We rode on her scooter past the ancient walls of old Chiang Mai city from the hostel where she works.
When we got to the restaurant, I felt like everyone was looking at us. Even now, I’m not sure if this was real or just in my head. She had make up, a short black dress, and high heels, but there was still something masculine about her.
She had gotten dressed up for me. She was still putting on her makeup when I got to her hostel at 7:15, which is when she finishes work.
“You’re so cute,” she had said when I arrived.
“Thanks,” my discomfort levels were maxed out. I had never talked to someone like her before, but I was trying to play it cool. Everything about this felt like a date.
That shouldn’t be too surprising, because I met Ms. A on a dating app. I had been using the app to try to find a date in Thailand, cautiously examining every girl’s shoulders and chin to see if she might be a ladyboy before I sent her a message.
Forgive me a moment while I salute my own flag, but I do extremely well with online dating. I’m an introvert, a writer, and a nerd. It’s written in my DNA to excel at e-dating. The best way to do it, as a guy, is to find one good opening line, and mass send it to every girl.
Depending on the line and your profile, somewhere between 20% and 40% will respond. Talk for a while with those who respond, then focus on one after that. I know this isn’t romantic, but it really is the best way to do it.
It’s like applying to a job. You don’t try to snipe your dream job. You shoot your resume out like buckshot and take the best target you hit. I’m not good at metaphors, but in this one the target is the girl and the buckshot is your dorky opening line.
And if you’re a girl using a dating app, the best way to do it is to open the app and scroll through the hundreds of messages you receive every day, trying to find a guy that doesn’t set off your creep alarm. I don’t know, I’ve never been a girl on a dating app.
Anyhow, that all changed once I decided to continue my interview series in Thailand. Ladyboys have become an unintentional cultural icon of this country, so my goal on the dating app flipped. I started seeking ladyboys. I loaded up with the buckshot of a new opening line for them.
I had no idea what to expect once they started talking to me. I’ve had no direct exposure to transgender people, as far as I know. And every movie I’ve seen set in Thailand has at least one part with a ladyboy preying on an unaware hetero man, like a spider entangling its victim in a web of confusing genitals
What I found was the opposite. Every ladyboy I talked to was very upfront, making sure I understood she was a ladyboy even if I hadn’t asked. In return, I made sure they knew I wanted an interview, not a date. Some weren’t interested, some were busy. Finally, I found Ms. A, who said yes.
But as I waited for her to finish her make up, I realized our roles had swapped. It didn’t matter how many times I told her I only wanted an interview. She had become the one firing the buckshot and I had become the target. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this role.
Now, as we walked into the restaurant, everyone seemed to watch us. The most uncomfortable part was that I couldn’t figure out why it made me uncomfortable. I was there to have dinner and talk to a person. What’s more normal than that?
Once we sat down, I told her, “I want to start by saying that I don’t know anything about… this. I have no experience. So if I say something stupid, I’m really sorry.”
I wasn’t just being polite. Transgenderism is a hot topic in America these days, from Caitlin Jenner to Target’s bathroom policy. But I have never once spoken to a trans person.
My complete lack of transgender understanding is both why I needed to do this interview and why I needed to preemptively apologize for any embarrassing questions I was about to ask. It’s one thing to support their rights and try to use the correct terminology, but it’s another thing to sit across the table and listen.
“It’s fine. Ask me anything.” she said.
I asked her if the phrase “ladyboy” is derogatory. I thought it might be better to say “transgender.”
She told me there’s nothing bad about the phrase “ladyboy.” She explained that she’s not transgender.
“Why?” I asked. “A man gets an operation to become like a woman. Isn’t that transgender?”
”Ladyboy still has… I mean, a ladyboy had the operation to get tits. But below? Not yet.”
”Do you want the full operation eventually?”
”No. I heard they can’t orgasm, so I’m not interested.”
It got personal very quickly. I should have known we’d talk about the nuts and bolts of this subject eventually, but I still felt self-conscious discussing it in the middle of a cozy restaurant in Chiang Mai. We picked at marinated beef and sauteed zucchini while we talked about transgender genitalia.
That’s really what it’s about. These genitals or those ones, and why some people go to such extremes to get the other ones.
“ How old were you when you got the operation?”
”Seventeen,” she said.
Ms. A was twenty-eight at the time of the interview, meaning she’d had eleven years to grow comfortable in her new body. She told me that while many ladyboys take hormone pills to help their bodies continue the transformation, she doesn’t need to.
“See? My body is already soft like a woman’s,” she said as she extended her arm towards me. I touched it and it was soft, I suppose. She smiled. I pulled my hand back.
“How long had you known you wanted to get the operation?”
”Since I was a kid.”
”And how did you know this was right for you?”
She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know. It’s hormones, right?”
We hadn’t even finished appetizers and I already threw out my first stupid question. Of course she can’t answer that question. The old argument came to mind of, “When did you decide to be a straight man?” I didn’t. I guess that was all hormones too.
It is all hormones, isn’t it? I can’t say for sure. I’ve never experienced being anything other than a white, hetero male. But if it’s all hormones, why are there so many ladyboys in Thailand and so few in Korea? Are the Korean transgenders repressed or are the Thai boys encouraged? I can’t answer these questions through my own experience, so I have to take it on the faith of others. I’ve never been good at that.
