it?  It was.  That was the crooked middle path taken made by men who decided the mask suited them better than their own face.  He wasn't seduced by any particular woman, he was seduced by his own status as the handsome white man in this culture.  It wasn't any particular teenager, but the shallow thrill of acting out that same role, again and again, even if the flirtations came to nothing, that ensnared him.

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Eisel Mazard is a Canadian who returned to pursue a second university degree after diverse experience as a researcher, editor, and author in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Taiwan and Yunnan. 

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