Sawadee from Bangkok guys, where I just landed last night after a long and hectic week – no – month. Frequently I wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, but decisions are decisions that have been made, and life must go on. If anything, at least it is going on in a city where massages are popular and cheap, and time tested to be amazing. So obviously day one of Bangkok consisted not one but two massages, both of which cost downwards of fifteen singapore dollars.
So, this post. Where do I begin to contextualise my need to pen it? It’s hard to say – I’ve had a long, tiring month, I am not at the peak of my coherence. But some things need to be said, and the best we can do is try to say it elegantly, or at least, honestly. And then pray that it is taken the right way, with an open mind and heart.
Let me try to start. I do Broke Student Guides, and have done them for nearly three years now. For a large part of my childhood (and I categorise childhood all the way till you are twenty one, because lets face it, before then you’re just a baby) I was categorically and literally a broke student. Students are by very virtue of being a student, generally broke, and I’ve personally never grown up to know excess. This is not a complaint of my circumstance – in fact, I couldnt have asked for better parents, and I think they did an ace job raising my sisters and I. A large part of the reason why we never felt this quote unquote brokeness too strongly was because we were never raised to value purchasing power over human relationships, and also because we were by the grace of God the recipient of much kindness. But it also meant that my entire life has been measured by the hustle, because I am somebody who is by nature a perfectionist to the point of being neurotic, and part of being a perfectionist means that you want to go out and get things done. And I like having money, because I like having stuff. Like the ability to go out and get a drink with friends after a long day at work without having to obsess too much over whether a glass of wine here costs one buck fifty more than the one at the bar three blocks down. So on and so forth.
A lot of people ask me how I manage my time with all the stuff i have going on. The short answer is that I’m a millennial and all we do is hustle and complain, ha-ha. The long answer is that I understand what it’s like to want, and therefore I can see a way/opportunity of getting myself to a place where I no longer have to want and can give instead, and I have decided to take it. And yes, I know that as a chinese woman in singapore the ability even to reach out and take that opportunity is a privilege unlike any other. I recognise that. I am grateful for it. And I would love to delve into that further as something tangentially related to what I am trying to talk about today, but it would confound my original point, and so I will do it another time.
Because of the long and intense hustle and the borderline neurotic ocd when it comes to time and finance management, about a year ago I graduated from university, paid off my uni debts, and came to the strange and freeing realisation that i was no longer a broke student. In fact, I was finally in a position where I could partially provide for my family and be generous with friends while occasionally treating myself to my favourite glass of red. I am telling you, that feeling is fantastic. And it was a long time in the making, but I had finally also approached a kind of cognitive balance regarding knowing that money isnt the most important thing but also being aware that it’s pretty damned important if you want to be comfortably alive. What has that got to do with bangkok and massages, you ask? A great deal indeed. At least for me.
It is my fifth time in Bangkok and my first time being here as somebody who is not struggling to count every cent I spend with the obsessive precision of a magpie on drugs. It is the third city I have been to since then for non-work related reasons – the first two being New York and London, both fast paced first world cosmopolitan cities in their own right. I have always loved to travel and so I have made it work despite not being somebody who naturally has money to throw around for no good reason: which is how the broke students guide was born, birthed from the idea that you can make any destination work for you by striking a balance between enjoyment and pragmatism. But despite my championing of making your dollar stretch for you, it has never been my intention to promote any sort of cheap stinginess that often translates to the dehumanisation of another person, and that is something that I have seen too much of in just one day roaming the land of smiles.
We went to a random massage parlour today near our Airbnb and I promptly dozed off after sitting down (see above, re: exhaustion). I woke intermittently, whenever new customers walked in, talked to each other, etcetera etcetera. And I woke again, more permanently, to a tourist arguing with the counter lady over the price of her massage.
“I think I deserve at least half off,” she was saying.
The helpless thai masseuse: “An hour’s massage is 250 baht, ma’am.”
“No, two fifty”
She threw some money down. “I will have you know I wont be coming back.” And she stormed out.
I checked with my own masseuse quickly – by this time the customers who were awake were all staring; the woman’s tone had been pretty freakin nasty. It seemed the woman had received some message on her phone and had to leave before her hour was up, and so wanted some discount on her unused massage time instead of paying for the full hour. And so she obviously thought the best way to get her discount was to talk to the thai masseuse like she was some kind of servant. I’m not trying to name-shame, but let’s just say that the tourist’s accent was immediately identifiable. I did a quick calculation on my phone and figured that she was effectively making someone else feel like shit in order to save $4.30 in her home currency.
Sorry, but that’s disgusting.
