Hurrying thither and yon along the corridors of the university where I teach, I happened to notice this tall girl who had a lot of poise and an air of aloof reticence about her. Beyond a fleeting smile or two, we did not really have much contact. To be honest, I thought she was a bit stand-offish. One day, I was passing by and, unnoticed by her, I saw her peering intently into a hand-held compact mirror as though waiting for it to reveal some eternal secret. She was completely oblivious as to who saw her and I popped my head around the door to grin and say: “Yes, yes, very beautiful na ka!” She started blushing and giggling and – there we were.
By the time this story is out in print, she would have graduated from university as a 23-year old Tourism and Hospitality major. “My mum want me to do Business Administration but I hate math and statistics. My mum was disappointed, but I know my own future,” she says quite firmly, with a toss of her head. She plans to join her mother’s jewellery business. “Yes, I know my degree (in hospitality) will be a waste but I don’t care much because I have a family business I can do.”
Carla. Not her real name of course. We bandy some names around for the purpose of this story. She chooses it because it’s a pretty, girly name and also, close to the Spanish side of her parentage. She savours it, rolls it around on her tongue and finally, gives a smile of approval.
My stories thus far have been with katoeys who are from the lower strata of society; bar girls, dancers, small shop owners. This is the first time I have met a well-spoken, university graduate, who manages to elocute her feelings fairly articulately.
“My mum have three husbands,” she says matter-of-factly (it is debatable whether these are actual marriages or long-term relationships.) “I am from the first one, who is Spanish. My sister is from the second one, who is Italian. My mum is now dating a German guy; no, they are not married, but like married.”
Are you close to your sister, I ask. “My sister and I do talk and laugh, our condos are next to each other and every weekend, she come to eat with me and my mum, but she have her own father. I am jealous of her because she have one, but it motivates me to be strong. Sometimes, I cry…
“Her father is very nice to me, looked after me from when I was three until ten years old. But…they were a family, you know what I mean? Mother, father and child. I was the one not part of it.” She says this resignedly.
Family means a great deal to her, obviously. The lack of a father as part of her life is something she feels very strongly; even now, her eyes well up while talking about him. “You know, sometime I cry when I talk about him,” she says softly, sadly.
“My father is a pilot, that is how he and my mum met, because she was an air hostess. He lives in Spain. He doesn’t care much, he has another family. He was married to someone from England before my mum, so I have a brother somewhere. Five years ago my dad came to Phuket and that’s the last time we met. We talked like friends; I didn’t see him as a ‘dad.’ More like strangers. We are in touch only on emails now. He seems to be selfish,” she says, almost disdainfully. “I think my dad knows (about me being a ladyboy) but I haven’t told him. I know what is going to happen. What is happening already. That’s the important reason he is not in touch with me. But I think also he is so selfish that even if I was a real man he would cut me off. Now I am a ladyboy so – bye bye kha!
“I was one year old when he left, but I still remember everything.” You couldn’t possibly, I protest. You were just a baby. “No kha, I remember,” she insists earnestly.
Has she ever been to Spain, to visit him? “I went to Spain seven years ago (she was still a boy then) stayed with him for two months. My stepmother fought with me every day. When I open the fridge she’s like, ‘you have to ask permission!’ Whose house is this – my father’s house?! She would look down on Asian people, Thai people. She said, ‘Do you sleep on the floor? Do you go to school on elephants??’ If I can change the past, I would tell her, don’t look down on people! But that time I was very young so I could not (say anything.)
My father have a boat, so he took me around, fishing, blah, blah. Not because he want to show me around Spain; when he was going somewhere on work or fishing or whatever, he would take me. The most memorable thing of this trip though was of this jealousy girl, something not good!”
Tall, slim and fair, long hair falls like a curtain around a narrow face. Her Spanish origins peep through in the shape of the eyes and the mouth. She works very hard on looking good and is determined to fix her teeth and get her breast enhancement done as soon as she can. “I want to compete in the pageant, so I will do my boobs. And my teeth.” I tell her the operation is really painful; why not just let the hormonal pills do the trick instead of opting for surgery. “Can’t have small boobs in the ladyboy contest – they will laugh!” she says, horrified at the thought. “But no, I won’t do the bottom; it’s too painful.”
