It’s a low-key Thursday night in Phnom Penh. The early evening rains have subsided, and you are meeting a friend for dinner at a respectable Western restaurant. As you walk in to the restaurant, you see a couple quietly eating dinner at a nearby table. It’s an ex-bargirl with her Western husband or boyfriend. But it’s not just any ex-bargirl. It’s one you know.
At first you don’t even recognize her, because you haven’t seen her in a few years, and a lot of ex-bargirls kind of look alike. There are so many older Western males with young Asian females in Cambodia that these couples easily blend into the local scenery. You do a brief double-take as you pass by them. She looks up at you, and then you realize that yes, she is definitely That Girl from That Bar.
By referring to her as an “ex-bargirl,” I do not mean to pass any judgment upon her or upon you. Maybe she worked in a proper bar/restaurant, and she simply served you lunch a few times a week. But maybe she worked at night in a sleazy Street 104 hostess bar. Maybe she’s your ex-lover, and you both passionately dated for a while but couldn’t quite make the relationship work. Maybe she was a doe-eyed cashier, and you just bought her a bunch of lady drinks and masturbated to her Facebook page. Who knows.
In any event, regardless of whatever relationship you once had with this woman, you now have to decide whether to say hello to her and her husband. I consider myself an expert at interacting with bargirls when I encounter them in their natural bar habitats. I have memorized all the perfunctory bargirl introductory questions and answers, in English and Khmer. I can predict most bargirls’ Connect Four moves before they make them. I know exactly how long I should let an older bargirl massage my shoulders before shaking her off so that I’m not socially obligated to buy her a lady drink. (Answer: seven seconds).
But whenever I spot an ex-bargirl somewhere outside her bar, with a husband or boyfriend, it momentarily stuns me. I freeze up. I stare at the ground and start saying to myself, “Don’tlookatthebargirl, Don’tlookathebargirl”. Sort of like when I see handicapped people.
I really have no idea what to do in these situations. Actually, because I live in Las Vegas, I do have a little bit of personal perspective. My hometown friends and I used to visit a few strip clubs every now and then. There’s an unwritten Las Vegas rule that if you ever happen to see a stripper during the daytime eating lunch with her husband at Fatburger, you don’t walk up to her and say, “Hey, Peaches! How have you been! Almost didn’t recognize you without the pole!” This just isn’t done.
So I employ the same aloof strategy whenever I see Cambodian ex-bargirls with their husbands. I “blank” them, as my British friends would say. I think this is actually the courteous thing to do. Put yourself in the husband’s situation. He married a woman who used to work in a Phnom Penh bar serving Western guys. He probably doesn’t want every outing with his wife to be a series of meet and greets with all the white dudes she knows from her bar-working days. Most of the white guys she knows probably either slept with her or tried to sleep with her. That’s what white dudes do in Cambodia.
Put yourself in the girl’s situation. She has moved on from her bar life and gotten married. Does she want her husband to be constantly reminded of her bar-working past by seeing a parade of ex-customers saying hello to her? Probably not.
You should also keep in mind that some of these ex-bargirls are quite skilled at the art of deception. Her new husband may not even know that she ever worked at That Bar Where You Met Her. She may have convinced him that she learned English in a monastery from some surprisingly ribald monks.
If you dare to say hello to her and her husband, you might quickly get dragged into her web of deceit. What if her husband promptly asks where you met her? Should you answer truthfully? Any comment you make in his presence could be fraught with peril, because the life story she once told you might be completely different from the one she has told him. Imagine if you say something innocuous to her like “How’s your sister?” and then her husband turns to her and says “I thought you were an only child.” That could be awkward.
On the other hand, this woman is a human being. She has feelings. You may have enjoyed a friendly relationship with her, in some form or another, over a number of years. Isn’t it terribly impolite to ignore her and her husband just because you met her in a bar? Maybe she really wants to say hello and to proudly introduce her new husband to you. Heck, maybe the husband is trapped in night after night of tedious conversation with a decades-younger Cambodian wife, and he’s dying to chat with anyone about any topic other than the weather, her stomachaches, and the quality of her fish soup.
Nevertheless, when faced with this situation, I always err on the side of discretion and pretend not to know the girl. I act like I’m in a spy thriller and I’m a CIA agent who doesn’t want to expose my source. If I sense that she is really trying to get my attention, I might reciprocate with a nod and a half-smile of recognition from across the room, like a Seinfeld-esque “funeral hello.” The husband can probably see that. Maybe that’s worse.
On a related note, I have noticed that at least three ex-bargirl acquaintances have stealthily “unfriended” me on Facebook in the last year. I’m quite sure I did nothing to offend them; I think they just got married and decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to stay in touch. I respect that. I wish them well. I just hope I don’t ever run into them with their new husbands at Rahu.