Noom, my bar boy friend and current love of my life, is not getting any younger. In my opinion, he’s aging like a fine wine. In his, the days of not making money strutting his stuff on stage are coming much too quickly. His future, an English word he only knows because he used to work at a bar of that name, worries him. And what worries Noom, worries me.
In the U.S., we are raised on the belief that we can become anything we want. For the most part, if you work hard with a goal in mind that is true. I think it is a good confidence builder to teach kids to dream big. But then when half the girls in second grade writing their ‘when I grow up I want to be . . .’ essay want to be a princess, maybe we need to rethink the wisdom of that kind of encouragement. Spending your formative years with visions of a royal future dancing in your head when most of those dreamers will instead get knocked up by the age of 14 and never finish high school just seems unnecessarily cruel. On the other hand, most of those little kids dreaming about becoming a princess who are boys will in fact grown up to be a queen. So there is that.
In Thailand it is a different story. Thai kids are not taught they can grow up to be whatever they desire. The social strata of the nation doesn’t not allow for it. In Thailand there really are princesses, and no little farmer’s child mistakenly dreams about rising to that position. Like their counterparts in the U.S. though, the boys with those dreams stand a good chance of seeing their fantasy become a reality. It just takes enough baht for the operation.
I doubt there are many Thai kids who dream about the day they’ll make a living servicing the little American boys who grew up to be queens though. They may have high hopes for the kind of money that job brings, but the reality of what they’ll have to do to earn it undoubtedly never enters the picture. Lots has been written about why a guy, presumably straight, would decide to make his living as a bar boy. Most filter those reasons through a Westerner’s perspective and get it wrong. Regardless of the reason, once in the business the lure of easy money is too great to consider getting a regular job instead. Even if the ‘easy’ really isn’t.
There is lots of money to be made as a bar boy. But like a career as a pro athlete, you need to make it quick, and put some away for your future. Bar boy careers are short ones. It isn’t long before you find you are too old to land customers anymore. In Pattaya, that can come as early as age 21. Hell, in Pattaya that can come as early as age 18.
Noom has had a good run. He has been successful at his ‘bidness’. He still looks decades younger than he is and scores any customer who is into muscle that walks into his bar. He is proud of the body he has worked so hard to build, and dreams of finding a sponsor to enable him to enter body building contests. In his mind, the hurdle is finding someone to lay out the cash for his training and upkeep. The win on stage is a given. His confidence in himself is one of the things I find attractive about Noom. His gold medal worthy body, of course, is another.
It was not coincidental then that when he realized he’d have to enter in the seniors division that he also realized age was creeping up on him. Watching one of his cute little bar mates who barely looks legal scoring customers nightly tends to bring home the point that in the not too distant future, Noom’s days as a bar boy will be over. Some bar boys remain in the industry when they can no longer make it on stage, becoming mamasans, waiters, captains, or filling some other job at the bars. None of those positions pay the kind of money Noom has become accustomed to making. So he has begun considering alternative careers for his old age.
A few years ago he thought he’d like to be a tour guide. Noom embraces any idea that pops into his head wholeheartedly. He’d barely got the thought out of his mouth before he went into full future tour-guide mode. For the most part of that year, anywhere we’d go Noom would get busy making contacts and cutting deals. Where normally I’d get an, ‘up to you’ in reply to asking what he wanted to do, all of a sudden he’d have a list of places he needed to visit so he’d be familiar with the spot for his future tour guide business. By the next year, that idea had been dropped. He’d thought it over and decided tour guides, thanks to the internet and apps, would become a thing of the past.
For a short time he thought he’d like to become a chef. I’m not sure where that one came from. I assumed it was because he enjoyed cooking, and as encouragement suggested we hit the supermarket for ingredients and then he could cook dinner one night. Turned out his cooking skills are limited to knowing which buttons to hit on a microwave. Figuring out what the raw ingredients of a dish even looked like at the supermarket was a talent he’d not yet mastered. It had not been my intention, but the idea of a home-cooked meal killed Noom’s dream of becoming Bangkok’s next top chef.
The first time Noom brought up the idea of going to University, I failed to show my usual enthusiasm for his life plan. School tuition is a common scam among bar boys. And as much as I hate myself for being suspicious, I still am. But we talked the idea over, and even visited the school he wanted to go to. On my next visit, Noom was still gung-ho on the education idea. And had more details.
One of the barriers to a college degree was that he had not finished high school. In the few months between my visits, he’d found someone who for a hefty hunk of cash would give him the equivalent of a GED certificate. Without any of the knowledge that normally comes with it. I thought my reaction was simply noncommittal. But I guess he figured out what I really thought about that idea and quickly dropped it. His idea of going to school started sounding more like a pipe dream and, slightly disappointed, I figured he’d have a new grand scheme for his future by the next time I hit town.
So I was a bit surprised on my next visit when early one morning at the start of the trip I got one of Noom’s infamous morning greetings of, “Come. We go.” That always signals a Grand Purpose. It usually also signals my wallet is about to be depleted. This time around it signalled a trip to the university and meeting two teachers. Whose English was advanced enough to explain Noom’s newest plans for his education and his future. My boy is smart. He left it to the professionals to outline what he needed. Noom’s sole contribution to the discussions were a series of nods accompanied by a yes, his agreement with whatever his prospective teachers were telling me.
