I don't know a soul here, but I had a dinner-date companion on my first night in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
And I didn’t even have to use tinder.
I hadn’t had a meal in over 16 (mostly waking) hours, and I was hungry. When I came upon a tourist-friendly restaurant with outdoor seating and cheap prices, I took a seat without waiting to be seated and ordered seafood fried rice as fast as I could.
About five minutes into my meal, a well-dressed woman came right up next to me, and started talking to me. She looked to be the restaurant hostess, as I had seen her talking and sitting close to another customer earlier.
I noticed how closely she stood next to me, which I thought might feel intrusive for others, but I liked it. I figured it was a cultural thing. She was from Vietnam, she told me. She was in Kuala Lumpur for six months to earn money for her family, or so she said in a way that caused me to become a bit more alert, and I stealthily began eyeing my wallet.
She asked if I was going to have a drink. I said, “No, water is fine.” I thought of Japanese bars where girls come sit next to you (“Girls bars, hostess bars, and kyabakura”), and the idea is that you buy your female companion highly-priced drinks. The girls and women make their income from each drink that they goad you into buying for them and for yourself, so there’s a kind of pressure for the male patron to continue buying drinks, although I wouldn’t know from personal experience.**
**Actually last summer in Tokyo, I began talking to such a girl outside of a “girls bar,” and asked her many of these questions. Eventually, the pimp figure came out and told me to go away. Many girls at girls bars are teenagers.
After a few minutes of light conversation and some silence (I was tired and hungry), the hostess lady left. I was then able to bring all my attention back to my fried rice, which I was mentally comparing to fried rice I’ve had in Bali, and I felt a slight longing for Bali. (I also felt a slight longing for someone who will likely never read this, but that's another story.)
Then a few minutes later, she came back, but this time took the seat next to me, right up to me on my right. She began asking me more personal questions, about why I was visiting, where I had come from, where I was staying. I was responding honestly but also wondering if there was a scam coming. (This is my third trip to SE Asia.)
Her English wasn’t great by her own admission, and so conversation was limited. And I was hungry. But I also began noticing that there were about five other single, nicely-dressed women milling about the place with drinks in hand. It seemed odd to me that there would be that many hostesses, and some weren't as elegantly-dressed as the one that approached me. So about ten minutes later when my waiter came, I asked him, “Can you tell me what the function of these women are in this place?”
He said, “These women? They’re hookers.”
I said, “Oh! What?... Really?...” (I was taken aback that they would be allowed to freely roam the restaurant like that, so I hadn’t considered it.)
He said, “You can talk to them here, and then, you can go home with them.”
Me: “That makes sense. Thank you for letting me know.”
I turned to her, “Yeah, I see now!”
She smiled and said to me, “You see!”
Lots of clarity all at once.
Since I dislike sex with condoms and have no desire to risk HIV, I already knew the outcome of this dinner date. But I was also curious.
Me: “How much do you charge?”
Her: “$100, one hour. $200, overnight—”
Me: “—Is that US dollars?!” (That seemed expensive to me when seafood fried rice on this main drag was $5 or $5.25, and likely half that on a side street.)
Her: "Yes, US dollar."
Me: "Not Malaysian whatevers?"
Her: “Malaysian ringgit, no—”
Me: “—Yes, rInggits. So, about 400 ringgits for one hour?”
Her: “No, not 400. 380 ringgits...”
I liked how she corrected my math. I had been using a much simpler conversion of 4 to 1, or dividing by 4 to get the dollar equivalent, but she was using a more finely-detailed conversion, although I couldn’t justify the purpose of that for myself since the only difference at the end of the day might be a few cents. The fried rice came out to $5 by my conversion, and maybe a quarter more by hers.
I wondered whether this difference was due to my disregard for such petty amounts of money and her higher valuation of even a few pennies, or because she was dealing with much larger currency than me? Or maybe it’s that she wanted for me to think of her number as low as possible? It's very hard to ascertain someone else's motivations when you lack background information.
I told her, “I don’t think I can have sex. I’m too tired today.” I didn’t mention my thing with condoms and my concern with HIV. Maybe if it was $20 (or just because we liked each other), it would be nice to sleep together without sex, is what I thought. But I didn’t say it.
Instead, I dug into my wallet and handed her a $2 bill, which I thought might be fun, kind of as a tip for her time. She said, “One more.” So I gave her another. She seemed happy at just having two of those. Then she mentioned, “$2 for Chinese New Year!”
There’s a Chinese tradition of giving out bills in denominations of two, as gifts in celebration of this day. I used to get $2 bills from my Chinese in-laws every year for New Years. And as I thought of these things and looking at her, I felt as if we were celebrating the New Years together in those moments, each of us far from our homeland.
I really should have given her four of them to make it an even $8, which is a "lucky" number in Chinese culture since the sound for eight ("ba") is apparently similar in sound to the word for fortune ("fa")? Instead, I had given her two bills for a total of $4, where four ("si") is a close homophone to death ("si") in Chinese, and an exact homophone in Japanese. (Many buildings, for example in Japan, skip the 4th floor.) It would be like giving someone in the West $13 as a gift. (I might try that.) So I mentioned it. I said “Four is death,” pointing to the bills in her hands. She didn’t seem interested. She also didn’t ask for double. So I left it at that. I wanted to suggest that she give $2 to her friend so that she wouldn’t have “death” in her hands, but I didn’t think that would interest her either.
Then I said goodbye. She seemed happy either for the $2 bills or to be done with me, and I felt happy that i had had a partial dinner companion.
Life isn't perfect, and yet, when taken from a certain perspective, it is. It becomes so.
(A quasi-summary and a prelude to my next post: I sometimes find profound wonder and beauty in this world and in this life. This, in spite of all the heartache and suffering. And mostly, because of it.)