Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1998. The first day of
my first visit to this sprawling, impoverished city. My contact, a Filipino,
has invited me for a meal. In a karaoke restaurant. A Thai karaoke restaurant.
I have never been in a karaoke restaurant before, of any nationality, and I do
not want to be here now. After a fourteen-hour flight and a six-hour time change,
the only place I want to be is in bed. But Fernando and I are to be colleagues and I have not
the heart to plead jet-lag.
The first to arrive, we are seated uncomfortably close to the darkened king-size screen.
The waiters, all Bangladeshi, young and over-eager, flutter round, bringing
menus and glasses for the Scotch and beer which Fernando pulls out of a bag. In
this Muslim country foreigners may bring their own alcohol.
We order, drink and talk.
Fernando's eyebrows rise when I admit to being gay. After a moment's silence he
asks if I think he is too. I had assumed not, but I put together the question,
his prissy manner, worried frown and faded Hawaiian shirt. Yes, I think he's
gay. "How should I know?" I say. "I'm engaged to be married," he tells me.
"Oh," I reply. "But I've had many gay experiences," he goes on. "Oh," I repeat.
"Perhaps I am gay." "Perhaps," I shrug, not knowing what to say.
The food arrives. I pick at it,
reminded how spicy Thai food can be. The Heineken offers relief but threatens
instant sleep. Other customers, European and American, enter. The screen
flickers into life and a waiter begins to sing. Off-key. In front of me an
insipid Caucasian couple, one of each gender, walk hand in hand through a
forest. The colours are faded, lacking blues and reds. Even more distracting,
the singer's words seldom match those on the screen. Sometimes they anticipate,
more often they fall behind; frequent they lapse into tuneless la la las.
A smattering of applause. Fernando
signals for the list of songs, writes down several titles and waits for the
microphone. Leaning back, glasses at the end of his nose, half-crooner,
half-professor, his voice is a pleasant tenor. The applause is louder,
respectful. At the end of the second song, he offers me the microphone. I
refuse. He sings again. Each track features the same couple in the same wood.
The exception is "Dock of the Bay", which offers waterside views of Hong Kong.
My ears lose focus: every song is reduced to the same slow di-dum, di-dum,
The microphone moves on, to a black
American, a white Frenchman, the Frenchman's girlfriend, back to the waiter.
Some sing with gusto, none in tune. Each is politely applauded. Fernando,
meanwhile, is thinking aloud. Maybe the problem is not his sexuality but his
fiancee. Also Filipino, she is a nurse in California, enjoying the lifestyle
and with no desire to leave. Fernando, on the other hand, prefers the Third
World; after another year here he might move to Vietnam. Maybe if he were in
love with a girl who respected his work and wanted to live with him, he
wouldn't be gay. What do I think?
I think very little. I am trying to
eat food I do not like and drink beer I do not want. I am trying to stay awake
and be polite but I keep being distracted by over-amplified foreigners
mutilating the corpses of songs I once enjoyed. At this moment I do not feel
confident about counselling a stranger on his sexuality. I make a neutral
comment. He tells me about the sex he occasionally has with two women in the
city - one an Australian, the other a Brit who makes too much noise in bed.
The evening progresses; the
microphone returns. He sings well, but with the same slow monotony. In between
songs he drinks copious amounts of Black Label while I alternate water and
beer. While others sing, Fernando quotes statistics that most Bangladeshi men
have their first sexual contact with someone of the same gender. He sees this
as significant; I see it as the practice of adolescent boys the world over.
My attention is suddenly taken by a
cloudburst and I wonder where the rickshaw drivers shelter. Within a quarter of
an hour, the rain stops; when I leave the streets will be dry again. What kind
of man do you like, Fernando asks. He wants me to specify height, weight, body shape
and other vital statistics, but I can only vaguely describe good looks and
empathy. He is attracted to large, well-endowed men. Unfortunately there have
been few in his life; he is sure that more would help him decide if he really
I reflect that he has chosen a good
career to postpone discovery of his own sexuality. In the Philippines and
California too many men would break open his closet door. Bangladeshi and
Vietnamese men do not attract him, while expatriate North Americans and
Europeans are more interested in handsome young natives than a plain-featured
thirty-year old Filipino. For several years to come he can reassure himself
with the occasional brief heterosexual affair.
But perhaps I should point his head
in the direction his heart faces. I push aside the last of my meal. "If you
think you're gay..." I begin. "I didn't say I was," he interrupts, suddenly
defensive. "Perhaps I'm not. Perhaps I just need to find the right woman."
In the silence which follows he
signs for the bill. We are back at the beginning of the conversation, a journey
through a topic that has led nowhere. The restaurant is emptying. The Americans
have left; the French group has grown louder, their rendering of English lyrics
almost painful. Fernando and I stand up and walk back down to the street.
As I settle
into the rickshaw that will take me to my hotel, I thank him for the evening.
Distracted, he says goodnight, his frown deeper, as if he regretted having said