Given the formality of customs in Asia, the Vietnamese are surprisingly unreserved about personal interrogations. From most, I received the following line of questioning:
1) How old are you? (29)
2) Are you married? (No)
3) Do you have a boyfriend? (No)
This was usually followed by a longer conversation, where I am forced to explain why I am single. No reason is good enough, as their intuitive logic reminds me, “But you so pretty. Why such pretty girl with no man?” Certainly, something must be wrong.
I took a ride up the Vietnamese coast on a Harley with a driver who calls himself “Eddie Murphy” or “Fast Eddie” as he boasts on his business card. It took me an hour before he would tell me his Vietnamese name: one syllable, “Tahn.” Among our side trips to a Vietnamese cemetery, a house of wood carving artisans, and through the rice fields, he took me to a fishing village where I met a woman who was around 75 or 80 years old. She sat next to her husband who was spreading cow dung to seal the cracks of a coracle, a small fishing boat he would sell to the local fisherman.
After they ask me the normal round of questions, she says something in sharp, pointed Vietnamese, which was translated by a smiling Eddie Murphy: “She thinks you are a lesbian.” It is not the first time I have been asked.
In America, the interrogations are not so different. My great aunt approached me at a wedding last summer: “You know you are turning thirty this year, and the longer you wait, the harder it will be to find a good man.” I didn’t remind her that she married a lazy, unemployed alcoholic, a man I would have never married, even if I knew he could impregnate me with the future president.
In Istanbul, I meet a rocket scientist; an actual rocket scientist. He works to impress me with lines like, “Improvements in space technology focus on adjusting compression ratios across the turbine engines,” and, “Considering the rotation of the earth and the momentum of gravity, clearly, it is difficult to launch a rocket when you are far from the equator. This poses potential issues for the future of space mining.” He draws me a diagram on a napkin.
After ten years of dating, I don’t swoon, I snooze. I try to remember the last time I was rapt by a man.
In Turkey, I am staying with a house full of single women, between the ages of 28 and 31. Collectively, we are financially self-sufficient, educated, and single, arguably, by choice. We like to travel. One is so dead set against children and marriage that she had a voluntary hysterectomy when she was 22. While our circumstances are varied, I would say that, for us, the general excitement of dating and “finding a man” has worn off. Prince Charming and romantic love looks more like eating comfort food at McDonald’s rather than drinking champagne at The Ritz.
For those of us who are not ready to “settle down,” as they say, creating a viable defense for singledom is almost impossible. On our hike back from Ba Ho Falls outside of Nha Trang, I give Eddie Murphy the same line of questioning he gave me, “How old are you? Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend?” He is 32, unmarried and still lives at home. He sees nothing wrong with this, as most men are never forced to explain their choice or give a reason. When it comes up, they simply boast their ability to attract younger women, even into old age. As though this makes everything clear, he says, most unforgiving, “You are too old for single. You are too old for me,” then laughs.
I tell him I like younger men anyway.
In Istanbul, we decide to head to the Turkish bath. The experience feels like an odd combination of playing Slip and Slide, getting a car wash, and going to Sunday mass—except that everyone is topless. We are handed a towel and given a key to a small room where we lock up our things. I pass a round chamber where five Turkish women are thronged together and smoking cigarettes. They are naked and do not seem to care about the flesh that curves over their hips, the spreading patches of cellulite, or their hanging breasts, that swing dangerously close to the ashtray.
The Turkish bath house was built in the 15th century and smells like humidity, sweat and mold. The bath is held beneath a church-like dome with small stained-glassed windows, that cut angles of colored light in the marble floors. There are echoes of women yelling in Turkish from both ends of the building. The experience is simultaneously private and public: people do not do much talking, but the room is open to walk around, lay spread eagle on the middle of the marble flat bed, or sit naked in the sauna. It is not set like a massage parlor, because the purpose of the visit is to bathe: everyone is wet.
We are told to take off our clothes and each given a small bowl to ladle water from the private sinks. After some self-bathing and a trip to the sauna, we are sprawled out, wearing only swimsuit bottoms, on a marble slab that is set beneath the dome of the hamam. The masseuse uses a large glove to exfoliate, giving me orders in Turkish to roll over or hold up my arms. She then grabs a bucket full of soap, like the one I used to wash my father’s Ford Taurus in the driveway, roughly dragging the sponge over my body.
The proximity of the masseuse and her breasts is uncomfortable, I realize objectively, when I receive an accidental nipple smack in the face. Her breath is heavy, smelling like an ashtray that hasn’t been emptied for twenty years; her fire red hair and ashen face resemble the tip of a lit cigarette. When I lying on my back, she hovers over me, sweat from her brow dripping onto my face.
I feel that I might need a different kind of shower.
Slipping naked around marble, we collect our things and move back to the sinks. After rinsing, we sit naked with the women, who ask, “Good massage for you? We give good massage?” We say thank you and give them a tip, covering ourselves as we exit. Our skin is now exfoliated, clear, though I am covered with soap residue and stepping out into the brisk Turkish air, my hair wrapped in a towel.
I have also been naked at a Japanese onsen (hot spring), where the women separate from men, and getting naked is widely accepted. In other cultures, same sex customs dominate much of daily life.
Approaching the 30 mark gives any woman the shivers, single or not. This has nothing to do losing life’s momentum, but there is always the haunting feeling of missing the proverbial boat: things that must be accomplished, especially those with an age limit. As women, we fear the graying of our hair, the cruel workings of gravity on our skin, and the loss of attractiveness that rides out with youth.
The proverbial boat in this case (marriage), insulates us from our fear of ending up alone. Like my aunt so boldly informed me, without youth, without beauty, I will never be able to find a “good man.” She must be referring to that widespread pool of awesomeness I have already encountered.
Whether we are married or not, we will all get old. On the upside, camaraderie comes in all forms: the men playing Backgammon and sharing a hookah; the older women sitting naked in a circle at the Turkish baths. Then there are the widowed or divorced women and men I know back home, who have sustained life-long friendships and closeness with their families, companionship that gets them through their very real days, even after romantic love has faded or is lost.
At this point, running around Istanbul with a bunch of single women seems most appropriate. We coin the word: “T.I.L.F” (think Turk), watch MTV, and ignore the incoming phone calls from unimpressive locals and the host of men from our pasts. We visit the baths, ride the inter-continental ferry between Europe and Asia, admire the Aya Sophia, and share Turkish phrases that we use to confront the more pragmatic issues of the day.
Judgment is sort of irrelevant when you have people around; and, it helps to share the same worldview. Still, as single women, we will endure the interrogations. I need to learn how to succinctly articulate “contentedness” to strangers. Logic symbols? Venn diagram? Mathematical proof? I could carry around a napkin. For single women, a smile is never enough…