by Jill Amadio
I knew before I hit the ground I had been struck by a farang. I could smell the meat in his pores in that split second of contact, as his shoulder sent me reeling halfway across the street. Steak-loving American soldiers have become easy prey in the Vietnamese jungle where they are fighting the war and their odor is just as recognizable here in Bangkok.
“Oh gosh, I’m really sorry. Are you all right?” He picked me up as if I were a feather. Towering over me, he blushed as red as the Buddha’s winter robe and I instantly lowered my eyes at his embarrassment. But, as always these days, I silently cursed. Damned GIs. Ungainly, loud, clutching fistfuls of hundred-dollar bills, they blunder through Bangkok as if it is their personal playpen. Every hour of the day and night, the city of my ancestors is being corrupted by these swaggering, callow youths, turning it onto one big brothel.
“I really didn’t see you. Honest.”
He was still apologizing and for the first time I looked closely at him. Eyes as blue as Burmese sapphires, short blond hair framing a baby face, and a forehead wrinkled in concern– an 18-year old god–an American soldier. How I had grown to hate them over the past two years.
Thousands swarmed the City of Angels every week, on R and R as they called it, a rest away from the war next door, crowding our streets and seducing our women, scattering money around as if they were emptying buckets of water at the Songkran water festival.
In spite of his size, the young American’s hands were gentle as he helped brush off the street dust from my clothes and I sensed he needed reassurance before he would leave. Not many GIs were as respectful; I had seen firsthand how they treated Thais, as if we were all pimps. Of course, many of us were, but perhaps I reminded him of his grandfather. Did farangs honor their elders as we did? Although English doesn’t come fluently to me, my gardening job at the British Embassy has taught me some basic phrases. “All right, yes, all right,” I told him.
“Good, good,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. His wide, generous mouth broke into a smile that framed gleaming, perfectly straight teeth. I instinctively ran my tongue over my own which were yellow and crooked. When I was a young man, they had been as strong as an elephant’s tusk. Both of my minor wives had complimented me on my teeth before leaving for other men.
Obviously relieved I wasn’t going to yell at him, and as anxious as all Americans were to be liked, he stood there grinning like the monkeys in my mother’s village expecting a treat. I realized he was waiting for forgiveness. How strange that these rich farangs always seem to need approval. Perhaps it is because they have no true heritage of their own to give them inner peace and confidence. While I have thousands of years of the Lord Buddha’s culture in my bones to guide me along life’s pathways, I know that Americans have a mere three centuries. I should be more understanding, perhaps even humble. I now felt ashamed. “My fault, my fault,” I said, but not smiling. “Where you go?”
He had knocked me down in the crowded Chinese section of Bangkok where I always went to buy joss sticks. It was rare to see GIs here in the evening. Most of them overflowed the sidewalks on Patpong Road, the red light district or filled the new discos that sprang up almost overnight it seemed, to provide this occupation army of playboy soldiers with local B girls who could rock and roll. Only once had I gone to see these giant dance halls. I’d stood outside watching teenagers dressed in gaudy miniskirts and see-through blouses pour through the entrance, and then I’d peeked through the door although I had to clap my hands over my ears at the pounding music. My blood ran cold to watch our fragile young Thai girls bend their willowy bodies to the harsh western songs, letting GIs hold them close, crushing them like lotus against their chests, or swinging them around in clumsy circles.
The Vietnam War was a very serious one. Yet I knew that some foreigners living in Bangkok thought it was great fun to travel east to Saigon. I’d hear them from the Embassy garden through the open windows. “Oh, no, not another party tomorrow night. They’re getting terribly boring, don’t you think? Let’s hop over to Saigon instead and take a look at the war for a few hours. We can visit the American black market and buy some decent shampoo.”
My attention swung back to the GI when he said, “Where am I going? To tell you the truth, I guess I’m lost.” He laughed openly and without shame. I said nothing. It always puzzled me that Americans were so willing to admit ignorance. Westerners never seemed to care if they lost face. He winked as he said, “I’m looking for a disco called Thai Heaven. Heard there’re some real special women there. His wink was lewd and I was glad I hadn’t smiled at him.
“All women special,” I said, my tone severe.
His smile faded. “Hey, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded, it’s just that, well, all the guys told me the girls there are, umm…” His voice trailed off awkwardly.
Who was I to stand judgment on this young man? He’d obviously only met the bad Thai women who went with men for money. I was sure he’d never had the chance to meet a nice girl. Hailing a passing samlor, belching smoke out of its motorcycle engine, I indicated to the GI he should get in. “You want to take me somewhere? Maybe show me around Bangkok? Okay, but gosh, I’ve been avoiding these funny little three-wheeled taxis. I don’t really trust ‘em,” he said. Nevertheless, he got in and sat down, taking up almost the entire bench seat, forcing me to squeeze in beside him. I told the driver, sitting up front, to take us to my house along the Chao Phrya River.
