I Watched Him Shopgirl His Girlfriend

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Sihanoukville, Cambodia, may look close to Koh Chang, Thailand, on the map, but the journey’s quite a long one — I’ve been on the road for eleven hours, and I’ve only just arrived on the island.

I’m sitting in the back of a sawngtaew on the way to the hippie enclave of Lonely Beach. To my left is an affable, mid-forties Scottish man; across from us is a couple in their late twenties.  The guy is tall and Irish; his ponytailed girlfriend, Thai.

“Reckon it gets hot in Koh Chang?” the Scotsman asks.

“Not for her,” the Irish guy says, his arm draped lazily around his girlfriend.  “She’s from the hottest part of Thailand.  Right between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.”

From the way the Thai girl looks at him, you’d think he was talking about how he discovered the cure for cancer. Her cheeks are pink; her eyes are shining.

“We’ve been traveling all day and all night from Chiang Mai,” the Irish guy says.  “I teach there.”

“Does it pay well?” the Scotsman asks.

“Not if you ever want to leave the city.”

I wonder how long it took them to save up for this trip.

“That’s why I’m going to Taiwan,” the Irish guy continues.  His girlfriend flinches at the mention of the country.

“When do you go there?”

“Two weeks.  I can’t wait.”

The Scotsman points to the Thai girl with his chin.  “Are you bringing her with you?

The Irish guy shakes his head, his arm still around her. The Thai girl’s face crumples.

So this is their final getaway together, their final days as a couple.

As I watch them, I think of only one word.  Shopgirl.

Shopgirl is a novella by Steve Martin that was later turned into a film. In the story, Ray, a fifty-year-old wealthy divorcé, meets twenty-something Mirabelle, who works at the couture glove counter at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills.  After he makes a surprising and incredibly romantic gesture, they begin dating.

It could be a typical May-December romance, but it’s not. Despite the age difference, Ray and Mirabelle become good friends as well as lovers, and they build an unconventional relationship, enjoying each other’s company immensely.

However, as soon as they become serious, Ray tells Mirabelle that he has specific terms for this relationship.  He desires a relationship without obligation — no emotional intimacy whatsoever.  But he loves spending time with her and wants to continue seeing her.

Mirabelle, by this point, is so in love with Ray that she quickly agrees. She’d rather have him in this limited capacity than not at all.  Plus, she’s convinced that he has to fall in love with her eventually.

He doesn’t.

I don’t know this couple.  I don’t know what their lives are like.  All I know is what I observe.

And from these few minutes in the sawngtaew, I don’t observe any balance. He’s in charge, and she acquiesces.

I know that look on her face — she adores him, but she’s incredibly hurt.

It’s so easy to recognize when it’s not happening to you.

Watching the couple, I have a thousand questions.

Did he tell her he loved her?

Did she expect him to stay in Thailand for her?

And most of all —

Did he choose to be with a Thai woman because it would be easier to leave her?

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42 thoughts on “I Watched Him Shopgirl His Girlfriend”

  1. Ouch. That was painful to read, but so true I fear. I’ve seen it before myself while traveling and it’s not limited to South East Asia. And what bothered me almost as much was the way they talked about her, in front of her, as if she wasn’t even there.
    On another topic, isn’t Steve Martin a great writer? I just read one of his books for the first time, “An Object of Beauty” and really enjoyed it.

    1. Steve Martin is an EXQUISITE writer. Shopgirl is one of very few books that I read and marvel at the writing.

      And I don’t think this is necessarily a Western/Asian thing…I’ve seen it in lots of cultures. Hell, I’ve lived it.

      1. If you haven’t already you should definitely read, “Pleasure of my Company.” I read that before
        I read “Shopgirl” and it’s beautiful.

  2. I highly doubt he chose a Thai girlfriend because it would be easier to leave her. He’s living in Thailand! Of course he’s going to have a Thai girlfriend. 🙂

    Just like all the white girls who live in Central America have Latin boyfriends. It’s no different.

    Although callously talking about his plans to leave her, in front of her, is a bit messed up…

      1. Why is it a prerequisite that he has to date a Westerner? Especially in a foreign country?

        Sounds a bit ridiculous to me…

        I’ve repeatedly seen a double standard while traveling, and from my own past experience dating interracially.

