Cambodia Barworld Studies: To Admire or Despise?June 11, 2006
There is certain a psychological symptom that manifests itself after many ugly breakups. Jilted lovers, weary husbands, parting on bitter terms come to think of their ex’s as ‘the bitch who wrecked my life.’
Some men undoubtedly feel their ex’s don’t want them to be happy, that she would do anything to thwart his chances of ever forming another relationship, and that she would burn with anger if she ever found out he was seeing a younger, more attractive woman.
While the man’s hatred of his ex (and vice versa) is common to many relationships, there is perhaps something unique in the character of bargirl relationships that compounds the lingering bitterness, resentment, and vindictiveness felt by so many men.
Those who date bargirls seem to invest considerable psychological effort in removing the stain of being bargirls in the first place. The first task of many men upon commencing a relationship with a bargirl is to transform her into the Western ideal of an Eastern wife. And it’s not easy.
Those who are dating bargirls are generally aware they’re not dating angels, and even when it’s one of these special bargirls, the ones who aren’t like all the other bargirls, because they work as cashiers, or do dayshifts, or just came from the provinces, that doesn’t change the fact that almost everyone, with few possible exceptions, goes through a process of trying to transform the girl.
This can be seen in the first interpretative manoeuvres of the man staring out in a relationship with a bargirl. The first thing he does is defend himself against implied or imagined accusations of dating a hooker. Before he has anything to accuse her of, except working at a bar since the night he met her, he tells his friends, ”She’s not really my girlfriend. I just have a good time with her. I know I’m probably wasting her time. I’m never going to marry one of these girls. But it’ll probably only last a bit longer anyway.”
When it does last longer, perhaps much longer than expected, he shifts from the assumption that it’s inconceivable he could date a bargirl to ways of separating her from the common lot of bargirls. ”She’s from a really poor village. Can you blame her? She doesn’t like working here. But what can she do? It’s just for her family. She told me she’s only had three boyfriends.”
Then when she proves far less reliable than he’d expected, new justifications appear. ”Well, what can you expect? Since she was eighteen, there’ve been people promising her the world and then abandoning her. What would you do if you always had guys saying they wanted to marry you, get you a passport, take you back to their country, and take care of you, and then they leave you? You’d get pretty cynical too. They have to hedge their bets.”
Then, of course, the emphasis of the relationship shifts from his attempts to convince her to be faithful to his own neverending quest to prove to her that he?ll never abandon her. All of her infractions are minimised in his mind, and rather than drawing the obvious conclusion that she’s doing five times more than he’s ever caught her doing, he buys into all her excuses.
That’s when the displays of faith ensue and the relationship gets heavy. Once he’s set out to prove to her that he’s not like every other guy she’s ever met, he’s setting himself the task of being unlike every other guy. This means serious investment, and once that starts, it’s hard to pull out.
Symptoms of this stage of barworld psychology are hairdressing classes, cooking classes, and English classes. Basically, any kind of self-improvement scheme, since by this point he’s probably dragged her out of the bar, and he wants to keep her busy, to keep her mind occupied, and, essentially, make her into a hairdresser, a housewife, a schoolgirl – anything but a bargirl.
This is also the stage when the girl is absolved of all responsibility for her actions and her continuing association with the bar is shifted onto scapegoats. These are typically her friends, the ‘bad influences,’ since she’s not a ‘bad girl’. The worst of all is when he uses himself as a scapegoat. All of her misbehaviours, no matter what, are due to his failure to live up to the ideal he’s invented from his interpretation of her conception of a ‘good man’.
He’s continued going out with his friends, and he drinks too much, and he gets peevish when another second cousin from Kompong Something of Other has had a motorbike accident and needs some cash, and he doesn’t trust her when she said she had another phone stolen, and he hasn’t bought her a house, and, of course, hasn’t married her yet. It’s all his fault.
Now I know this litany of psychological stages appears in various forms in many of my bargirl stories, and it has been an unusually long preamble to the essential point that I was trying to make. But please bear with me for a moment. I don’t even want to imagine what happens to his frail ego when he buys that house in the sticks and goes through with the marriage ceremony. So let me stop here and pick up where I left off in the fourth paragraph.
