|Water buffalo in Northwest Thailand|
"My family needs a water buffalo," lamented Tum, a reasonably new friend I'd met a few years ago. "The old one was sick for months and died four weeks ago. My parents didn't have the money for a veterinarian and neither did I, and they'll need him for the rice fields soon. Now my family is really in trouble." He looked down at the plate of food in front of him and was quiet.
[Note: Although Tum speaks in the somewhat halting, broken English some Thai do - as many of us casually learning a second language might well do ourselves - I've taken the liberty of changing his words in the interest of readability and respect.]
If you've read many of the Thai forums, done much research on tourist experiences, rented many "admirers" or had conversations with Thai from several levels of society you've most likely heard a similar story. If one's to be cynical about it it goes on the same list a few others already occupy: "my mother (or another family member) needs an operation", "my brother (or another family member) was in an accident" and "I'm short money for my room rent" topping the list of regulars.
I was mightily surprised to hear the "Brother in a Motocy Accident" story once and then learn that, sadly, it was true. That story from April 2011 is here, if you'd care to read it.
Of course, there's also the basic "I need money for food" story, and that's usually the easiest to remedy: walk with the person to the nearest food vendor's cart and buy them a meal. At least they will have eaten for the day, even if they continue to panhandle as soon as they're finished and use that money for - ahem - less desirable purchases.
Getting back to Tum, though. The water buffalo story looms large in the legend of Thai-Farang relationships at some levels; the top one or two, I'd say. Others may have had different experiences, but it's one of the two I've heard most often while doing research on another project. I almost always manage to show some sympathy and get off the subject as gracefully as possible, but since I had someone to help translate for me I allowed the conversation with Tum to drift into what I was fairly sure was going to be a request for funds... and I was correct.
Tum, the oldest of four kids, was a club worker with four years behind him, and he hadn't been doing well the past few months. He'd changed places a few times, gone out of his way to stay on the good side of the mamasan when necessary and been a willing companion to those who showed interest in him, but his luck with the number of offs and the tips from them just hadn't been on his side. Now he - and his family off in Isaan - were in a pinch.
Like a number of other club workers he'd built up a support network of customers over his four years on the market, but he was tiring of the grind and longed to be back home where he wanted to start a family and settle down. He said he didn't lie to the farang he'd been in contact with - he didn't play the "you're the only one and I'm waiting for you" game - so those who had helped him in the past were already tapped out.
Now he was still short about $150USD. While that may not sound like a lot to some of you, I can put a student through school there for an entire year for that amount. To keep things in perspective, though, it's about what I'd spend for two or three nights in a room on holiday there, too, so everything's relative, I suppose.
Tum excused himself to use the toilet, and I - knowing full well it was a foolhardy idea - turned to my friend and quickly (before he could ask "are you crazy?") asked him to see if Tum was agreeable to a repayment plan that he (my friend) would be OK handling for me, and he reluctantly agreed. Tum said it would probably take him a year to repay the money, but that he would agree to do so. My friend shrugged his shoulders and gave me that "up to you" look, and I looked Tum in the eye, shook his hand and said "OK".
I had to go to an ATM to withdraw the cash, and although some of you are most likely sitting there saying "you moron... that's just what he did with you, the walking ATM" that's not how things turned out. I was flying on a hunch and not more than a bit of faith that he'd ever be heard from again, but he was. I'm in regular email contact with my friend, and every so often I'd get a "P.S. - Tum stopped by my work and brought me money again this week", and when I next saw my friend he had the entire amount for me. I didn't ask if he knew how Tum had gotten it - from tips or other Walking ATMs or whatever - but there it was, in the envelope my friend had kept it in.
I had a photo of Tum, and we went back to the club I'd found him in, where several of the guys there said "he finit, go home". My friend talked with a couple of them and found out that he had indeed left the club circuit, gone back into the Great Northeast, and had plans to soon marry the young woman he'd dreamed of returning to.
Now that's a real happy ending.