The GI held out his hand.” My name’s Johnny Dalton,” he said. I shook his hand, noticing the contrast with my dry and wrinkled one.
“Samboon,” I replied.
We passed the ancient Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, with its seven spires still visible as they reached toward the night sky and I was reminded that many of our temples were now overshadowed by dozens of ugly, new box-like hotels built for Westerners. Most of the Embassy staff where I worked preferred the Erawan and Oriental hotels which were built in the Thai style, with graceful tiers of red tile roofs edged with gold and at the corners, carved serpent heads to keep away evil events. My own home has no such roof, of course, but the bamboo keeps out the rain and to protect my family I take great care to leave offerings in the spirit house outside. I am very angry with Westerners who call them bird houses. Farangs have no idea what they represent to us.
The samlor rattled along the unpaved roads as we got closer to the river, leaving behind the gaudiness of the city. The driver took one of the main bridges which crosses the wide expanse of water where river buses, long-tailed boats and water taxis speed up and down. As we drew closer to my house I wondered nervously what impulse made me take him to my home. Why would I want to defile my private world with this raw, clumsy GI? Pen-Chan will think poorly of me. I will lose face.
As I thought of my family I realized the reason for my impulsive action– my daughter, Lampai. Perhaps if this American could meet a pure Thai girl, unspoiled and innocent, he might understand how he and his friends are dishonoring us, with no respect for our heritage and our people. How can I expect them to treat us with dignity if all they meet are greedy prostitutes? I will show him my home, my family, our way of life, humble as I know it is. He can carry the message back, perhaps. Lampai is the jewel of my life, my precious daughter whose pale skin inherited from our family north of Chieng-mai matches mine. Her magnificent eyes are as deep as black pearls and her blue-black hair shines like her mother’s. A sweet smile is always on her lips and her gentle manner is a constant comfort to us. She is a perfect child, just turned sixteen.
How many times since that evening have I ached to take back all that happened? Why did I merit this punishment? Every Friday for ten years I have bought gold leaves and joss sticks and left them at the feet of the Buddha. Surely this homage was enough? My cousin only went once a month.
We arrived on the bank of the river and got out of the samlor. Johnny insisted in paying and I saw the driver’s eyes light up when he saw the tip, probably a very large amount of dollars. I knew that the Thai family where my sister worked was always complaining about how Americans were ruining the economy by spoiling their help with large salaries.
“Johnny, come.” I led him along the muddy trail. We passed three of my neighbor’s homes before reaching my own. I started to climb the ladder, indicating he should follow me.
“Wow! I guess this is where the real Thais live,” he said, inspecting our home, which sat on stilts. My great-grandfather had built the two-room house many years ago when there was still dense jungle all around. He cut square spaces for windows and a door in the bamboo walls to let in light and air. Only twice in my lifetime had the Chao Phrya River flooded, with the waters reaching the fourth rung of the ladder. None of us was upset. The river was our connection to everywhere and, like our neighbors, we had our small boat. These days my arms are tired after rowing a while but my wife, Pen-Chan, who is much younger, can take us up and down the klongs with no problem. These canals reach into many areas of in the city although my favorite place is Wat Arun, close by.
My wife came forward, staring at the man who almost filled the open doorway. I followed him inside, saying, “Pen-Chan, this is Johnny. We are welcoming him to our home.” She bowed, putting her hands together at her chest in our traditional wai gesture. He smiled widely and then he looked around at our simple home.
I brought all three of our cushions and set them on the floor for him next to the door. In the heat and humidity, only now beginning to lessen, I knew he would appreciate being close to any river breeze that might spring up.
“Pen-Chan, bring tea and Mekong.” I turned to our guest. “You like whiskey, Johnny?”
“You bet,” he said, grinning. “I’ve only been here two days but I’ve already come to appreciate Mekong. Strong stuff. Tastes like rum to me, though.”
I sat on my bamboo mat and presently Pen-Chan brought the drinks to us. She sat next to me and was careful not to stare again at our visitor. I explained quickly that I had met him in the Chinese quarter and thought it would be polite to invite him home. Of course, I did not give my wife any details of my conversation with the man or exactly why I had brought him here. She would not think well of me.
Then the reason for my sudden action appeared when Lampai came up the ladder and into the house. She was all smiles and excited chatter as she always was when she came home from school, but she stopped abruptly when she saw our visitor. Johnny had risen awkwardly to his feet. He held out his hand and Lampai blushed as she bowed in return, but did not take his hand. She knew it was not respectful to touch a stranger, especially a farang.
“Lampai,” I said to her, “Why don’t you take Johnny to the park? Your mother will accompany you. It’s not dark yet and I think he’d like to walk a bit after sitting on the floor.” I laughed nervously and explained to the GI what I had just said.
“Super idea,” he replied.
I looked at Pen-Chan. She agreed with me, saying they’d be back in a hour.