He’s made this psychological investment. He’s transformed her, transfigured her, and now she’s a respectable middle-class wife with all the accoutrements appropriate to her station, the gold bracelets, the Prado watch, the latest Nokia phone, and disposable income of her own to show her old bargirl mates that she’s a married woman now, she’s moved up in the world, she’s a proper barang’s wife.
But she still can’t shake off the pernicious habits of the barworld, and so the relationship comes to an end. It can be long before the gold, the house, and the wedding ceremony. It doesn’t matter because, if he’s spent any length of time with her, he’s made that psychological investment in the transfiguration. And now the sacred becomes the profane.
It’s understandable that there would be a psychological backlash and his first reaction would be to smear his cracked and fallen idol with the faeces of the hurt of his betrayal. Indeed, he is most naturally disposed, even if he doesn’t know it, to deprive her of that expensive golden halo that he bought her at Psar Themei when he took her out of the bar made her his girlfriend. To make her, again, a bargirl.
I?m sure this is a source of pleasure. He hopes she’s degraded, laughed at by her mates, even abandoned by them, and later forced to go back to work, where she’ll meet more guys who are like all the other guys she’s ever met, and weep at her foolishness and ingratitude. That is, as long as she doesn’t come around to his place and try to stab herself, down a bottle of paracetamol, or throw herself off the balcony.
This is where so many stories end. You hear them so often because they’re what’s on the tongue of every man who’s just broken up with his girlfriend, still in shock over the mess, and trying to purge the emotions, or seek commiseration, or just badmouth the nasty bitch. And it’s a fitting ending because it contains the punter’s version of poetic justice. You can imagine her becoming an old spinster in some shithole village in Kompong Something Or Other.
But how many stories truly end this way? The more cynical punter might tell you months or years later that bargirls are like cockroaches. They were there in the bar long before you came, and they’ll be there no matter what happens long after you leave. They survive. They get on. It?s what they do.
Yet, how many stories have you heard where the girl actually goes on to success that even far exceeds the man’s dreams, or where he finds himself in the same circumstances, slogging away, with no better relationship prospects, growing ever older and fatter, while she?s jetting around the world with some mug living la vita dolce? Not many, I reckon. Most people would want to keep those stories to themselves.
Yet, I heard this story once, recently, from a young buck, who, despite his customary reticence, was induced to open up by a skinful of liquor and the steady presence of this old, pot-bellied geezer with the baseball cap and the eye-patch. The tension between his resentment, perhaps a trace of that backlash from his failed psychological investment in transforming her, and her apparent success in the world was palpable.
The plump Khmer girl he’d been seeing, off and on and off and on for more than a year, had gone back to work after he finally forced her out of the short-time hotel where they’d been staying. She’d quickly picked up a string of generous paramours, while he’d remained in the lowest classes, the untouchables of expatriate society, the English teachers.
After playing the mugs like they all do, going to the Internet cafe to write up proposals for foreign donor cash to build the capacity her bone idle mother to buy more gold, she?d settled for the one mug who showed the most promise of sustained financial support and a ticket to the Khmer bargirl Holy Land, the good ol’ U.S. of A.
He was an arms dealer, old enough to be her father, twice her weight, with more hair on his face than she had on her entire body, and, if one were allowed to make cynical conjectures, had three ex-wives and six neglected children scattered everywhere from Mississippi to Angeles City.
While this young buck was slogging away as a day labourer at a language school, she was finishing up her shopping and waiting for her visa to come through so she could hop from Bangkok, to Kuala Lumpur, to distant vistas, heretofore undreamed of, in the Middle East.
Upon finishing his tale, the young buck took a long, slow sip of beer to quench the thirst of the telling and perhaps numb the pain of his humiliation. Then he wondered aloud whether he should admire this girl for her tenacity, cunning, and perseverance or despise her for her ingratitude, dishonesty, and exploitativeness.
He thought for a moment and then finished the tale by trying to imagine her life on the sunbeaten desert plains of the Middle East. He?d heard from others that she was doing well, he said, but he couldn’t give credence to those rumours. He remembered how she’d always complained of how the man insisted she dote upon him as though he were a baby.
So he imagined them together in their five star hotel, where the rich arms dealer had installed an oversized custom made cradle, and the man demanded to be treated like a baby, wearing a nappy, crapping himself, and having her vigorously wipe his filthy anus before rubbing him all over with baby lotion and jacking him while he sucked on one of her nipples and murmured, ‘Mommy! Mommy!’
But maybe he was just bitter.