Why I’m Working as a Saigon Massage Girl
New America Media, Commentary, Lan Pham as told to Andrew Lam Posted: Apr 12, 2010
Lan Pham, 21, works in a massage parlour in District I of Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon. It’s where most tourists stay when they visit Vietnam. Like millions of young people from the rural, Saigon is a big magnet with promises of better life for those who come from backbreaking work in the rice fields and cycle of debts. Pham spoke with NAM editor, Andrew Lam, who visited his homeland on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam - I’m from Tan Chau district in An Giang province. There are six people in my family. We’re all farmers. I’ve been to Saigon for four years.
Do you know how hard it is for farmers? The life of a farmer is a life that’s always in debt. You live dependent on the crop. All those months waiting for the rice to ripen you need to feed your family so you borrow money. When the crop’s ready you’ll pay it all back with interest. When something happens, flood or failed crop, you’ll have to borrow more money to survive. And you’ll stay in debt. After a while you end up doing things you don’t want to do.
My parents were always in debt. They couldn’t feed four kids. My sister got married at 17 to this old Taiwanese man she never met until he showed up and married her. She had to make money. She sent money home for about a year but now we don’t know what happened. It’s been several years since she’s kind of disappeared. So we fell into debt again because we started fixing the house when she was sending money but we didn’t have enough money. So it was my turn to take care my family.
I’m second to the oldest. My family is more important than my own life, so I’d do anything for them. Anything. Do I like doing what I’m doing? Are you crazy? No. It already ruined my life. But let me tell you something: this is way better than watching your family starved or get kicked off their land.
But who am I to complaint? Saigon is full of non-Saigonese, people like me, people who come in from the rural areas trying to make a living, trying to survive. Come Tet [Vietnamese new year] and the streets here are emptied. Every one goes home to the province to be with family. It’s the only time that we take a break from whatever we do to support our family to be with our family.
When I got to Saigon I never imagined life here was so wealthy. All these big houses and shiny new cars. But the Saigonese they look down on us from the provinces, they look down on peasants. They think we’re stupid. But I actually was always near top of my class. I read books and newspapers but they think I’m stupid or illiterate. I had to drop out of 9th grade to help my family. I could’ve gone on if I had opportunities.
What do I read in the papers? More golf courses being built. Billion of dollars being invested. But where’s the money for the rest of us? Big shots built villas with gold plated ceilings. Big shots play golf but the bridges built [by the government] in the provinces collapse repeatedly. Big shots play tennis then they come here for massages and treat the girls like dirt.
If I were president I would feed the poor, build shelter for the homeless. I'd do something that makes poor people feel like they are being helped. I wouldn’t drive people off their land so the rich can have their tall high rises and their golf courses.
As far as my customers go, I don’t like Americans. I like Australians. They’re nice and polite. They’re funny. A few said they wanted to marry me after I make them feel so good - but it’s all lies. They’d come back a few times then they’re gone.
But I don’t want to marry a Vietnamese man. They are so full of trickery… Vietnamese men are not to be trusted. They treat women like trash especially my kind. We are things to be tossed aside when they’ re done. They are lousy tippers – they don’t tips unless you tell them that… that it’s expected. Sometimes they insult you after you serviced them. Sometimes when I step on their backs [Back-walking massage] I wanted to stomp on their necks.[laughs]
But I make money now. I make enough so my family survives and my two younger [siblings] can continue to go to school. And I even have money left over to pay for massage myself sometimes [laughs]. I’m serious. It’s hard work what I do.
I know I can’t go on like this too long [starts to tear up.] But if I were to work as a cook or factory worker, I won’t make any money and my family will face difficulties. I know I need skills to survive but what kind of skills can I get without money to go to school?
My biggest worry right now is that it’s hard to get married. The moment they know I’m a masseuse they think I’m a bad person. I have no chance with anyone decent. I don’t see a way out.
But even massage girls have big dreams. I dream one day I’d find a good husband. I dream I have enough money so I could go find my sister and take her home. Then I’d build us a nice house so the entire family can live together. But I don’t know how that’s ever going to happen.
Vietnamese version: Tại sao tôi làm gái massage ở Sài Gòn
Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His next book is "East Eats West: Writing in two Hemispheres" due out in September, 2010.
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