        For example, no one bats an eye when Western women head down to Central or South America and land themselves a hot Latin guy, but if Western men date outside their race, they must be “using” the girl somehow.

        While I’m certainly not saying that doesn’t happen at all, because it does, I do find it odd that you automatically think a Westerner, living & working in Thailand, should be dating another Westerner just because there are other Westerners around.

        I’m currently in Granada, which is full of Westerners. I guess all the Western girls that are dating Latin guys down here must be using them then?

        I highly doubt the majority of these girls will be taking them home to visit Mom & Dad when they leave… So maybe it’s true… 😉

        1. I can’t really speak to Central America, but I think the problem in Western men dating Thai girls lies in the money and power disparity between the two cultures. The westerner has money and the thai girl doesn’t have as many options as an independent western woman might. If the guy is attracted to the girl for that reason- than that is messed up. People are not just an experience to have before moving on to a new city.

          Obviously this is not true in all relationships- I’ve met lots of lovely couples in SE Asia who totally break that mold. But I do think it’s a common phenomenon and it’s not right.

          And western girls doing it elsewhere doesn’t make it anymore right.

          1. I completely agree. I’d just like people not to make assumptions as often as they do without knowing more about the situation. As you can probably tell, I’ve been a target of these in the past. It’s not pleasant, and I sometimes get fired up about it. That last line is a pretty big assumption…

            As you said, the situation is certainly not gender specific either.

            Just think of all the Italian & South American men who have had their fragile hearts broken by white girls on vacation! Poor guys… 😉

  3. Agreed – speaking about it in front of her is just cold and callous. But probably something he didn’t even think about.

    I’ve seen it more in Bangkok and the beaches, but then again, I wasn’t in Chiang Mai very long.

    Your pictures are awesome and it just fuels my desire to get back there ASAP. DAMNIT. But thanks.

  4. What was weird was in my google reader your post was followed by an add for dating Philippine girls!
    Interesting comments…I guess if I was single I’d be off to S.America LOL

  5. My question is did he realise that his actions could result in her being disowned by her family, ostracised by society and unable to marry unless she finds a westerner who may just stick around (and to be fair, there are a few)? It makes me so sad.

  6. Ive been living in bangkok for the past 2 months and i love it. I have not, and in all likeliness will not get a thai girlfriend while im here.

    (this is where im hated for my words again. oh the early days of the internet!)

    I specifically chose thailand because im not attracted to asian women. I chose this place to work on my projects because i didnt want to be distracted by women or anything else.

    What i want from a companion these days is more than skin deep and isnt likely to be found from an asian woman (or man. Im not a picky human) living or born outside of the west. Sweeping general statement, but theres some basis to it. I like people laughing at my jokes because they understand the reference, not just because i bought them a drink.

    Thats not to say i dont condone others to do it. I know for sure that my friends will eventually join me here and take up a thai girlfriend. I just say that its not for me.

    And i cant talk, i ‘shopgirled’ a woman once. Not my finest hour, but im still a man without regrets.


    1. Rick — wow. Thanks for a very honest comment.

      Right after being Shopgirled, I ended up Shopgirling the next guy I was involved with. It was only brief, but I still feel awful about it.

      1. Thats not to say that i dont find asian women beautiful. I can appreciate the beauty of all women, but i find that what im looking for is largely not here and so i discount any advances made towards me as general flirting.

        Theres no point in feeling bad about the things you’ve done in the past. They make who you are now. And if you dont like who you are now, then you need to change now to make a better you for the future.

        Thats just my 10cent thought.


  7. I already got up on my soapbox further up in the comments so I’ll just say I’m glad you wrote about this because it’s something I’ve seen all over SE Asia and, as much as I try not to be judgmental, it really does bother me. A relationship where the power balance is so unequal is really sad.

    Obviously there are lot of legitimate relationships too, the kind built on love and trust, and I don’t mean to disparage those. But when I see a 50-something English guy ordering around a thai girl young enough to be his daughter, that’s not where my mind goes.

