At the table directly in front of me, a scene common to Southeast Asia is unfolding. A man, overweight and sweaty, perhaps forty, yells into his cell phone, face scrunched up in wrinkles. When the waiter comes to take his order, the man barks at him, and follows up every sentence with “do you understand?” The waiter, a bastion of courtesy, replies evenly “yes sir”.
“So that’s eggs, over medium. Meeeeedeeeeummmmm. Do you understand?”
“And the coffee. The coffee? Sweet milk. I want sweet milk. Do you understand?”
Across from him, a beautiful Cambodian woman sits in silence, staring out the door toward the drifting pollution of the Mekong river with her chin resting on her hands. The milk chocolate skin of her hunched shoulders reflects the morning light. Her gaze is distant and unmoving, even when the man hangs up the phone. Their food arrives. The woman picks at the plate, peering at her eggs with the same vacuous eyes while the man assaults his bacon and diddles on his smart phone. A brief conversation ensues amidst inhalations of white toast.
I know this man. Not personally, but still, I know him. He is an archetype of men I DO know, men I have met on the circuitous trail of budget tourism. I want to hit him. I want to pick up the oak chair I’m sitting on and break it over his head. I want to speak Khmer so I can look this woman in the eyes and tell her she is worth more, that she deserves better regardless of how much he is paying her. I put on some music. A happy tune. Sex tourism is a thing. I should be used to it by now. But I’m not. There’s just something unsettling about watching the economic subjugation of human beings flaunted openly.
Of course the rationale is the same as for all other forms of economic activity–we trade our life energy for dollars. Prostitution is just another iteration of that timeless theme. Some will even argue that it’s the “oldest profession on Earth,” as if that’s good enough, case closed. In theory, I actually agree. Given that we live in a system where the dollar has all but usurped humanity, why shouldn’t a person be free to sell their body in a sexual way? Laborers sell their bodies as they toil about in solar radiation, moving inevitably toward the breakdown of joints, skin cells, skeletal structure. White collar folk spend their creativity, mental energy, and most physically vibrant years frozen in office chairs in the pursuit of pleasuring shareholders. Everyone is for sale, and to say that sex, the almighty taboo of our time, is exempted from monetization is to align ourselves with glaring hypocrisy.
I think my problem is just how commodified the woman sitting in front of me (and the countless others like her) is. The man, when he actually looks at her, holds an expression of contempt, eyes pushed forward in an expectant frown. As if he deserves her; as if she is lucky to have him, her employer, buying her breakfast. I watch from a place of safety-crouched over some eggs and my computer-my mind judging the scene relentlessly. She stands for all of us, economically languaged into obscurity. The only difference is that what she is doing conflicts with some archaic system of morals which has us all terrified of our own genitals. It stands out.
It’s so tempting to criticize this situation, to throw my whole plate of projections upon it, to quietly hate. I assume that the woman is unhappy, because I would be unhappy in her position, and indeed, am unhappy for her. I reason that the gluttonous creature across from her is a cowardly brute, running from a life of decay. But these are my thoughts, isolated fragments emitting from an isolated universe, and they hold no basis in actual reality. What if these two are on their honeymoon? What if they have children together? What if they just got into a fight, and that’s why they aren’t talking? There’s infinite possibilities, and I just blocked them out of my life because they represent what I condemn in myself.
Judgement is the low road, the baseline, business as usual. It’s the default setting. I have no idea what transpired in either of these people’s lives that has led them to this moment, this narrative that I deem so unwholesome. I don’t know of their heartbreaks or their victories or their interests or even the nature of their relationship. I just see a thing, a well known establishment, an easy target.
Is there such thing as right and wrong? That’s a subject for sixty more blog posts. However, I think I’m beginning to see that I have no business even approaching that question. As far as I can tell, I am here to experience. Nothing in the internal operating manual, when I really inspect it, says it’s my job to judge the manifestations of reality. So I’m going to sign off, and I’m going to assume that the couple that just left the table in front of me is going back to their hotel to love each other and enjoy their vacation. Or not.