We lead gently into it. Carla was six years old and in the first grade, since she started feeling “like this.” “I used to see my mum polish her nails and stuff, she was very pretty. I hate the man look. I adore a beautiful woman, but I don’t ‘like’ her; I want to BE like her, you know what I mean? If I’m a man, I want to be handsome, if I’m a girl, I want to be super pretty. I don’t want half-half.”
She follows the Miss Universe contest keenly. “I don’t like them – but I want to be like them. Girls say I’m pretty; boys say I’m not pretty. Some men say I’m pretty in the Latin style,” she says, tossing her hair.
In her teens, from 14-19, she went through a phase of being gay, as she was not sure about what she wanted. Finally, at 18 when she joined university, she decided to grow her hair and wear skirts; “I thought I liked boys, but I had some reactions like girls.” She was 20 when she started taking the female hormone pills, to “grow boobs.”
“I don’t think I’m gay; gays don’t eat the medicine.” She says this almost scornfully. In her young mind, eating the hormonal tablets, with all their strong side-effects, seems to be the qualifying yardstick for sitting on the fence or getting off it. “Gays want to be girls only in dressing up but not in real life.
“At first my mum was not okay,” she says softly. “She was very angry. My mum asked me: ‘Did I not take care of you? What did I do wrong?’ When I was in the second year, she said, just do whatever the hell you want. If you want to be like this, up to you, but if you have a problem, AIDS or something, don’t come to me.
“First she was embarrassed to be seen with me. But now she is okay. No, we don’t share clothes! She doesn’t really say much so I don’t know what she is thinking now. But, I guess every mother would hurt from inside if your son wants to be a daughter. But this is MY story, this is real life, not Hollywood movie. I feel comfortable like this so how can I change.”
I’m not sure whether she is trying to convince me or herself, but Carla goes on: “Inside, we love each other. I do understand her as a mother, but I can’t change this. If my son was like me…you know what I mean?” (her favourite expression, she says it about a dozen times during our conversation.)
I ask her if this rejection hurt her. She ponders my question and then says, ruminatively: “No, it doesn’t hurt. Because I only have my mother. I am just thankful she didn’t put me out of her life. She is the only one who can hurt me or fight with me. Because she is my mother.”
What about other students at university, did they ever laugh at her or tease her? I know how painfully sensitive it can be, to stand out amid a crowd like this; I had a ladyboy student in one of my earlier classes too. “At first, they made fun of me; I didn’t look similar to other women. It takes time to be a nice ladyboy. Especially in Thailand, they look at the appearance, they don’t care about the feelings. This is teenage society in Thailand. It is not easy to be this gender. It is not easy – it is not funny. You have to spend a lot of money. Because you’re a ladyboy you have to be plus and plus – more than a woman, more beautiful, more everything.
“But now I am confident of myself so I don’t care. Everybody thinks I am a girl; till I open my mouth they don’t realise” (it’s true, she does have a coarse, man voice.) “I have friends here now, all genders, but most are gay.”
What’s the difference then between a girl and a ladyboy, I ask. “The difference is that a girl is real, a ladyboy is not,” she says, sagely.
Her English is almost flawless. When I compliment her on this, she shakes her head. “When I was a man, I spoke fluent English. But now…my grammar is not so good, my thinking has become slow. You have to take these hormone tablets daily, till you die, but I feel it has made my mind slower. Yes, I know it is harmful, the bones become brittle (she has to search for this word on her phone dictionary but is eventually satisfied she has managed to find the right translation from Thai to English.) But you have to exchange something for the beauty you want…that is the Thai ladyboy,” says this young person so resignedly, so philosophically.
Musing almost to myself, I wonder aloud what would happen if she ever went back to being a man. “If I decide to go back to being a man after being here already, I think my friends will laugh. I have to think carefully. I have wasted a lot of money, of hormones, already.”
“I am attracted to men, especially Thai men,” she confesses candidly. “Farang men like me, but I prefer the Thai; I feel I understand them in my heart. When I speak English with a foreigner, I feel fake. But when I speak to Thai men I feel it is real talk. But Thai men prefer girls in the Chinese or Korean style….”