    Also Steve Martin is one of my favorite people on earth. Have you read his other book, The Pleasure of My Company? I actually preferred it.

  8. Ouch 🙁

    I understand the situation though….a lot of English teachers from the USA, the UK, Canada come to Korea and work. They have every intention of leaving, but will start dating a Korean girl. A few months down the line, the guy will mention that he has no desire to stay in Korea for longer than his contract. The girl will stay, thinking he’ll change, and he never does. The contract runs out, the guy goes home – usually unscathed – leaving the girl thinking that she did something wrong as he didn’t stay for her.

    I think expat men often date local girls in Asian countries for the very reason in your last sentence, Kate – that they feel it will be easier to leave them. They can use a line like, “what? you didn’t expect me to stay here forever, did you?”

    My heart broke a little bit for the poor girl in the story. Hopefully the next guy she dates won’t be such a douche.

  9. What a sad story. 🙁 Almost makes you want to grab the poor girl by the shoulders, give her a good shake, and say “YOU CAN DO SO MUCH BETTER.”

    But you’re right, Kate — it’s so much easier to recognize this sort of unhealthy relationship from the outside.

  10. I think these relationships are normally transactional and short-term. I have seen so much of this in both Thailand and the Philippines, both places where men can date way above their natural level of looks and attention because they come from wealthy countries, not the developing world.

    Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. But, most often, unless this is a girl from a small village, she will know the score, and get another man to replace this one.

    Which is not to say that relationships begun on holiday or while travelling that are cross-cultural can’t work. Many do. Really nice piece of narrative writing, by the way.

    1. At first glance, this didn’t seem like the typical Western/Asian relationship — they were about the same age. The guy was young and good-looking. She was in jeans and a collared shirt (not the typical heels/short-shorts bar girl outfit). I felt like it was less about the Western-Asian thing and more about him being a garden-variety jerk.

      Thanks. 🙂

  11. Very interesting post Kate! Especially for me since I’m from India and my boyfriend’s from Poland. When I met him 4 years ago i was a student at my university in India and he was an exchange student. (and there were about 50 other exchange students from all over Europe so there were enough ‘western’ options too). Though when we dated for me it was just that-I was just dating a fellow classmate. Apart from the obvious cultural differences we had almost no differences in personality or language issues. Although i have since then traveled to over 15 countries,- back then when we’d just met I had never traveled out of India before so i guess i was a typical Asian/Indian girl.
    Generalizations is an interesting thing, we had other (Indian only) students look at me with slight pity assuming probably the same things mentioned here- that i’m being ‘used’ or i dont know what i have ahead of me. But that was extremely funny to my bf and i! I knew perfectly well this may or may not last and hell i was in college and didn’t worry that far ahead. Though FYI now 4 years later, we’re still together 🙂
    So what i’m trying to say here is things are not always what they seem from an outsider’s view and to understand people from a different country and culture maybe you need to dig a lil deeper than just saying – I like people laughing at my jokes not because i bought them a drink….

    Though I’ll admit i did find it a bit sad and horrid to see the older men in Thailand and Myanmar with really young women by their side at bars..so yes even us Asians so generalize! 🙂

    1. Thanks for a great, thoughtful comment, Lavanya! I love hearing your point of view.

      I didn’t write this as a Western/Asian thing so much as a douchebag/girl-making-a-mistake thing.

  12. I really like this post… your tidbit of social commentary, your rhetorical questions at the end… it sure makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

  13. When I read this in Reader…all I thought was: what an incredibly beautifully written and poignant post! I had no idea it would be this controversial (I guess I need to get over to SE Asia to see for myself).

    My heart breaks for the girl, and I’m sad to learn that this seems to be such a common thing (given the comments)…

  14. I may be cynical but isn’t this more normal than not, with any relationship you have when traveling? You know the odds are against it working long-term so people keep things casual.

  15. Definitely see this happening in Medellin and Colombia.

    Is there anything wrong about a guy or girl not wanting to fall in love while they’re visiting or living in a country on a short term basis? Sure it might seem cold, but at the same time, the person recognizes he/she may not want to live there (or settle down) and therefore keeps a safe distance from becoming too emotionally attached.

