Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Confounding Assumptions, Prostitutes & Shakubuku

I spent 3 hours with a prostitute last night.

As I review my last couple of journal entries, I don't think there's a snazzier opening line than that. Obviously it wasn't quite what youmight imagine.. We spent most of that time in a communal lounge room, talking about life, the universe & everything. We remained fully clothed, and she ended up paying for me J (Well, really just my tea, but I liked the way that line sounded).
Leen was an "overnight girl", one of those strange euphemisms for prostitute that crop up everywhere, as if changing the name will in some way lessen the stigma attached to that particular profession:
I'm going to go about trying to lessen the stigma attached to this profession in another way, I'm going to tell you about this girl:
For a start, she's a cunning linguist… Sorry, let's try that again: Leen speaks 4 languages fluently, and another one or two with sufficient command to hold a brief conversation. She's 22, and has been working as an overnight girl for about 9 months. Before that she was a secretary/receptionist/bookkeeper at a company that makes
compressors for fridges. Her parents died when she was 17 in a Motorcycle accident, and her brother (who lives in Thailand), won't have anything to do with the family, who (I gathered) treated him rather poorly when they found out he was gay.
She's just about completed a Bachelor's degree in Sociology from Carnegie Mellon University in Texas (mostly via distance ed, with some locally taught courses through a TAFE-style "International College" in Hanoi). She's smart, funny, completely charming, and for US $30 she'll spend the night with you.

At first glance, I assumed Leen was one of the staff at my guesthouse: She was lounging in the communal lounge-cum-café area, it was 1:45 in the morning, she was clearly Vietnamese (and I doubted if the guesthouse had many Vietnamese guests on hand). I took this as an opportunity to show off the 7 or 8 phrases in Vietnamese I've learnt, and politely asked her how she was tonight, how old she was, where she
was from and what she did for a job…. It was that one that momentarily halted conversation.
"I'm an overnight girl" she said.
I paused for a second, thinking that this must be some sort of job that involved waiting up late for straggling guests to come in the door… At 1:45 in the morning, everyone's a little dense
"Oh, right" I said, "What time do you have to stay up til?"
"Well, I don't want my customer to wake up and realise I'm not there, so I'd better go back soon. He might think I'd gone off with somebody else"
The penny drops…
I flush… I don't stutter, because there isn't even anything I could think to say, no pregnant sentence in which to insert a stutter… I sit there in silence for a few seconds, thinking desperately of how I am to deal with this situation.
"It's ok" She says "I'm not dangerous…". She has an unplaceable vaguely American accent, not Asian certainly.
"No, no" Now that I've located some good solid stutter-words "I was just…(I conclude lamely)…looking at the time"
"That's ok" She says "We don't have to talk"
I recover a modicum of my verbiage and say "Well, it's 2 o'clock in the morning, I don't think anyone else is going to come and join in on the conversation at this point"
She laughs, politely "You're funny…(a beat)…You come here with your girlfriend?" "No, I'm travelling on my own for now"…There's a pause.. Playing the event back in my mind, it's about 10 minutes. In reality it was probably about 5 seconds... I blurt "I don't want to sleep with you",
and then feel about as bad as I've ever felt in my life. I feel nauseous, I want to leave. I hang my head, I cover my eyes, I don't get as far as hitting my head on a solid object before she says "It's ok… I was going to ask…It's what I do for a job…Lots of travellers sleep with overnight girls"… It's almost funny that she's trying to put me more at ease
"I'm sorry" I said, "I shouldn't have said that"
She waves a hand, a universal "don't worry about it" gesture
"And you?" She says "Working? Student?"
"Student" I say, and we go through the usual patter.. What I'm studying, how long I'm on holidays for, where I'm going next, where I leave from… I've gotten so good at these banalities that I can do it on auto-pilot, and even manage to be a little bit engaging
"I'm studying sociology too", she says, picking up on my bitching about the lack of protein in my politics degree.
"Really? Here in Hanoi?"
"No, Through CMU, in America"… The phrase rolls off her tongue, a stronger Southern drawl than before.. That must have been one she's heard before.
And there begins the most amazing thing: The most real conversation I've had in weeks about the nature of people, about politics (she doesn't know anything about Australia, but she got up at midnight the other night to watch President Bush's inaugural), about the Internet (she does most of her coursework online, has tutorials via videoconference, uses CMU's internal Voice-over-IP/Skype like system to talk to her lecturers), and with barely any froth and bubbles at all. She wants to know what I know about polling models, she tells me about gender politics in Vietnam, about the number of girls getting abortions in Hanoi, the difficulty of finding good pizza, she tells me about Hanoi's history, about the Communist Party and the incredible
sway they still hold, she tells me about the police and the army, about Ho Chi Minh and the cultural revolution, about how agriculturalisation policies in the 1980's has stopped Vietnam from being as rich as Thailand, and finally she tells me that I'd better go to bed. It's 4:00am, and we've been talking for over 2 hours… It's
another 15 minutes before she finally manages to disentangle herself (there's still plenty of sniping about Vietnamese television and the fact that this guesthouse doesn't have satellite TV to be done).
So I thank her for the tea and then, feeling bone tired, strangely disoriented and slightly uplifted, I finally go to sleep…

There's this Buddhist notion of Shakubuku, a short sharp blow to the head that fundamentally changes your perception of how the world works forever. I get the feeling this was one of those moments.
I came down the stairs at about 1:30am the next morning, loitering, I guess secretly hoping she might be there again, but of course the thing about Shakubuku is that it only happens to you once.

Your Intrepid, Insomniac reporter



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