So…what about sex, relationships? “I want sincere, real love. If you love somebody you will put all your heart into that person, you know what I mean? I need to be emotionally attracted to have sex. Yes, I have had sex with men as a ladyboy, no sex when I was gay. I have been with two person. Both are Thai. The first one only wanted my money! I never considered him a gay because he likes women. The second one I met at university. I borrowed his eraser in class. Then I went back to my dorm. Later, when I was out with my friends, I met him again. He ask for my mobile number. We dated, but now it is over.”
In my somewhat ham-handed way, I venture into these uncharted waters. Does she get fulfilled, get an orgasm? I find I have to explain the meaning of this word and dither around till she gets the drift. “We hug each other, touch each other in bed,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I do oral sex.” But how does she get pleasured? Does she let the guy touch her private parts? “Thai ladyboy never show dick to any guy!” She shrieks scandalised; I seem to have breached some social code. “If you have dick (haven’t done the operation) you put off the light! No, I never let him touch my dick, no Thai ladyboy will. Dick does not grow (she means an erection) after you take hormones. Can only pee-pee.
“Ohhh, it is very painful,” she shudders, talking about anal sex. “I only did it with the first guy. When I watch porno movies and they go, Oooh! Aaah! I think how they can do – it is so pain!!”
She is so funny as she mimics these orgasmic grunts that I burst out laughing and she permits herself a grin too, pleased at having made me laugh.
How do you see yourself, I ask her, not anticipating that the question is going to make her almost sorrowful. “I see myself as a tired person, because it is hard to find money in Thailand. So to be more beautiful, you need to have more money. Money for me is most important, then love. If you have money – and brains – you can do anything.”
Family is a recurring motif in her young life, a regret she feels most keenly. “Sometimes I think why wasn’t I born to have a perfect family. Not rich. Just – someone to love you,” she says pensively. “I think father and mother should be together. It’s still inside my soul; I still want a perfect family. Inside, I think my mum’s German boyfriend is not okay (with me.) Inside, he is like – ‘whatever, he is not my son.’”
Continuing on this track, she says: “I told my mum, I will not continue my surname (she means, have children.) But I would like to have a child. If a man could get pregnant, I would have a lot of children!”
Well, there are ways, I say aloud. What you mean, she asks, immediately interested. Well…adoption, surrogacy. “No, I will not adopt,” she is most definite on this. “Not from my blood, so I will not adopt. Better to live alone than take another person’s child. Better to make merit for them than adopt.”
Does she ever think about moving to Spain? After all, with her exotic looks, she would fit right in and be much sought after too. “I do like Spain, but I feel my place is here. I want to look Asian, a Thai woman. I don’t like half and half. I feel more comfortable looking like a Thai ladyboy. I think I can find true love in Spain, but I would prefer to find it here. My father is not sincere with me and I think other Spanish men will be like him,” she says a trifle regretfully.
“Being a ladyboy you have to change a lot – your name, your signature, your ID card. My passport and ID card still have my boy name; it does not bother me. But I was angry when I went to the airport recently! I had my hair up and no make-up, was wearing my glasses. The officer did not believe my passport and asked to see my ID card! Why?? That’s my PASSPORT. It’s more important than my ID! Just check if your pilot is safe or not, hello!” Boy, she’s cute when she’s being indignant.
With one of her swift, mercurial changes of temperament, she is back to chuckling. One of the other students, a cheerful, ever-smiling boy whom I know, is also in the room now with us; Carla was his senior as a ‘boy’ and he teases her by taking out her assortment of pills, hair brushes and make-up from the drawer to show me the paraphernalia she needs to “look beautiful” now. She blushes and turns coy, but I am glad it is all done in good humour and that he is able to take the change in her so positively.
She shows me an old photograph of her as a boy, in school uniform. I gasp aloud in shock, but she merely smiles complacently – she knows what a marked change she has achieved. The picture she shows me is of a round-faced, extremely dark boy, with thick, caterpillar eyebrows, average height and slightly stocky. I still can’t quite believe this is the same person. I ask her to show me more pictures. “I will try and find; I don’t have many pic. Because I’m not beautiful then, so why take pic?”
Does she ever think about the future? She is young, bold and strong now. Where does she see herself a few years hence? “I thought about this before…what will happen when I grow old? My face will be super ugly, my mum won’t be there. But…friends. I have some close friends. My friends will be there.”
She grows quiet for a bit, then says philosophically: “I think my story is sadness, not happy.”