    I’d like to believe 2 people can have a short term relationship from which they both benefit from their time together. Hope that doesn’t sound too naive, but it’s the balance I’m currently seeking. 🙂

  16. Do you think it’s easy for a Thai to get a visa for Taiwan, even a tourist one ? Do you think it would be easy for the guy to upkeep another person in Taiwan that’s a way more expensive place than Thailand ? And pay for her visa runs too ?
    The guy’s has been quite honest in stating everything since start , if the girl agreed it was because she had something to gain anyway.

    1. The guy’s been honest in stating everything since the start? How would you know that?

      Yes, getting a Thai girl a Taiwanese visa would be difficult — but he also had the option to stay in Thailand.

      1. He wasn’t making any money in Thailand , he barely survived, he is in his full right to move to Taiwan seeking a better pay. His gf will find a better (=more wealthy) replacement soon, don’t worry

  17. anyway this experience will teach the girl she’s better to stick with fat old but rich bastards like me instead of young handsome but hopelessy broke chaps.

  18. “She’s from the hottest part of Thailand. Right between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.”
    Excuse me but Chang Mai is 1000km north of Bangkok … that “right between” is a little vague

  19. This almost sent shivers down my spine. I had something like that happen myself… but I can’t help but imagine not only the love she has for him, but also the dreams and wishes she might have had of a better life with him. And I feel horribly westernly arrogant doing so.

  20. I am Scottish, my family are from Irish descent. I guarantee you, a confident Scottish or Irishman would treat a woman this way no matter where she was from unless he loved her of course. I haven’t visited Asia and can only imagine how bad it must be for these beautiful women who have no confidence or belief in themselves where western men are concerned but you also have to remember that one of the biggest attractions for everyone of us is confidence. So it looks like the westerners turn up in these places with the impression that they’ve ‘arrived’ and they don’t need to bother about effort etc. i bet if one gorgeous asian women arrived and mingled in scotland. she’d be treated like a princess. Unfortunately western men who are planning on travelling to theses places have a certain perception.
    Anyhow, i would like to add a note to the brave Kate….
    Kate what a brave move and amazing way to live your life – i take my hate off to you and wish you all the luck in world during your travels.

  21. asia is full of sex tourists some young most old, guys who are rejects and peados in their own country but have currency power hire a gf for a few weeks/months, she gets hope of better life for her and her family he gets sex. But a lot of these guys dont have long term intentions. I know as iv worked in manila and know most expats had a few on the go and new ones monthly! Those who say not every relationship is like that sure some might be genuine but majority are not.

  22. This a very good post!

    As much as I’d like to say that the guy is a douchebag (which he actually is for talking about the girl in front of her like she’s a mannequin or something), I think the girl has a little bit of a problem as well for thinking way too much ahead of what this guy can give her. I am from the Philippines and have seen these kinds of relationship and I am always most of the time upset with the Filipina for being naive and blinded by the “greener pasture” that they see if they date a Westerner. I was once one of them, although I was not thinking of the greener pasture, I just wanted to change my passport to a non-restricted one so I can travel more. Yeah, I’m kind of evil.

    It’s a common occurrence from where I came from and so I kind of got tired on hating the Western guys because most of the time, it’s the women who are to blame for reading between the lines when in fact, there really is nothing to read in between. * Ouch! *

    But then again, it’s not really an Asian women thing. I think women all over the world tend to have this kind of mentality – thinking that they can change someone for love.

    I recently just got married to a Greek who I’ve dated for 5 years. On our second year of dating, I asked him upfront if he has any plans of marrying me in the future. He almost choked on the bread that he was eating but eventually said yes, he does have a plan for both of us in the future. So I felt some sort of a relief that I am not a Shopgirl.

    No, I cannot change my passport to a Greek passport. Darn it! :p

  23. Sad, what a disrespectful conversation of the girl. It must have been hard to listen to. I’m a bartender and I’ve seen and heard some crazy things that I had to ignore and it’s hard. Unfortunately in every culture, when a female is a bit insecure and overly enamored with a man things usually don’t end well for the girl. Sad thing is that boy knew all a long he was going to leave Thailand someday and the Thai girl had false hopes.

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