On the first day of a new English class, there are four symbols drawn on the whiteboard: a square, a triangle, a “Z” and a circle. The students are asked to quietly select one that resonates the most with them. After a few moments, we hear their reasons and I reveal what each symbol means about their personality.
A square would be someone who was ambitious. A triangle would be the natural-born leader. “Z” would be the creative type. And the circle would be the “party animal” — the people person.
There are many who picked the last and each has their reasons: it’s easy on the eyes, it has a sense of harmony, it’s simple, and, my favorite, it has no beginning and no end.
In our lives, we see circles all the time. Like the water cycle or the natural life of plants, trees, and flowers. We have chaos and order. The light and the dark. And even life and death.
The endpoint of this post is focused on the story of a particular night in March 2015 when I was just starting my relationship with Bunny and we were coming home from the cinema. We were heading up the ramp of the underground parking lot when the shit hits the fan (a circular motion) and it almost resulted in the injury or possible death of myself, her, and a pair of security guys pushing a shopping cart down the ramp. All because of Speed Demon, my Honda Dream II motorcycle, and the accidental circus trick of spinning it around in a death spin with one hand while off the bike.
But before we get there, I wanted to think about another circus-like trick that involves circles, motorcycles, and fire — Vietnamese ladyboys doing their “ring of fire” dance in the middle of a busy street with other motorists not knowing what the fuck is happening. So, this one does connect with defying death, in a way.
But, let’s take with the term: ladyboy.
Affectionately speaking, the term isn’t as positive as it would seem in many cases. Putting that term into Google would probably give you an unexpected collection of x-rated material that you were probably not wondering about. Or, you get a lot of bikini-clad women with angelic faces that hit you to the core. In Thailand, that’s the term you mostly hear quite often but I’m sure any so-called term used to identify the third gender is often a double-edged sword of acceptance and even pejorative. Wikipedia, fortunately, provides the term Kathoey but surprisingly it doesn’t translate clearly as “transgender” as we would expect in English.
In fact, we get a few different terms on how folks would identify themselves:
Phuying — which means “women” and these are transgender women. I believe a majority would identify themselves as such.
Phuying praphet song — a”second kind of woman” and only a minority would refer to themselves as such.
Kathoey or katoey — is a transgender woman or an effeminate gay male. Only very few would refer to such a term.
As I finish skimming the entry on Wikipedia, I stumble upon the revelation that the term kathoey is of Khmer origin (or Cambodian, if that makes your life easier). This is interesting to bring up because I have a flash of a memory when I first visited Vietnam in 2009.
Southern provinces in Vietnam have roots in the Khmer culture and a lot of the names there have a Cambodian vibe rather than a Vietnamese one. My dad’s hometown is about 45 minutes to an hour southeast of Soc Trang city. There we have a lot of people who view themselves as Cambodian Vietnamese. We see it in the culture and temples and buildings but it’s a visible minority group.
One night, during that 2009 trip, my cousins, my sister, and I went for a joy ride through the neighborhood and countryside roads. Nothing is more haunting than the lack of electricity and the pale moonlight that comes and goes through the clouds. Driving in Vietnam is already dangerous but driving in the countryside is probably worse due to the fact of the lack of motorbikes. Why? Because you have the urge to go full throttle on an open road.
While riding around looking for something to do, we hear the distant thumping bass sound of music. Vietnamese people are very musical people. They say that most people are not really tone-deaf (which is a lie) because the language is tonal and there are accents used to distinguish different words. A single misstep in the intonation would result in a misunderstanding or an accidental and funny word used instead, as there are many words very similar but with a different inflection.
Whenever the music calls, the Vietnamese will come. And so, we hear this dancing beat and are intrigued. Possibly an open-air concert in the area, which is rare being the countryside. However, we discovered something more along the lines of a very, very Pride-esque kind of celebration. There was mostly a male audience and there was an assortment of different dresses. I mean, literal dresses. The people on stage were lip-syncing to a fun upbeat song, but they were definitely men in drag. There were little kids watching and enjoying, and even a little boy dancing near the stage. In fact, I think he was accompanied by his grandfather. This grandfather looked plain in appearance and was dressed in pajamas. But, boy, could this old dude dance gay — as in the traditional meaning of “lighthearted and carefree.
And it was all in Cambodian.
To think the term Kathoey has origins in Khmer is something I’m not too surprised.
In Southeast Asia, I think it’s safe to say that Thailand is the most open and understanding when it comes to the idea of a third gender in their society. Taking a nice stroll in the beautiful morning of Bangkok, you’re bound to meet a few of members who seem themselves a little more female than male. But you’ll see two types. The first being the stereotypical one of very feminine and fit and beautiful by the way they take care themselves and conscious about their appearance. The second one is this strange mash-up of being in drag and not giving a single fuck.
