In the middle of downtown Siem Reap, I’m bombarded by an onslaught of pitches and come-ons from nearly a dozen Cambodian girls wearing matching T-shirts outside a massage parlor.
By the time they realize that the red-headed woman following closely behind me is probably already responsible for the majority of my sensual massages, they’ve already fired off two dozen glances, winks and other tired, mechanical facial contortions promising boundless submission. Many of the expressions seem to be odd Eastern impersonations of the same winks and nods I’ve come to expect from Christina, Britney or even the newer models from the Disney pop culture factory, a la Hillary Duff. The feeling is a bit like being cast in an erotic Japanese anime.
Still I think to myself – who are these girls? I have to wonder. I think back to a story we heard from a friend living in Phnom Penh two nights ago. She’s been working with NGOs in Cambodia for the past four years. When I asked her about the dating scene for an expat girl from California, a forlorn look of hopeless desolation came over her face; I recognized it immediately from my own unfulfilled adolescent years and felt a little disoriented seeing such a face worn by a thirty-year old woman that looked significantly younger and would certainly be considered attractive by most reasonable and shallow individuals.
“All the good ones are either taken or preoccupied by prostitutes.”
I had to earnestly question her criteria for placing a man in the ‘good one’ category at this point, but she maintained that it was the status quo throughout the Cambodian and expatriate communities. The tradition had been established in previous decades thanks to a strong foreign military presence in the region and now there is a new generation with more liberal sensibilities and even greater consequences. In a country where ten dollars buys three women in 2004, it is no wonder that Cambodia has the highest rate of HIV infection in Asia.
With this harrowing preface already in mind, our friend segued from her own dating drought to an anecdote involving the brutal nature of the Cambodian prostitution machine that left her bed so cold and empty.
“There was a story I heard about one of the girls who was popular with the ex-pat guys.”
I could already see a strong moral ending around the corner, but statistically speaking, stories involving prostitution are far more likely to have interesting details worth paying attention to.
“She had come to the city to pay off the debt from her family’s new home back in the village. She was one of the clean ones just trying to make a living, never got caught up in drugs or any of the super self-destructive stuff. She was popular with all the other girls, too.”
She paused to take a sip of tea, preparing for the inevitable descent into a brutally sad ending.
“So after two years of working in Phnom Penh, she finally earned enough to pay down her family’s debts and even bring back a little extra. She called her family to come pick her up and bring her back home. All the other girls threw a big going-away party. Everyone was sad to see her go but happy for her as well. Then when her family showed up…”
I was beginning to regret my decision to devote my full attention to the story at this point. It had been apparent where it would end up just by taking a look around the setting in which it was being told. We were sitting in a brightly painted café in downtown Phnom Penh. The staff was fully comprised of well-mannered, smartly-uniformed Cambodian teenagers; many of them didn’t even look that old. They were all employed by the NGO that ran the restaurant to give local street kids a sustainable alternative to more dangerous and illicit professions. There was absolutely no way that this environment would tolerate a hooker story with a happy ending. The paint would begin peeling from the wall, dishes would shatter themselves instantaneously, the crepes would certainly implode. By the end of her next sentence, my masculine fantasy land would be destroyed. Years of Freudian perversion and selective denial had melded childhood fairy-tales and adolescent over-exposure to pornography into a universe where the happy hooker from a small town always comes out on top; where Britney straps on skin-tight latex for the sake of artistic integrity; where all Thai massages naturally and innocently progress to blowjobs; where there is no HIV, no unwanted pregnancies, no rape or physical abuse or incest; a world where one person’s indulgences could not possibly enable the pain and suffering of others.
Leave it to a blue-eyed, blonde Northern California girl to draw the curtains back from a sheltered, suburban oz worldview.
Just as a girl of no more than thirteen years presented us with a dessert tray, we learned that the woman in the story never went home. Her family did come to collect her earnings, and promptly sold her back to the streets. From there we turned our attention to a slice of chocolate cake. No further words were spoken about what became of the woman in the story.
For all we know, she’s hollering and winking at me right now from the steps of this Cambodian massage parlor. I wonder how many of these girls put on their best Britneyesque faces because a part of them believes their employment is simply a means to the end of the feminine fairytale, the rich white man that will carry them off to his far-away castle or studio apartment. Looking closer, the desperate hope behind the forced smiles and winks reveals the most genuine sincerity I may ever witness
We retire to our guesthouse for the night and collapse on the king size bed in our four-dollar room, falling asleep before the comforting glow of satellite television, eased into dreams by transmissions from a distant fantasy we call home.