[Almost a year and a half ago I wrote an article about Fah, whose life as a Thai ladyboy taught me a lot about how people see themselves. This is another update on Fah’s life and, in the end, another lesson learned.]
Yesterday I attended the wedding of a friend. I thought it would be unusual because it was a wedding of two ladyboys, but that turned out not to be terribly important. It was, however, a wedding in the Thai style, the first I have attended, and that was interesting.
Thai Buddhist weddings are celebrations by family and friends, but they are also, in smaller towns, particularly in the north, celebrations by the community. My friend Fah and her new spouse, Lek, wanted to tap that tradition. On the other hand, they faced some challenges. As ladyboys, and also as an older couple (46 and, now, 41 respectively), they had to adapt the traditions to their own situation. They are also both very strong-willed individuals with their own views. Some rewriting of tradition was bound to happen in any case. And, it did.
The wedding happened yesterday, a Friday, and basically the process took the whole day. Lek is from a small town near Mae Sai, right on the border with Myanmar. Fah is from Chiang Saen, a very old Thai Lao city about an hour away, although she actually spent most of her childhood living closer to Chiang Mai, further south. The wedding took place both in Lek’s town, and in Chiang Saen, and then later the reception/party was in Mae Chan (because that’s where they could find a suitable hall).
In the morning, Fah and Lek and their immediate family members, fifteen of them in all, went to the local wat (temple) in Lek’s town to make merit. This involves feeding the monks, and providing donations, as well as praying. They could have done this in the wat near Fah’s family home, but apparently the monks there were a little bit pissy about ladyboys. Their loss.
After the temple, the family members – Fah and Lek, their parents, and their siblings with their families – had a formal breakfast. This was Fah’s initiative, and is not in any way consistent with Thai tradition. It was, however, a good idea. (Fah has lots of good ideas.) Fah wanted everyone to have a chance to talk about their feelings, before the wedding actually took place. The leadup to the wedding had not been without drama, ,and Fah was adamant that her wedding was going to be a happy day. To her, an airing of feelings was the best way to make the rest of the day happy.
I wasn’t there, of course, but later Fah and Lek described it to me. They started, to make it easier for others to talk. Fah’s theme, she said, was the importance to her of family. Even though her life had been for many years centred in Bangkok, nothing was more important to her than her family. Not her career and success, not even her employees, on whom she dotes. She talked about how much she loved her parents, her siblings, their spouses, and her nieces and nephews, and she said she looked forward to her family being larger, because now it would include Lek’s family.
Lek then talked about the biggest regret in her life. She saw her parents, still happy and now growing old together, and she wanted that too. The problem is that it can’t be just anyone. It has to be someone special to you. She had never given up (unlike Fah), because she wanted that so much. Finding Fah gave her someone she loved, with whom she could grow old. (Fah described Lek’s little speech as “defiant, but in a loving way”.)
I can’t go through all of the others, but some were quite touching. Fah’s father talked about how difficult it was to accept Fah’s gender identification, but in the end how, in either gender, Fah was still the same person, the same child that he held when she was a baby. “Every child becomes an adult,” he said. “They are always different, but they are always still your child, same same.” Fah’s younger brother talked about how Fah was a role model to his young children, how they wanted so much to grow up to be as smart and successful as their Aunt Fah, their idol. The kids were right there, nodding in agreement.
Not all was positive. Lek’s mother apologized for not being able to be upbeat. She said at one time she had one son and two daughters, and now she had three daughters. She wanted Lek to be happy, sure, but she missed having a son. “Sons are different,” she said.
Fah and Lek told me that the breakfast and discussion, which took a couple of hours, and included a lot of tears and laughter, ended up being a good idea. It didn’t clear the air. The psychology of the situation was too complicated for that. What it did do is bring the two families together, and start a process of forging new relationships that would be good for everyone.
Lek said it also made her wonder for the first time – and to Fah’s obvious surprise – whether she and Fah could ever have kids.
After their breakfast, the whole family went to visit a couple of Lek’s elderly relatives that couldn’t make it to the rest of the wedding ceremony. One of them, very old, wondered why Lek – in her mind the husband-to-be – had chosen such a tall bride, but didn’t comment that Lek was also wearing a dress.