Literally, Bunny and I encountered a “woman” who, sad to say, looked like a big grizzly of a man with a bit of a beard but wearing a short skirt, low cut top, long wavy hair, and the kind of colors that would make the eighties run for cover. And heels, mustn’t forget she was wearing heels with such sass and style.
In Vietnam, the third gender isn’t recognized as much or even accepted. It’s a little unfair of how they are treated or stared upon in society and they can’t get a decent job. Where in Thailand, you could perfectly qualify and work in a good establishment like a server at a restaurant in the airport.
In Vietnam, you have a few choices — sex worker, singing and selling candy, and performing a ring of fire dance.
The latter of which relates to the main point. Because when I almost died that time, I was thinking about how insane it must have looked and even more worthy of being paid money to perform the act.
So what’s the ring of fire dance?
Basically, you’ll have pairs of ladyboys ride up to those watering holes at night and start blaring their music to the drinkers. Then, after getting the attention, one of them will walk out into the middle of the busy road, spray a circle of kerosene around her and then proceed to light two double-sided torches.
The next thing you know, she lights the torches on fire, touches the ring, and goes into a crazy fit and all the motorbikes lose their shit as they try and dodge the flames. It’s an act that is meant to catch your attention and a hope for some money when they come around to sell their candy.
In fact, here’s a better way to understand the whole thing:
So, now it comes to my own “ring of fire” — a fire of embarrassment that burned deep in my own heart.
After becoming a more confident riding on my motorbike, I started to call my Honda Dream II, Speed Demon, after the Michael Jackson song and the strange feeling I got when I felt that this particular cycle had a personality of a little dog syndrome. Because at certain times, it really felt like a demon.
Bunny and I had finished watching a movie at the cinema. We either went for animated films and horror. I think this was a horror and I have the faint memory of it being The Woman in Black 2. It was a shitty film that had a shitty storyline that I don’t remember but it was fun to watch the jump scares and how genuinely scared Bunny would be. And her adorable scream that pierced through all the screams. Despite that, she, too, felt it was a crapfest.
Leaving the cinema was always an ordeal because it was located on the fifth floor of Crescent Mall and we had to wait for the elevators to get us to the underground parking. Again, people do not know how to queue or understand the honour system of waiting your turn, based on who got their first.
Later, we’re in the underground parking and I have to say that the construction of this building was mostly half-assed or poorly executed. Everything is catered to the cars when a majority of people rode motorbikes. So the ramp getting out was as steep as hell and going on a curve. You could coast down the ramp while being easy on the brakes but going up was crazy. And for me, I made the wrong judgment of how fast to hit the ramp to get out, especially carrying two people. Unlike automatic bikes, my bike had to be timed perfectly when going up the hill. Whatever you did before to the moment of going up — you had to change the gears correctly so you can be going up smoothly and safely.
I was already in top gear BUT didn’t build enough speed. So we were going up and the engine was really working but it wasn’t going up fast enough. I feared we were going to slow down and tip over, so I told Bunny to hop off, seeing that it was late and there wasn’t much traffic coming out of the parking, I felt it was better to walk it up. Count this one as a failure, but come out of it unscathed.
She hopped off and I hopped off too.
But, I didn’t kill the engine. I left it on and I was walking the bike and in my mind, for that moment, I thought…. Fuck, this bike is heavy, perhaps I’ll give a tap of the throttle so we can speed — VRRRRROOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMM — the bike started to swing around me in circles. Total chaos.
At this exact moment, there were two security guys coming down the ramp with some shopping carts and when I started to lose my shit, they too reacted and started to lose control of the carts and went in circles. Everyone was trying to avoid each other and I was so confused that I wasn’t even scared but trying to snap back to reality to what was happening.
In all of the blur of spinning around, I saw Bunny smiling and reaching out to try and help me. For a flash of a moment, I only feared of accidentally hitting her and was scared that I would regret my whole life if I did.
And so, I just told myself, “Fuck you, Speed Demon — you piece of shit” and let both hands go.
It dropped with a heavy thud and I bruised my leg. It was still running so the headlight was still flickering under the engine. As I went to check on Bunny, I find this girl laughing hysterically. She told me, that she never saw anything so funny in her life. I asked if she was mad. She said not at all — mostly, she felt sorry for not able to help me at all. She said the whole thing plus the security guys and watching everyone lose control was absolutely hilarious.
From that day on, we didn’t really take my motorbike down steeped underground parking garages. In fact, I think she avoided my bike for a long, long time. But it was a good laugh because nobody got hurt.
And so, the fire of embarrassment burns on with that memory. The circles and the fire. The endless cycle of no beginning and no end.
The circles and the fire. The endless cycle of no beginning and no end.
The endless cycle of no beginning and no end.