During the days which followed, I allowed Lampai to go out alone with Johnny after school and before the sun went down, but never at night. One Saturday she took him to see our beautiful Royal Barges and to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha after she had assured me she had finished her homework.
Johnny was a very generous person and brought my daughter gifts. Some we did not allow her to accept, such as a gold bracelet, but when he took her to the market to buy Thai silk fabric for a dress we were very happy. He brought back some Chinese fabrics for my wife too, and even presented me with a white shirt, the kind that Thai businessmen wear, but it was much too big and he laughed when I tried it on. He said he’d bring me a smaller size but I think being very occupied with my daughter, he never did.
Four times he took us all out for meals and once he took us to the hotel where he was staying. It was filled with American soldiers and very noisy. There were many Thai girls going up and down the stairs with the men. Johnny could see we didn’t approve and he quickly took us away.
He often tried to speak a few words of Thai and I knew that my daughter had helped him because they laughed at things I did not understand, but I was content. Johnny was kind and I realized he really liked Lampai’s company. I hoped he was coming to appreciate the Thai way of life and that not all Thai girls were after American money. Although my daughter was now wearing lipstick for the first time, I didn’t mind. She still dressed in the traditional pah sin when she wasn’t in her school uniform.
It was only a few days later that I noticed Lampai and her mother going off into one corner of the second room, the bedroom., the place that was the darkest. They’d sit there whispering and giggling. What was going on? This had never happened before.
“Speak up, both of you! What secrets are you hiding?”
“Nothing, father,” Lampai replied, jumping up. Pen-Chan was silent as she hurried over to the small stove where the rice was boiling over.
“You see? Now the rice is spoiled.” I left the house in a very bad mood. As I walked to the British Embassy I went over in my mind what had caused these changes in my small family. Of course I knew that the GI was bringing his Western ways into our lives, but he would be going back to Vietnam soon, and I was happy to see Lampai’s beautiful eyes light up whenever he appeared. There would be no plans for future meetings, I assured myself. He told me he would be going home when his tour of duty was finished. Why should I not allow my family to enjoy these moments? But I didn’t like the way he touched my daughter, his arm around her shoulders, and once I came home to find her sitting in his lap, my wife away.
I realized I was beginning to distrust this man. There was now a split between myself and my wife and daughter. Johnny was constantly around or taking Lampai somewhere. The last two nights, when I allowed her to go out after dark, she had come home very, very late. I was angry and I almost took the ladder up, but when I heard her pretty laughter I was so relieved I said goodnight and went to bed. Did she think I had not noticed her messed-up hair up and that her blouse was not buttoned all the way? The next morning she saw I was upset, but she offered no apology. Her attitude was changing from a respectful child to a rude one.
I blamed Johnny.
“No more see my daughter,” I told him when he brought Lampai home from a movie the following evening. “Please stay away.”
“Sir, what have I done?” He was truly puzzled and that made me even more angry. I saw him now for what he really was, an ignorant GI just like all the others. I looked at my daughter. I looked at my wife. Neither of them gave me support.
“Go now,” I said to him.
As he turned to leave Lampai ran to him and took his hand. “We are both leaving, father,” she said. Pen-Chan grabbed her arm and pulled her back. After Johnny left the three of us sat in silence. I sensed something terrible had just happened. I got up and went to the temple to make extra offerings to the Buddha. When I returned the lamps were out and Lampai and Pen-Chan were in bed. At my deep sigh as I joined her, my wife turned to me. “She’s young and in love,” she said.
“Love? What does she know of that? And especially with a farang? Go to sleep.”
The next morning there was no smile for me from Lampai. She ate her rice quietly; Pen-Chan, too. They both left the house when it was time for my daughter to go to school. We still had not said a word to each other. I had been so proud of Lampai. She was a good student, an obedient one, but it had been days since I had seen her do her homework. I thought I had better go to her school before I went to work and see if everything was all right and that her marks were still high. When the teacher told me that Lampai had been absent for the past three days I hurried home. I was too upset to work today.
When I entered I saw that my daughter had taken off the school uniform she had left the house in two hours before and was wearing a miniskirt and a top like the girls wore at Thai Heaven. She was laughing at something that Johnny said as he stood with his arms around her. There was no sign of my wife.
“What’s this? What’s this?” I was trembling with anger. My heart began to beat very fast and I almost fell down with the pain. They pulled apart and stared at me. Johnny’s face showed dismay, but the look of defiance on Lampai’s face was shocking. I saw the contempt in her eyes.
“It your fault,” I shouted at Johnny. “You ruin my Lampai! I hate you!” All the bad feelings I had been having since I had welcomed him into our home spilled over into a rage that I never knew existed. I picked up the heavy hatchet I use to keep down the thick foliage which grew under the house. It felt light now in my hands.
I swung it.
Not once, not twice, but three times I swung the hatchet before Johnny pulled it out of my hands and knelt to pick up my dead daughter.
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