It happened. What I thought I would never be a victim to as a smart female traveler. Victim may be a strong word, and “it” didn’t actually happened but my feathers were sufficiently ruffled.
About a month ago on one of my days off, one of my tuk-tuk driver friends (a man in his 50s probably) and I had finally managed to go out for lunch. Our plans, twice thwarted, finally materialized when he picked me up one Monday afternoon in front of the place we usually ran into each other. Off we set to get lunch. Were we to eat in a restaurant? Should I be paying since I’m the foreigner? Where exactly are we going? These questions I asked myself as we made our way further and further outside the center of town. I made up these rules in my mind as we traveled that perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to accompany people for meals to places further than what I could reasonably walk back to my home. Where we ended up picking up food lay just at the outside of that area. I knew where we were and knew my way back. But after getting our meal bagged to go, we set off further in a direction I didn’t know.
“Where are we going?” I asked several times. He answered, but, unfortunately I couldn’t understand what he was saying. ‘Surely, this old man means no harm so just go with it.’ I told myself. Further and further away we went and I never quite could understand the answer to where we were eating the many times I asked.
Finally, we stopped in the woods and I gave my boss a call to let her know I was getting lunch in a forest somewhere near one of the waterfalls, in case there’s cause for alarm or anything happens. But again, all I had ever done was smile and speak to the old man when our paths crossed. Surely, he meant no harm, right? My boss said, a meal in the woods didn’t sound out of the ordinary for a Lao person to suggest for a friend so I relaxed, packed away my apprehension, and tried to just enjoy myself.
We walked along a path deeper into the forest and he told me his friend had a house out here. I didn’t see a house and was walking cautiously several steps behind him. He assured me I didn’t need to worry, I’d see the house soon. And I did.
It was more of a shack, but what was particularly noteworthy was that it was a singular structure, not even complete, set in front of a waterfall. It was picturesque, lovely, and simple. My friend said we needed to wash our hands first and led the way to the stream. As I bent down to clean my hands in the water—*woosh!*—hundreds of multi-colored butterflies swirled around me, having been disturbed by my appearance. It felt like a scene out of a movie something, or like computer graphics.
We ate on one of the rocks in the fall. It was really restful with the sound of the water rushing downstream behind our backs. It was really comfortable, until it wasn’t anymore. Once we had both eaten our full, my friend suggested next time we play in my bedroom. I pretended I didn’t understand. He said that he loved me. I pretended that I didn’t understand.
I was sitting with my knees pulled into my chest and as he talked he’d occasionally tap my thigh. I was uncomfortable but not sure how much of this was cultural or what I might have not been understanding.
I contacted my boss again and repeated what he said about loving me and wanting to play in my bedroom together and she said that he probably wanted sex because many Lao men think all foreign women are easy. And to be honest, it’s not hard to see why. In that moment, mixed in with my feelings of fear, awkwardness, caution, I felt anger, too—a little toward Lao men and a lot toward Western women.
I get it, these messages of sexual liberation and progress. I may disagree on some points, but I hear you. But often, these messages get lost in translation and all the outside world with little contact with foreign women has to go off of is images. And in societies where discussions and dramatizations of sex are not as open or prevalent, where one-night stands and extra-marital affairs are commonly depicted in its media would make it seem that having a Western woman doesn’t take much.
This is a part of my problem with much black media, too. People who have never interacted with a real black person watch us in film and on TV and think that’s all we are. The images we allow to be exported of ourselves, separate from any potentially corrective interactions with us, leave other people no alternative but to assume the worse: that we are what they see on TV, and that’s not good.
Anyway, I digress. So what happened? The tuk tuk driver and I headed back to his vehicle after I magically forgot all my Lao and couldn’t understand anything he said. He ended up grabbing my hand and trying to interdigitate, but I quickly put my fingers together so there was no space for him to interlace his with mine. But still, there we were, walking hand in hand, with me trying to figure out how to get my hand back without offending or angering him. I did eventually, and the ride home was silent and awkward. I’ve tried my hardest to avoid him around town since that incident, too. Now when he smiles at me, it gives me the creeps.
For the record, I’m not easy and have never done anything to make anyone think otherwise. I’ve never even kissed anyone! But every time I think about it, I’m angered anew that thanks to these unaccompanied images of “liberated” women, my own safety was potentially threatened. I was seen as being easy by association.