She continued, “All my life, I had wanted to be a beautiful woman. So I found a solution.”
She told me to put down my notepad and eat like a normal person so my food didn’t go cold and my beer didn’t go warm. As we ate and talked, she asked me, “You’ve really never done anything with a ladyboy?”
She sounded surprised when I said I hadn’t. I reminded her that I’m straight, but she responded that all her ex-boyfriends were straight. Now I was the one sounding surprised. I was pretty sure being a straight male meant you weren’t into other people who had male parts.
She said, “I just wish you were open to having a new experience with me. What happens in Thailand, stays in Thailand, you know?”
* * *
“Why do you think there are so many ladyboys in Thailand? I was in Korea before coming here, and I never even heard about ladyboys there.” I asked.
She thought for a moment, then said, “Because in Thailand, we don’t care. We respect people. If you’re a good person, we don’t care.”
I don’t have much experience in Thailand yet, but I agree with that so far. People don’t seem worried about labeling others here.
“Is there a ladyboy community out here?” I asked.
“Yes, I have a group of ladyboy friends.”
This was the question I was most excited about when I was planning for the interview. I imagined there might be an entire ladyboy subculture, complete with it’s own cliques and personality. I asked her how she met her ladyboy friends. She said through other friends or at a bar. I asked what they do when they meet. She said go shopping, watch a movie, or have some drinks.
I realized this was stupid question number two. Her group of ladyboy friends are just a group of friends, and they meet up to do friend stuff.
She added, “But usually I don’t like other ladyboys.”
“You don’t like them? Why?”
“They steal. They work in the bar.”
“What does working in a bar mean?” I asked.
I had a suspicion that’s what she meant. The prostitution business usually runs from bars out here in Thailand. You can order a drink, and if you see a waitress you like I guess you can have her too.
The Thai baht is the currency here. A typical meal is about sixty baht and you can find rent for as low as three thousand baht a month. In USD, sixty baht is just under two dollars and three thousand baht is about eighty five bucks. A buck goes a long way out here. A steady stream of lonely, male tourists with fistfuls of baht might seem like an opportunity for a poor boy with no options.
I knew about the prostitution, but I was surprised that stealing was the first thing she said about other ladyboys. It’s an answer I never would have imagined and I wanted to know why.
“Why do they steal? Is it difficult for ladyboys to find work?”
“Normal jobs don’t take ladyboys. They have to find jobs that accept them. They can’t even work at 7-11.” She added, “I’m lucky. My hostel accepts me.”
”I thought you said Thai people don’t care. They accept ladyboys, right?”
”No no,” she said. “They accept ladyboy for normal life. But for work we have to be professional.”
She explained that Thai culture is still very conservative, despite how many ladyboys there are. They only accept people as men or women, nothing else.
She told me that ladyboys cut their hair short and try to look masculine when they go job hunting. Once they’ve been with a company for years, they might be accepted to continue working as a ladyboy. Or they might not be.
Thailand is already a poor country where it’s difficult to find a job that pays the bills. That job market becomes even smaller for ladyboys.
We finished our meal and got up to pay. As we walked out of the restaurant, I thanked her again for talking with me. I told her I had asked another ladyboy to have this conversation, but she had said no. She had said she doesn’t like to talk about it because she wants to think of herself as a real woman.
After Ms. A heard that, she said, “Yeah, we want to think like we are a woman. But it’s true. I am a ladyboy.”
Ms. A kept hitting on me through text for a week after the interview, saying things I won’t print here because my parents read my blog. Every time she did, I told her very clearly that I wasn’t interested.
I also said that I was sorry every time I explained my lack of interest. I know I didn’t do anything wrong, but I really felt sorry. Is this how women feel when they reject a guy, or does that feeling numb after the hundredth time?
I realized there’s so many more questions I should have asked, but didn’t. I knew I should do a follow up interview, but I felt uncomfortable talking to her because she couldn’t get over seeing me as a target.
I thought of girls in my past who had stopped talking to me after I flirted with them. At the time, I thought they should feel flattered because of my infatuation. But now I understood. It was impossible to have a real conversation because Ms. A always rolled the conversation back to attempted seduction, no matter how many times I told her I wasn’t interested.
It made me wonder if I’m just as annoying when I’m going after a girl. I’d like to think I’m not, but I really have no idea. Love may be blind, but hormones throw dirt in your eye. In the moment, I can’t objectively see my own behavior well enough to judge.
It’s that instinctive, animal like drive. That’s the drive that make me into an idiot when I like a girl. I would probably choose to turn it off so I could think straight, but I can’t control it.
That’s also the drive that makes Ms. A go so wild for men that she wants to radically change her body. She can’t control it either. I imagine if she had a choice, she’d turn it off too so she didn’t have to become such a social oddity that people gawk at and businesses won’t hire.
Eventually I decided to just ask her one more question through text. “What are your plans for the future?”
“To find someone I love and stay together forever,” she said.
We go to such lengths to be wanted by those we want.
Authors note 11/5/2016: