Where do I begin to tell the story of how great a pain the living of life can be, the sheer effort of getting through each day with a smile on my face and my head held high.
Because of my great need to just be loved.
Because life, as we all know darling, is the biggest bitch of them all.
Because I struggle for acceptance every step of the way.
Because…I am different…
This is the story of Kay, a katoey or ladyboy, just about this side of forty.
I first met Kay a few years ago on one of my frequent trips to Bangkok; I have been coming to Thailand since 1989 and I absolutely love this country. Walking down a popular tourist shopping area, I stopped by her little stall to check out her wares. Initially, I was hesitant, bumbling…this was my first actual exchange with a katoey and I hope I didn’t come across as too gauche. I guess not, because she and I struck up an instant rapport.
Truthfully, I didn’t know how to address -her? him? She dresses like a woman, but people in the market know her by her male as well as female name – talk about confusing! It is Kay who made it easy and comfortable to talk to her maybe because, unlike other farangs, I don’t judge her. Nor do I need to ‘use’ her. We share a mutual respect for each other.
Sometime later I was back in Bangkok for yet another jaunt. This time I had my ‘baby’, my youngest daughter, a teenager, with me. Thankfully, the kid is quite mature and non-judgemental for her age. Kay was overwhelmed to meet her and from that moment on our ‘friendship’ was cemented. Thereafter, she rushed around the market introducing me to the other shopkeepers, with the result that today I get fantastic bargains out here simply by virtue of being Kay’s friend J
Since I have come to live here in Bangkok two years ago, in my naivette I have presumed that katoeys are accepted as a third gender in Thailand and treated with respect – a far cry from India where they repulse and revile people at traffic signals and incite derision with their crude, vulgar ways. Kay shattered this bubble of innocence one evening as she revealed her story. The need for acceptance is very strong, something she has struggled for since she was a teenager which is when she realised she was a woman trapped in a man’s body and decided whom she’d rather be. “My familee temme leave hou (house), go way, eveybody laff me,” she says sadly. Today though, all these years later, things have improved with her family and she now has her own little place next to where they live. They now accept her lifestyle; on her part, she is not a bar girl, on the contrary, lives life with some dignity, making a living by selling her touristy knick-knacks. On the days that she is sick or needs some time off, her sister fills in at the shop for her, so things have come a long way indeed.
Like all women, Kay can be of mercurial temperament, and like ALL Thai women, she can be distressingly direct! Once, she was in a naughty mood, having just returned from her annual holiday with her European boyfriend. She’s all flushed and excited and the belle of the hour among the other shopkeepers, and we end up having a most risqué conversation. “Suvaay mak mak” (very beautiful) she says, and suddenly pokes at one of my boobs! In the open marketplace! I let out a startled yelp before I recover my aplomb. “Umm, they are okay, quite small for Indian people,” I say. “No, velly good,” she says emphatically. “You see my?” I nod faintly, hoping I won’t be asked to do a return poke! “Are they real?” I ask daringly. “Yes, suaah (sure), real,” she asserts. “I do opalashan (operation). My boyfren, he very mean you know. I teh (tell) him I want make for him, him pay. Him say no, you want you pay. I say – I make for you lah! Him say, how I know? You make opalashan, you go other man! Him velly bad, hurt me,” she sniffs. I should state here that Kay has been with this guy for the last seventeen years. Women! We never stop complaining about our men 😉
So of course, we go on to have this utterly serious conversation about a very serious topic indeed – sex! Greatly daring now and fearful of offending her, yet, my curiosity gets the better of me (what the hell, I’ve just had my boob poked in the market, I figure I’m entitled to some liberties!) I point to her crotch and ask if she’s had an operation there too. “No,” she says at once. “So you still have…err…?” I ask. “Yes I have dick,” she says and guffaws at my discomfiture. Okay, now we’ve reached the point of no return, so not to be outdone, I barge on. “Okay, why not operation there?” I ask. “My boyfren have propim (problem), him no can do inside woman. You undestan? Him cock he have propim. We no do back also” -Mother of God, she turns around and shows me her butt right in front of anyone passing by! I implore her hastily to turn around, saying I understand! “Him ony (only) like I suck, no need opalashan, no ask what I like,” she huffs. Boy, we’ve touched on a sore point alright! So, why is she with him then? “I love, you know. Seventeen year I with him, I wait him come and we go holiday evey year. I teh him you come live in Bangkok or take me with you, him no listen,” she says despondently.