Then the families loaded themselves into several cars and, with a few accompanying monks, drove to Chiang Saen, about an hour away. The formal ceremonies were scheduled for noon.
Meanwhile, in Chiang Saen, the rest of the wedding guests – 150 in all – had assembled at the house of Fah’s parents, basically closing down the small soi (street) with dozens of cars, and a bus. The bus was the idea of a group of Fah’s employees in Bangkok, many of whom originally came from Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces in Thailand’s north. More than sixty people – employees and some spouses and kids – chartered a bus and travelled up to Chiang Saen on Thursday for the wedding. They doubled and tripled up in the homes of local family members, and on Friday morning they were all outside Fah’s family home, ready to party.
The house was not nearly big enough for 150 people, which got complicated when, less than an hour before the ceremony, it poured with rain. This was not just a little rain. In the space of five minutes, it went from overcast to torrential (so typical of unruly Thailand weather). With no room in the house, most people ran for shelter to their cars, or the bus (apparently there was quite the party on the bus). People who were talking by cellphone with the family and couple, en route, said they were less than thirty minutes away. It looked like much of the ceremony, which was supposed to be outside, would be ruined.
Instead, just as the family and the celebrants arrived, the rain stopped as suddenly as it started. As Fah and Lek got out of their car, the sun broke through as if it had all been planned. (People who know Fah would not assume that planning was completely out of the question.)
I have been told in no uncertain terms that, if I’m going to write about this wedding (even with some names and places changed to maintain some semblance of anonymity – although I guess most of that has been lost by now), I have to talk about what the two brides were wearing. OK, OK.
This does not come naturally to me.
Of course, Fah and Lek are not hurting for money. Lek is a tenured (or something like that) university professor in Bangkok, and is an almost religious saver. She also did pretty well in Bangkok real estate. Fah is the CEO of a Thai company with Hong Kong owners, and her salary reflects that. They drove from Mae Sai to Chiang Saen in a brand new Mercedes, Fah’s performance bonus for last year.
Fah and Lek made a pact that they would each select a wedding dress, completely on their own and with no preconditions, and neither would see the other’s dress until the day of the wedding. Everyone thought this was very romantic, although I suspect they were also conscious that two headstrong individuals could clash about something like this. They neatly avoided any conflict.
Lek, who is 157 cm (about 5’2”), was wearing a traditional northern Thai wraparound dress called a sinh, which is basically very fine, light fabric worn, not so much like a sari, but v-neck like a full-length gown. It was golds and reds, with delicate patterns. I call it “traditional”, but as one of Fah’s Bangkok friends said to me, “Sure, that’s traditional [with air quotes]. Then some Bangkok hi-so fashion designer got their hands on it.” She wore it with what looked like ballet slippers. Lek’s passion, outside of work, is Thai dance, so she is very fit, agile and graceful. She looked sensational.
In contrast, Fah went to Hong Kong to have a dress made to her own specifications by some hot new Chinese designer. Fah is about 169 cm or so, and has the same slim figure she had when I met her ten years ago. She is already beautiful, and has for years been a bit (!!!) of a clothes horse. She would look good in jeans, and does, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in the same outfit twice outside of her office and factory (where she usually dresses like she’s going to jump right in and operate one of the machines).
The wedding dress reflected this. I am told – by the same young lady who lent her fashion expertise to my understanding of the less-than-completely-classic sinh – that the style is loosely based on the cheongsam, a Chinese dress with a high neckline and very clean lines. There is brocade, or something like that, and lots of colours. The main difference was that, below the high neckline, much of the upper part was cut out in little diamond-shaped openings, like a North American style evening gown. Where a cheongsam has a full front, this dress had a suggestion of décolletage. The sleeves were also loose after the elbow, unlike the normal cheongsam style. (See how much important information you can learn if you just pay attention?)
Fah also wore small heels, because damn anyone who would complain that she was too tall for a Thai woman.
Anyway, all of this is to say that, when they got out of the car in Chiang Saen, their combined look – even though they were not in any way co-ordinated – was gasp-worthy. (It’s a technical term.) Some actual gasps in fact could be heard. If they were looking for a “wow” moment, they certainly got one.
