Her name really wasn’t Chicken; it was Gai, which means chicken in Thai. Thai women have given names as long as your arm, often difficult to pronounce, so most end up with one-syllable nicknames, such as Lek which means small, Dang, which is red, or We, Oi, or Kung. Kung means shrimp. I don’t know what We or Oi means.
The Story of Chicken was told to me by my brother a long time ago over a period of a few months. I never met Chicken. I wish I had, but I have met many other good people with the same determination in life. My brother met her on a plane from Bangkok to San Francisco. Her plan was to get a high school education in the United States, a strange goal for a woman in her early 30’s. Bob became friends with her, and helped her in California, and over time, learned her story.
I have to fill in a few parts of the story I barely remember, but I remember the important bits. I told the story the first time at the Wentworth Country Club in Rye, New Hampshire to a friend who told me his son was getting an undergraduate degree in business administration. I suggested a month with Chicken would be time better spent.
Chicken knows business. She is an expert. I think she could teach at either Stanford or Harvard MBA program. She started life being poor; not poor like an American, but desperately poor. Like a few other people I have met, Chicken came to make an early commitment to work her way out of poverty, and to never be poor again. She wanted to live a life free of economic terror. Chicken knew the harshness of poverty. She knew hunger and starvation, dirt and filth. She also knew the kindness of strangers.
Chicken was orphaned at a young age. Before she was ten, her mother and father were killed in a motorbike accident in Bangkok. If you have been to Bangkok, you would wonder why more bikers aren’t killed. Chicken became a street urchin, a dirty ragamuffin, the kind you see with ratty hair, no shoes, filthy clothes and fingernails. Some have fear in their eyes, some a determined passion.
Chicken, like many of these children, made her way buying trinkets, candy and gum and selling to people stuck in Bangkok’s massive traffic jams, knocking on the windows with tourist’s in taxi’s, pleading with those in open tuk-tuks as they clutch tightly to their purses. Chicken knew at an early age the importance of buying and selling. She learned that nothing happens until something is sold, a lesson most Americans never experience. Whereas Americans want someone to give them a job to lift them out of poverty, Chicken learned to work for herself to get out.
A stranger, a woman, took pity on Chicken when she was a street child, and took her to live with her in a house of ill repute. Her savior was a prostitute, like Mary Magdalen. I pass gentle judgment on such a woman. I am not up on the bible, but I have wondered why Mary Magdalen had a last name, while most bible characters have only a first, possibly followed by the place they were from. I don’t know much about Mary’s life, other than her profession, and that Christ forgave her. Was she a mother? Did her husband say, “I divorce you” three times, casting her to the street? Was the life of a harlot safer than one of wife to a man who abused and beat her? Did he die, was he killed, leaving her with no recourse to feeding her children? Did Mary Magdalene have no family to turn to for help?
I was with my son in Bangkok one night, also years ago, at a sidewalk café when a young Thai woman walked by holding the hand of a man who would have been about the age of her grandfather. He was Caucasian, wearing brown wingtip shoes, short pants, black socks from which stuck an ugly pair of skinny legs, fish-belly white. It was late, and it was clear what was happening. I asked my young son what he thought of her.
Then I asked, if his mother would ever do anything like that. He got angry, and responded with a harsh, “NO.” Of course not.
“You might be surprised what she would do if it were the last resort to feeding you. Don’t judge harshly. She might have children to feed. Maybe she picked that guy because he is old and harmless. Maybe she can get him to pay a bit more if she is kind to him.”
For several years, Chicken worked in a bar where women of negotiable virtue plied their trade, in exchange for a place to live, and food. When deemed old enough, she took on that life as well.
After a year or two, it seemed as if she had found a way out. A man in his early 50’s fell madly in love with Chicken, promised to save her, marry her, and take her away to the Promised Land somewhere in Arizona. I suppose the other girls were happy for her. Chicken married, got her Green Card and a U.S. passport, and was on her way to a new life! Chicken’s life of ease, however, was short lived, as her savior severely abused and beat her, as she struggled to find her way in a new and strange culture. Somehow, she escaped, gathering enough money to buy a ticket back to Pat Pong in Bangkok, where she resumed her former occupation, keeping herself just barely out of the grim reach of poverty, but free from her abuser.
Chicken had seen a better life, and wanted it, but on her own terms. She promised herself that she would make her way out of poverty, out of this life, and never be poor again. Chicken was determined, saving every Thai baht she could. She spent only enough to get by, living a frugal life. She was a hard bargainer for her wares. She had no apartment, and slept where she could, but she was clean and pretty.
There are a lot of poor people like Chicken, but you can’t tell by looking. They might be poor, but they know the dignity of cleanliness and work; people who pull up their pants, get to it with a smile, living life on life’s terms, without anger or rage.
I have seen such people in the factories around the world where I have worked, among other places, China, India, and Mexico; especially Mexico.
People like Chicken know that you can’t look to the government to save you. They know that every government does two things well: take your money and kill people. A few more can keep order, and build roads and bridges, but few can even do that well.
Chicken continued to save, and soon had enough to buy a 7-11 convenience store in Bangkok. Now she had employees, and inventory to buy and track. Chicken was no stranger to commerce, no fool who was easy to cheat. Chicken knew the fundamentals of business and what she didn’t know, being smart, clever and determined, could figure out fast. She had learned to do quick calculations in her head. Her reading might have been poor, but her math wasn’t. Chicken was an entrepreneur, now with two occupations; working all day at the store and half the night at the oldest profession. Soon, she had enough to buy a second store. Chicken didn’t have a degree, but she could be a professor.
Chicken continued to save and work, but she felt something was missing in her life. She wanted to go to high school. That’s when she did something that to this day, I don’t understand. She sold her two stores, got on a plane to San Francisco, where she sat next to my brother. They became friends. He even took her to visit my parents, neither ever knowing the full Story of Chicken.
Chicken got her wish. She somehow went to school, then back to Thailand. Now she owns and runs a fleet of taxi cabs and lives in a nice house away from Nana Plaza. She had two children by an Australian man. Last I knew, he was still living with her. No, she didn’t marry him. She doesn’t love or trust men enough to marry one. But she loves her children.
If you ever go to Bangkok and need a ride, let me know. I will get the number of her taxi company. Be prepared to pay full price. Chicken gives discounts to no one. She didn’t learn that in business school.