A Casual Encounter


"Where are you from?"

It's the first question travelers ask each other, but when people ask where I'm from, California is not the the answer they're after.

I have never visited the three countries that hold the key to how I look and sometimes my lack of worldly identity fails to satisfy inquisitors. Assumptions are more comfortable than conversations about race, so instead of asking about my background, people often assign one to me. I've been American Indian, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Guatemalan, French Canadian, Hawaiian, Mexican and Vietnamese, to name a few.

While traveling in Southeast Asia, I was decidedly Thai.

One night in Thailand, monsoon rains swept me off the flooded path leading to my guest house and chased me into the nearest bar. Cushions littered the floor and were occupied by couples cuddling and whispering, sipping frosty umbrellaed drinks and looking out at the ocean. The romance of an island storm and balmy skin glowing from candlelight and neon is easy to imagine and hard to deny.

The place was crowded and without a friend or lover, I felt out of place. My attempt at masking discomfort as I sipped the beer I ordered out of courtesy rather than interest must have been transparent. A dreadlocked waiter ushered me to share a table with strangers and to avoid interrupting potential honeymooners, I opted for an space where a couple twenty-something guys were seated, figuring my company would be more welcome there than anywhere else.

What followed was an uncomfortable and unsuccessful attempt at conversation between me my new French friends. My French is limited to nouns I learned six years ago, they spoke as many English words as I have fingers and none of it mattered anyway because they were sure I was Thai.

"Are you a Thai girl? You're very beautiful," said Jacque, the more communicative of the two.
"No, but thanks," I replied.

After too long a pause, he asked why I had not complimented him in return. Surprised by his strange comment and scrambling for a response, I realized his perception of me. We were seated beside a speaker and between the music and language barrier, it hadn't registered to him when I said I wasn't local. Thai sex workers are known for their special ability to make foreign men feel desired; I was doing a poor job. In a region reputed for sex tourism, single Thai girls who frequent travelers' hangouts almost always have an agenda. Isn't that why I had invited myself to sit with them?

Genuinely lost for words and unable to leave because the storm, I excused myself and recollected my thoughts in the restroom. There was no where else to sit and the place was small. I had to stay put. Upon return, Jacque was gone and Felipe, who had yet to say a word beyond his own name, remained. To fill the void, I initiated a drawing game, using pictures to replace words. Seated side-by-side, backs propped against a wall and bodies stretched diagonally away from each other in way that was unmistakably platonic, we silently passed the paper game back and forth, pretending it was entertaining.

The end of the game neared and the weather persisted. Recognizing the impending discomfort of having nothing to do or say, Felipe took a less creative approach to solving the lack of anything between us by creating something. Without warning, he kissed me. Casual romance can be fun and is common on the road, but he was neither fun nor romantic.

Caught off guard and wholly unimpressed, I pulled back, averted eye contact and got up to leave. Motioning to myself, I tapped my nonexistent wrist watch and mimed the universal signal for sleep—hands in prayer formation pressed against my cheek, head titled, eyes closed.

In a final effort to keep me, this oddly-behaving Thai girl, he revealed the only complete and clear sentence of the night.

"Do you want to sleep with me?"

With that, I decided getting wet was worth getting home without him.

L Jow

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