Another time, she points at my eyes (the make-up)and says – “I like Pu, what you do you eye. What you use, where you buy?” I tell her this is from India, and her face falls. Next time I go to India I’ll bring it for you, I promise, and her face lights up.
Lest you get the idea that she looks like one of those utterly gorgeous, with-a-figure-to-die-for katoeys of the Miss Tiffany show or the ladyboys at the go-go bars, let me correct you. Poor Kay is rather plain looking, a little on the tall side for the average woman, and has the unfortunate, somewhat square silhouette of a man. She has grown out her hair to almost waist level, but close up one can see the stubbled jaw which a desperate overdose of pancake strives hard to disguise. Her makeup is always over the top and somewhat garish, even though painstakingly applied, but I haven’t the heart to tell her this, given how hard she tries to be a woman.
True to my word, I carry along a bottle of Lakme eyeliner on my next visit to the market J She is absolutely overjoyed. Now I am upgraded; ever since that day, Kay tells both shopkeepers as well as any random shoppers that I am her ‘sistah.’ “You sistah me,” she says, grabbing my hands and looking at me intently.
Inevitably, we have this girlie conversation where the topic is, what else, boyfriends! “You suvaay, you have boyfriend, chhai mai (isn’t it)?” she asks. I blush and tell her I broke it off. “A-la,” she goes. “Why you do?” So I go into the painful story in detail, honestly telling her both his faults – and mine. She listens patiently, as any girlfriend would, then, “you have photo you man?” In answer, I flip open my phone and show her some pictures. She admires his moustache, his obvious personality, our height difference. She is silent for a long time, then, seriously, she puts out her hands and gestures that I place my hands in hers. I do so, and she closes over my hands in a tight grip and says, “Him come back you. Him suvaay, him love you velly much. I tell Goddess (she believes in Ma Kali!) for you Pu, him come back, suaah.” She is so much in earnest that I tease her okay, when he come back I bring him to meet you – but you leave him alone yeah. He my man!
Kay is usually bubbly, even, flirtatious, but on one of my visits, she is visibly disturbed. Times are hard, and the tourist footfall has dropped considerably in Thailand, no matter what official statistics quote….the reality is out there in the shops to be seen. Nowhere is this more apparent than when you walk into this market and see the vendors sitting around glumly; this was a place where you couldn’t move without someone’s elbow jabbing your kidney. Kay is very worried and it is of course, a Catch-22 situation – she does not want to invest too much money in quality goods but, seeing the cheap things she sells, not many stop to buy. I confess there are times when I have bought something I absolutely do not need, just because I feel sorry, but I have stopped that now as I do not want her to think I am doing it out of pity. More than her, it absolutely maddens me when I take friends there and people either talk to her for the novelty factor, or else ask her to pull things out and then walk away without buying anything; the despair and hopelessness on her face is painful to watch.
Quite recently, she was mad at her farang boyfriend and I just happened by that evening for her to offload on! Apparently, he does not send her any money and, on his last visit, he gave her just 50,000baht for the entire year. “Fifty thousand, how him think I live,” she spits out contemptuously. “You know Pu, him come Bangkok, him teeth all spoi (spoil) he make new and pay 50,000baht! For teeth! And for me whole year him give 50,000! How him think I can live?!” The reason for her perturbation soon becomes clear. She looks right and left and then asks me sotto voice – “You think okay I have other boyfren?” Whoaa. I’m hardly the relationship expert here! Err, but you love this dude, right, I ask cautiously. “I wait 17-year him do nothing, we go hotel him no ask in morning I want blekphast, we go shoppin him no buy me anything!” Uh oh. I wait till the tirade winds down and then ask her, what’s happened? She looks at me almost defiantly and says “I in love.” Yes, I say patiently, you love your boyfriend right. “No him,” she goes. “I love Thai man, that’s why I ask you – is okay, can love?” Oh dear. Women all over have the same eternal problem, don’t they?! Well does he love you back, can he take care of you, I ask, slipping into my agony aunt mode which, I swear, is tattooed on my forehead! “Him married but him love me,” she says immediately. Okay, so what’s the propim then? It turns out he drives the vehicle that carries Kay’s and the other shopkeeper’s supplies to the market. “Him no have money, Pu. And now I have to wolly futu (worry future) you know, I not young anymo (anymore). And here eveybody know I have Eulopean (European) boyfren, I never say we have propim, how I can leave him, eveybody say not nice thing about me, you undestan?”