One of the multitude benefits of being a gay man is that you get to avoid all of the hassles and expenses of rearing a child. Unless you are a gay celebrity on the path to coming out or recently open about your sexuality. I’m not sure when being gay and famous started meaning being a dad too, but something tells me that interest in fatherhood has about as much depth to it as Paris Hilton’s interest in dog ownership. I think – I hope – those kids stand a better chance at a bright future than Paris’ dog. Who ended up at the pound. I’ve never wanted children. Nor do I like guys so young that a relationship would be not much different than fatherhood. But that’s one of the things about Thailand that you have to appreciate. The country just knows how to fuck with you.
The upshot of our visit to the university was a dual curriculum that would start Noom on his college degree while he finished off his high school studies. While there was no question about his desire to do so, I did question his continued commitment to the idea. His education plans would require a lot of hours and a lot of effort on his part. And his job at the bar doesn’t really support the hours and schedule going to school require. The financial end of the deal was surprisingly cheap. And no longer involved under-the-table payments for bogus degrees.
I spent the rest of that trip grilling Noom about the details. He spent the rest of the trip hustling me from one shopping mall to the next so he could pick out his official ‘I study’ uniform. Whatever I was going to decide, Noom already considered it a done deal.
And it was. But not quite the deal he’d thought it would be. There is a lot of wisdom in that old proverb about the difference between giving and teaching a man to fish. Rather than pay his tuition for him, I agreed to a 2 to 1 match on any funds he could come up with. That wasn’t quite what Noom had in mind. I think, however, he understood the difference between assistance and subsidization. And after playing ATM roulette – an enjoyable pastime he indulges in often, moving money from one bank to another just for the sake of doing so – he came up with his portion and we went to his new school and paid for his upcoming semester.
Surprisingly, He’s stuck with it. Last year he earned his GED diploma and is now only having to deal with his university classes. It’s a good thing he has quite a way to go yet. Noom keeps changing ideas on exactly what he wants to be and what it is that he’s going to school to achieve. No problemo. That he’s willing to put the time, money, and effort into it speaks volumes. And I’ve made a point to not mention the girl working the registration counter at whatever hotel we’re checking into earns minimum wage thanks to her college degree. Whether you are in second grade or attending university, the fantasy about what you are going to be when you grow up is just as important.
My involvement in paying for part of his education expenses does not cost me much. My involvement with Noom’s life does. To celebrate his new found status as a high school graduate last year, I suggested we go out to dinner. Noom likes nice restaurants, so I asked where he’d like to go to honor his achievement.
“Family,” was his answer, and not the one I’d expected.
I’ve met one of Noom’s brother, and have an ongoing mutually beneficial relationship with his sister-in-law. She makes a killer mango/chilli barbecue sauce and always has a batch for me to take home. And I have enough mangos delivered to her to stock her needs for several months. His papa, however, I’ve been careful to avoid having to meet. He lives far enough outside Bangkok I’ve been able to avoid the opportunity of meeting him, close enough I’ve had to be careful of not suggesting a trip in that direction. Unfortunately for my plans, papa was in town. The celebratory dinner I suggested turned into a gathering of the clan instead.
We loaded up on cases of cheap local beer, picked up a carton of smokes, and headed off to his brother’s place, a barely above hovel residence tucked away in the maze of small sois and too small to be called a soi alleys that lead brave touri to the Royal Barges Museum over by Khaosan Road. A farang bearing gifts is always a welcome sight in the neighborhood. Especially when it’s a few cases of beer. And the entire neighborhood joined in on the festivities. Many neighbors, thanks to Noom and his attempt at inclusion, learned their first word of English that night too.
Meeting Papa was not as uncomfortable as I’d pictured. We’re close to being contemporaries in age so I didn’t have to deal with the ‘to wai or not to wai’ question. And whatever the story is about who I am and how I fit into Noom’s life had evidently been settled long ago. Noom does not always share the ‘why’ of something he needs to do with me, and presents the ‘what’ instead. So it was with meeting his father. Papa does not speak English. But after our initial greeting, he spoke to me quite earnestly and for quite a while. I smiled, and then nodded when he was done, having caught less than 5% of what he had to say.
Then Noom translated for me. Normally, Noom’s translation of Thai to English still requires translation. This time, though more abbreviated, he managed to get the gist of his papa’s speech across.
“He tell you thank you,” Noom explained. “He say he can not pay school for bruddahs. He happy I go and say thank you.”
To Noom, the party wasn’t about celebrating his achievement, it was about giving his papa the opportunity to express his gratitude to me for helping one of his children. And it wasn’t that Noom thought I needed to hear it so much as it was his father having a need to express it. I was touched. But still, all I did was cough up some cash. Noom put in money too, and a lot of effort. I tried to set the record straight.
“Tell him thank you for me. But that it was your hard work and time, and part of your money too,” I told Noom.
“Yes,” he replied not agreeing with me. “Not thank you for money. For you help me.”
Guess I got a little schooling myself. I realized to Noom it wasn’t about the money, it was my willingness to invest in his future that mattered; that my encouragement and interest in seeing him better himself counted for more, or at least as much, as the financial backing.
Noom still has many hours in the classroom before graduation. Beyond school, his future is still hazy. For now, the goal, his vision, is finishing school and getting his diploma. He talks often about the graduation ceremony and getting to wear a cap and gown. And though it is not a time of the year I normally visit Thailand, Noom has already, more than once, made it clear that he expects me to be there. I know part of that is he wants me to share in his celebration. As important, he knows I’ll get him the largest one of those tacky baskets filled with stuffed animals that I can find. You can’t argue with a future that includes large plush toys no matter what your age is.
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