The ceremonies started right away. A hundred and fifty people took no time at all to get from waiting patiently in the rain to raucous partying on the street.
There is a Thai tradition that, when the groom gets to the bride’s house, friends and relatives block the door, standing on each side of the path and holding coloured string between them: symbolic barriers preventing the groom from getting to his bride. The groom has to cajole and bribe the many people in his way to drop the strings and allow him through. It can sometimes get rude. It is always loud and boisterous.
Fah and Lek, lacking bride and groom roles, modified this tradition. There was a double line of friends and family in the middle of the street, probably fifty in total. Strings were held between them. Lek and Fah were forced to opposite ends of the gauntlet, and had to find a way to get to each other in the middle. Those not in the line stood around the outside, providing advice, encouragement, and heckling. There was loud Thai music in the background. By the time it was finished, they had added another fifty onlookers.
This was all happening in Thai, of course, and as the only non-Thai there I had to rely on the helpful (and sometimes not so helpful) colour commentary by a few of the friends who spoke English.
At each step along the way, Fah or Lek was negotiating with someone they knew well, trying to convince them in a way appropriate to that person to let her through. Some of it was obvious. Lek was forced to perform several complex Thai dance moves at various points, which she did with considerable skill and applause. Fah was forced to “high-wai” (a special bow that is a sign of respect, usually to an elder) a six-year nephew who barely understood why this was all happening, but had a giggle fit at the wai from his aunt.
Fah also made everyone burst into laughter by stopping suddenly at one person in her way, saying nothing, but giving him a look so stern it really appeared she was angry. That person meekly dropped the string, and she acknowledged that capitulation with payment of a one-baht coin, thrown up in the air with a regal toss of her head. For many, payment of a twenty-baht note was enough to get by, although near the end Fah’s younger brother held out for 1000 baht (about $40) from Lek.
Most of it, though, was incomprehensible to me. Apparently it was very funny, and often extremely risqué, even profane. I kept asking “what is he (or she) saying?” to the people beside me. Sometimes they told me, but other times they said things like “I can’t say that out loud”. Twice, I was told that things being said were simply not translatable. (Later, Fah told me that the very rudest things said were anatomically suggestive comments about ladyboys having sex, but in the circumstances they were funny and endearing, not negative. For example: “How can you ever really know that she’s a virgin”, a play on a phrase often said in exactly the same context at heterosexual weddings of younger people, but with added nuances here, given both the age and gender identities of the couple.)
This seemed to go on forever, but was actually probably only about twenty or thirty minutes. Finally Lek and Fah met in the middle of the gauntlet, to much yelling and commentary by everyone. Without any prompting, everyone started moving down the street, singing and shouting with very little apparent co-ordination. Fah and Lek were dragged along in the middle, but smiling and happy.
The whole crowd went around the block, proclaiming the marriage to the neighbours (including some speechless students in the 7-Eleven store on the corner). It was a mob scene, ending up back at Fah’s family home.
There, in front of the watchful cadre of monks, the two people getting married knelt on pillows on a raised platform in front of their parents. Lots of flowers surrounded them. There were too many little things happening for me to notice all of them. The couple were blessed by each of their four parents with a little speech, and a touch. All of the parents were crying. Many of the guests were as well.
After the blessings from the parents, the newly married couple turned to face the guests, and each guest in turn came up to them to wish them well (almost like a receiving line, but the couple is kneeling). One of Lek’s relatives had a speech prepared, which he fished out of his pocket and read to the couple. Not to the crowd. Just to the couple. Getting married in Thailand appears to require a certain amount of stamina.
It was probably 1:30 by the time this was all done. Fah and Lek went with their parents to see some of Fah’s older relatives who could not attend, and then they were planning to take photos and change clothes. Some politician was also planning to meet with them privately – i.e. no press – to express his personal joy at their ladyboy wedding in his constituency. (Politicians in Thailand currently don’t have much to do. The country is being ruled by a military junta after a coup in 2014.)
For the rest of us, we had three hours to kill, until the reception at 4:30 in Mae Chan. As the only non-Thai, I had been “assigned” four guests who were going to be my hosts during that time. I knew three of them, twenty or thirty-something workers in the office of Fah’s company, and the other was the husband of one of the three. They all spoke some English, and they were all from Chiang Rai province. (I heard later that “assigned” was perhaps not quite correct. Everyone who spoke English wanted to be given the opportunity to be the minders of the pumpui farang (literally, and I am not making this up, “fat white guy”). There were winners, but also some disappointed losers. Now I know how the popular kids felt in high school.)