Let’s not linger too long on whether she deserved the discount to begin with. When you decide to purchase a bowl of noodles but only finish half of them because you spontaneously decide that youre too full mid-way through, are you entitled to half your money back? Who knows, it’s a strange and funny world we live in. Perhaps the vendor returns you the money you want: but does that then mean that you were entitled to it to begin with? Let’s not confuse another person’s kindness with your rights. But like I said, we shan’t linger on that. Say she was entitled to her money back, for some reason or the other. Does it validate talking down to another human being in the way that she did?
Of course not.
Four years ago in Bangkok, for some reason I found myself having a massage alone. My friends had all decided to either nap or go shopping, neither of which I wanted to do, and so I ended up having a solo hour long massage. The masseuse was a chatty old lady that I will probably never see again in my life. I can’t even remember what she looked like now. I only remember two things distinctly from our brief hour together: that she told me her son was going to become a ladyboy because it had the most earning potential for someone of their income class, and that of the amount we paid per massage, the masseuse keeps half, plus tip.
Back then the standard price of a massage was 200 Baht, which is approximately 4SGD. It blew my mind that a woman old enough to be my mother would take home 3SGD (2 + $1 tip?) for an hour of huffing and puffing kneading the knots right out of me. And too often since then I have noticed people quibbling at the counter of thailand’s many massage parlours over how much tip to give. Guys, I want to say, it’s fifty cents youre quibbling over. Round up the damned tip.
Three years ago, in Bangkok again. My friends and I were trying to figure out the cost price of renting a tuktuk for the entire day, something that’s really hard to communicate across the thai-english language barrier because all the tuktuk drivers just get really excited and assume you want to rent them the whole day, to drive you around. No, we explained over and over again, how much are you paying to rent this tuktuk? We just wanna know.
Finally one smiley old man got us, on the tuktuk from Siam to The Grand Palace. He told us in confusing english that they took back an average of 3-400 Baht a day after deducting their vehicle rental fees. On days we don’t get enough passengers we cant eat.
We stopped negotiating for cheaper rates after that.
What’s the point of this post, really? I guess what I’m trying to say is, everyone needs money. We get it, okay? Everyone needs money to be alive, having stuff like working electricity and food on the table and clothes to wear costs money, and so like it or not it’s a necessity that brings out the worst in people. But some people need money more than others. And sometimes you need to be asking: am I really bargaining this dress down that extra dollar because I need the dollar or because I want the satisfaction of having bargained down a damned dress? There is saving money and then there is being cheap. And it’s all well and good that you’ve wrangled your hand sewn elephant print drawstring bag down seventy cents but when that seventy cents comes at the cost of not just the seller’s next bowl of tom yum goong but also at the cost of their dignity, then that’s not cool.
In the class that I teach at the university we had to do Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (which you can read here if you have an academiaEDU account) a few weeks back. In the novel she cries: A tourist is an ugly thing, ugly thing, ugly thing, ugly thing. It is a cry that is not unfamiliar but that millennials have resisted by claiming the title of traveller, not tourist. But as I’ve said before, a tortoise-like backpack a traveller does not make. And like it or not, after romping around a good bit of the world, I have to say that people can be absolute shits, whether they are tourists or travellers or whatever the trendy word for it is these days. Many times, they are shits to people they’ve paid money to, or are trying not to pay money to, and so you can see that money, while necessary and important to life, also fuels this kind of ridiculously embarrassing behaviour in some of the most privileged of people. It is awful to see.
Yes yes, I know what you’re going to say. Two things. Of course there are always going to be people who are more privileged than you are. But if you compare yourself to people richer than you all the time and whinge about being underprivileged when you are not, then you are not just doing the people less privileged than you a disservice, you are also probably a very irritating person. And then the other camp: but if you’re not shrewd enough, you’re going to be taken advantage of! And cheated of your hard earned money! Which I totally get, trust me. So many times I have been quoted five times the normal price of something just because I look different from the locals, and I’ve had to gently but firmly say, ha ha, no. But come on guys, can you really not differentiate when someone is trying to scam you and when they’re just trying to make a living? Come on.
It’s time to wrap up guys, I think I’ve made my point. And very quickly, before I end. Just to pre-empt the haters or skeptics who will react by saying oh jeez, look at this privileged girl talking about travel and money and underprivilege. I have this to say to you: get your head out of your ass. Somebody has to say it. Are you going to sit and listen to the life story of an overworked waiter in a dingy thai restaurant who has three kids to feed and doesn’t have the patience for your shit but has to stand there and smile at you in hopes of a generous tip? Of course not. But you’re here reading me, aren’t you? So since you’re here, listen. It’s not that hard to be decent human beings to one another. The least we can do, the very absolute baseline, is try.
I am all for making the most of your dollar. I am all for learning to enjoy yourself and immerse yourself in new experiences and new places without emptying out your bank account. But I cannot and will not endorse the kind of selfishness I see – the kind that finds it okay to put someone else down to get your bargain. C’mon guys. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Let’s be okay people. Let’s try.
Till next time.