I was in a bar in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, eavesdropping on a conversation between two Irish expats. We were at outside tables on a humid, dirty street packed with parked mopeds just off the main road. Scruffy tuk-tuk drivers lazed in their vehicles keeping one eye open for tourists.
“So, have you admitted you’re gay yet?” O’Neil teased.
“You’re just jealous,” replied Patrick.
“She’s more beautiful than anyone you’ve ever had, serious or otherwise.”
“On the outside, maybe. But haven’t you heard the phrase “it’s what’s on the inside that counts”? And on the inside she’s got a dick, and dicks ain’t pretty.”
“Don’t be shallow. If you met a girl so beautiful it gave you a migraine, with a fierce personality to match, but she had an ugly scar on her stomach, would you still go out with her?”
“Of course, but that’s totally different and you know it. Having a scar is not the same as having a penis. You might as well compare a victim of an acid attack with someone who has an outie instead of an innie–”
“An outie? No way. I’d take the acid victim.”
“Feck off, don’t be sarcastic. Fact is, you’re screwing a chick with a dick. How do you even, you know, do it, anyway?”
“Well, first she–”
“Nah, don’t even tell me. I don’t wanna know. All I know is you’re more confused about your sexuality than a teenage boy called Ashley.”
“Whatever, mate, least I’m getting some action.”
They made up again over another drink — talking about how great life is here compared to back home – then they left, leaving me to think about my experience two nights ago. I’d been enjoying a drink in a tourist part of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I sat just inside the entrance of a small narrow bar, facing out. There was nobody else there. Across the street was a tattoo parlour with a man in a leather jacket sitting on a moped outside.
After 10 minutes a second waitress arrived, or at least she dressed the same as the first. She came to my table, squeezed my shoulder, poured the rest of my beer into my glass then asked if I’d like another. I made “umm” and “ahh” sounds but by the time I’d decided I didn’t want one, she’d returned with another beer and a whiskey and coke. She poured the beer into the glass and slid the whiskey and coke across to me, then sat down.
She had way too much make-up on. Her face was as pale as bleached alabaster, with lips as red as a blood smear on a white tile. There were no visible imperfections, presumably all hidden under several layers of foundation, which was an immediate turn off. She looked like a child who’s just found her mother’s make-up box. Prostitute, clearly.
“Thanks…” I said, setting aside the whiskey and coke and grabbing the glass of beer.
“You’re welcome, sweetie.”
It was about here I realised she wasn’t just a prostitute, she was a transexual prostitute. It was a slow realisation from me, I know. Then she said, “How are you doing? Are you here on your own? Do you have a girlfriend? How has your day been? Are you feeling happy?”
I wondered now if this was how Patrick the Irish ex-pat had started his relationship. Did he chat to a woman like this in a bar, have a “nice time”, then continue dating her, then fall in love? Was his plan to now set up a beach-side bar in Thailand, have two kids, and live happily ever after? Who knows. But back home if the same thing happened his friends wouldn’t just tease him, they’d alienate him, because dating a transexual in Ireland or the UK would probably illicit the same reaction as if you’d said, “Yeah, my girlfriend is an Al Qaeda suicide bomber, so what?”
If you ask a random westerner what they know about SE Asia, the word “ladyboy” will come up more often than not, hopefully alongside more positive things like isolated beach paradises, iconic monuments and temples, and “the place I’ll go when I ditch this shitty retail job to go find who I really am, grow a beard, and come back reinvigorated as a spiritual guru with a new-found love of recycling and a stack of Greenpeace pamphlets.”
This familiarity, or even expectation, of seeing ladyboys/prostitutes throughout Cambodia and Vietnam means O’Neil can tease Patrick and Patrick doesn’t really mind. While he’s living in Southeast Asia with his transexual girlfriend, nobody cares. It’s normal, and even cliché. But if he decides to take her back to Galway or Dublin to meet the extended family at the Christmas dinner table, he shouldn’t be surprised if the first thing his dear old grandmother Moira says is, “You’re going to hell, boy,” before turning to his girlfriend to ask, “Nice to meet you, dear. Can you pass the sprouts?”
Different places, different cultures, different traditions. But maybe one day all of us – transexuals, Irish Catholic grandmothers, suicide bombers (having put their past behind them of course) – will hold hands and sing songs around a campfire together. All of us except the people that call you at 8pm to try and persuade you to buy their life insurance which they’re adamant is great value even though it’s more expensive than what you’re currently paying. Fuck those guys.