(Photo credit: Juan Antonio F. Segal/Flickr.com)
I am a hypocrite. A hypocrite holding a ping-pong paddle.
On this night, the ping-pong paddle has just hit a ping-pong ball that is coming directly at me, as ping-pong balls do. But it is the ping-pong ball’s provenance that concerns me: It has just been launched from inside the vagina of a visibly bored, thirty-something Thai woman sitting spread-eagle on a dingy stage.
For over a year, I have lived in Bangkok as an “expat,” a term I dislike intensely. I am, no escaping it, white privilege embodied. But I have tried to encounter the culture in which I now live on its own terms — terms of respect and deference, with an eye toward understanding the world better and being a worthy representative of my country in a far-off place.
Curiosity has gotten the better of me, though. I want to understand the famously forbidden parts of the city I currently call home. And that curiosity has brought me to Patpong, a part of central Bangkok that is perhaps the most scarlet of the world’s red-light districts. It is here that I sit, at a sticky table in a dimly lit room, watching the interaction of pussy and ping-pong ball and hoping for some sliver of wisdom.
The bar I have chosen (or, rather, been fast-talked into by a guy hovering vulture-like at the edge of the street market outside) is hidden away at the top of a staircase behind a black door. Inside is a room about the size of a typical dive bar, with the walls painted black and the lights set as low as possible.
Vinyl banquettes surround the stage, which somehow feels like both dance floor and boxing ring. A waitress/stripper hands me a paddle as soon as I am seated. And even before my lukewarm beer arrives, before I can figure out how to begin this anthropological expedition, the ping-pong balls are flying in my direction.
It’s strange what crosses your mind at a moment like that. Is she counting how many balls I manage to connect with? How do I match up to all the drunk businessmen and even drunker bachelor partiers that she’s surely seen?
Do I hit like a girl?
Her blank, practiced expression never changes. She is methodical, pausing only occasionally to reload another batch of three balls and then eject them patiently, one by one.
She keeps firing, and I keep hitting them like an idiot. I want to shout out questions. If she had the chance, would she leave this place and never look back? Could she walk away without threat of physical harm? What is it like to be behind the ping-pong balls rather than at the receiving end? Was there some way I could help?
You know, typical oblivious upper-middle-class American questions.
A waitress/stripper hands me a paddle as soon as I am seated. And even before my lukewarm beer arrives, the ping-pong balls are flying in my direction.
Across the floor, three young guys are trying unsuccessfully to haggle over their bill. They aren’t quite drunk enough to miss the fact that they are getting charged an astronomical fee for a few sweaty beers and this oddly unsexy sex show.
Besides them, there is nobody else in the place except me and the male companion who has been game enough to accompany me on this late-night journey. We are far outnumbered by the dozen or so employees — other strippers, probable bouncers and an older woman who seems to be the boss. To them, I am the show, the oddity in this place where the clientele probably fits a pretty narrow description most nights.
I thought I’d feel disgust and sorrow and, underneath those emotions, maybe a burst of titillation at the forbidden-ness of it all. Instead, I feel only embarrassment — not for the performer but for myself. This has been a mistake. I am the sexual equivalent of the American “volun-tourists” who spend a week attempting to construct a house they have no idea how to build. I am mistaking curiosity for anthropology, prurience for compassion.
We leave. Our two watery beers come to $120, and it’s clear that things won’t go well if we complain. Maybe this hasn’t been a total waste, I tell myself. I make a silent promise that this is the beginning of my path to understanding — and to helping.
I wish I could tell you that in the months since that night, I’ve figured out my role in Bangkok’s complicated ecosystem of women. I wish I could share with you here a compelling story about how I’ve somehow gotten the American women here talking about the city’s huge community of female sex workers in voices that rise above the usual hushed, harsh whispers.
As I hopped in a taxi that night and returned to my high-rise apartment in the expat district, I really thought that would happen. And yet, that night remains filed in my brain under “quirky experiences that really ought to add up to something larger.” It scratches at me, far from resolved but not yet part of any clear plan of action. Because for now, I’ve gone back to my overscheduled, embarrassingly safe life, leaving the ping-pong paddle behind but carrying the hypocrisy all the way home.