Ahh – so we come full circle, where her biggest fear once again is that of social acceptance or ostracism. You must understand that in Thai society, it is a big deal for girls and gays to have a farang boyfriend/husband even though, paradoxically, society also frowns on such matches. So who said life is fair?! Kay has been with her much older German lover for the last 17-years…he comes to Thailand once a year and that’s it; that annual vacation is what she lives for, apart from a few random phone calls through the year. Sound familiar? Women all over go through the same pangs and heartbreak, don’t they? She has given him her loyalty – but her culture and conditioning demand that he repay in financial security. This is not as shocking as it sounds or perhaps I’m inured now, but the Thais are very pragmatic and ‘love’ is a business.
Since I’ve been on a hectic schedule of travel, I haven’t been around in Bangkok much lately. Therefore, it’s some weeks before I see Kay again, and I’m surprised to find that her long hair, of which she was inordinately proud, is now a sleek bob cut. What happened, I want to know. Turns out she was mad at the farang boyfriend, so it was off with the locks! Oh my Buddha! And what’s the latest on the Thai front, I ask eagerly, quite sure this story is skimming along. As it turns out – not. The guy’s wife has run off with another man so technically, he is free, except that after telling Kay once that he loves her, he’s now clammed up! She puts this down to societal pressure. ‘Eveybody temme I more rich him, more bigger him, I have car, I have hou; I say no money no propim but him no listen,” she sighs.
Another bee in the bonnet she’s gotten lately is that of having the sex change operation. I am aghast. “Do you know it hurts like Billy-O?” I tell her. I inform her I have recently seen a katoey undergo the operation and frankly, these are sights I could well have done without. She tosses her bob cut, sniffs, makes a fist and pounds at where her heart is. “Must be stong here,” she says defiantly. “Is okay pain.” But why, I almost moan. Why now at this age? “I want be like you, perfect woman, you undestan?” she says earnestly. “Eveybody die, Pu – apple tree, orange jus (juice!) tree, you, me. I want die happy na. Want be perfect woman.”
Okay, this is getting heavy. Come on, I say. Let’s go wake this dude of yours and tell him you love him and what the fuck is he doing about it?! She blushes coyly and laughs and looks gay again. Let’s do it, I say, only half teasing now, as Kay is quite capable of holding me to my words, and the half of my brain that’s still functioning is urgently asking me exactly how I plan to wrestle an unwilling Thai guy into submission! “A-la,” she swipes the air affectionately. “Okay, I dink (drink) my beer and I go.” “Ching ching (really) huh?” I tell her. Don’t be quiet; sit him down once and for all, tell him what’s in your heart and then you guys decide what to do next. I tell her I’m going to India for a couple of months and she better take care of herself while I’m gone. In one of her quick, childlike flashes of mood, this bit of news doesn’t please at all, I can tell. “When you come Bangkok?” she demands to know imperiously. Probably in two or three months, I tell her. “Pu, when you come you bing (bring) for me photo Goddess?” she asks endearingly. Yes, I will, I say. “I not want anything, ony photo,” she emphasises anxiously, lest I think she’s sending me on a shopping spree. Yes, I know, and I will bring it, I promise her.
Something positive and flowering awaits us when I go back and we pick up the threads of our lives again. I’d like to conclude Kay’s story here on an upbeat note by telling you, my reader, that next time you see a katoey, be kind and don’t be judgemental, for they suffer far more than you and I. Our benighted society accords them no status, no dignity…they are neither here, nor there.
*Name changed to protect identity.
**None of the photographs in this story are of the real ‘Kay’; these are random shots of katoeys I met on my travels through Thailand.
Punam Mohandas asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work. All copyright and pictures are the property of the author.