So these four Thai young people, over-excited by the wedding ceremony, piled into my car and took me on a wild ride through the golden triangle area of Thailand. I saw three home towns (one being too far away to visit), all the while listening to often conflicting directions as to where and how to drive on the small country roads. I could only get my revenge – sometimes – by driving so fast that even they were a little scared.
The highlight of the three hours was a trip to the Hall of Opium. You immediately laugh, but this is a world-class museum, comparable to any you would see in a big city in North America or Europe, yet out in the middle of nowhere in northern Thailand. I was surprised and enthralled, to the point where they almost couldn’t tear me away after more than a hour.
After the unusual nature of the rest of the day, the reception was somewhat anti-climactic. It was almost North-American. No-one played Hava Nagila, but there was dancing, and people ate too much and got drunk, there was an MC, and there were speeches. Fathers danced with 10 year olds. There was much milling about. Most of the people speaking tried to say one or two words in English (for my benefit), but generally the whole thing was in Thai. Lek and Fah, the only two ladyboys there, danced the first dance, some Western-style Thai song that allowed them to dance together, and then move away and dance separately (with all the Thai hand movements, etc.), and then back together. I mean, we were clearly not in Toronto, but if you ignored just a few things it could easily have been a wedding reception at the Royal York Hotel.
For me, the most interesting part of the reception was getting a chance to sit and talk with some of the people I’d heard about from Fah. For example, Fah’s father came over and had a long (very long, in fact), talk with me. He speaks excellent, almost native, English. I had never met him in person before, and I had talked to him on the phone just once (when he agreed to lend me a traditional Thai formal shirt for the wedding.) He is only a few years older than me, and retired after a long career as a university professor. He gave me advice about retirement (don’t be lazy), and becoming a writer (get an appointment at a university), but mostly he talked about the evolution of his feelings about Fah. He was surprisingly erudite and funny, yet I could see in him the same Spock-like tendencies that I already knew about in Fah. A very interesting person.
I also talked at length to Fah’s younger brother, whose English is OK but not fully fluent. His main mission in coming over to talk to me was to thank me for “solving the family’s Fah problem”, which I told him was wrong on just so many levels I couldn’t even begin (e.g. I didn’t do anything, and they didn’t really have a problem). He wasn’t having any of it, and as his wife looked on, giving him encouragement, he said his piece. They didn’t know how to relate to Fah. Now they did. That was on me. (Seriously?) He did reiterate what he said in the morning, though. He honestly believed that his kids would have better lives because they had Fah as a role model. (I guess I don’t get credit for that too. Damn.)
There was more, but it was largely a flurry of activity, interspersed with interesting conversations with people I was meeting for the first time. I even had a short talk with Fah and Lek, although I will be having dinner with them in a couple of weeks in Bangkok.
All in all, very enjoyable.
So here I am. I thought I would write a short piece on the wedding, but I guess I got carried away. Sorry about that. Maybe too much basking in the glow of happiness, not only of the couple getting married, but also of the people who love them. Lek, whom I also met for the first time at the wedding, told me at the end that if I attend another Thai wedding in the future, it will likely be very different. I would not be surprised. Every wedding is different. This one maybe a little more than usual, I suppose, but every wedding is about unique individuals, and their unique families and friends.
What I can’t get over, though, is how little it really mattered in the end that the couple were two ladyboys. I was brought up in an era in which the idea of gays and lesbians getting married was inconceivable (actually, their whole relationship was illegal), and you didn’t even hear the word “transsexual” until you were an adult. Transsexuals getting married? Go wash your mouth out with soap.
As with many aspects of society, we have evolved. What matters today, more than the labels, are the underlying truths about people. Yes, even in old, traditional Thailand.
Lek’s visceral feeling about life, and what is important, is exactly right. Her parents had something – growing old together with someone you love – that she really wanted. Why on earth would her gender identity mean she was denied that?
– Jay Shepherd, June 25, 2016