Private Dancer is a novel about a westerner who travels to Thailand and then falls in love with a Thai bargirl. What makes the novel unique is that it is a story based upon fact, it is based upon an amalgamation of real life characters. Steven Leather has spent more then half his life in SE Asia and fictionalized account of his experiences in Thailand and SE Asia in general. Despite being a renowned writer, Steven Leather was initially unable to find anyone to publish the book due to its controversial nature and realism.

On one level the book is a story about Thailand, on a deeper level the book is about the different goals and values of men and woman and how they are affected by culture. What makes the book interesting it that it takes the viewpoint of different characters in the book and shows how their decisions are influenced by both gender and culture.

What is right and wrong is mainly decided by culture

What is right and wrong, and what is considered right or wrong is largely determined by culture. The definition of murder is:

is the killing of another human being without justification or valid excuse, and it is especially the unlawful killing of another human being with malice aforethought.

The key words in the definition are justification and valid excuse, they depend on cultural values. In most parts of Southern USA, if a person is breaking into your house it is culturally and legally acceptable to shoot them. While in most European countries it is not culturally and legally acceptable to shoot him, in fact owning a gun in many European countries is unacceptable.

You think the game is checkers, but you are actually playing chess

The two main characters in the book are Pete, who is a foreigner and Joy who is a Thai bargirl. Pete is playing the game of chess, but he thinks he is playing checkers. This causes great confusion for both Pete and Joy. Pete moves a piece on the board as per the rules of checkers, Joy looks at the move and it does not seem to make any sense. She then counters with a chess move and takes one of Pete’s pieces. From Pete’s perspective the causes all sorts of confusion and conflict.

What is tragic is from their own perspective they each want to do the right thing. What makes the book unique is that for each series of events that happen in the book, each of the characters in the book offers a different perspective of what is happening. What they consider to be right or wrong is largely influenced by their cultural perspective.

So both Pete and Joy are attempting to do what they believe is right. Each one is then baffled by the responses of the other person. Joy for example assumes that Pete should understand that she is expected to support her family, doesn’t Pete realize that her family keeps on asking for more money. Pete does not realize the tremendous amount of influence that Joy’s family and culture have over her.

One of my favorite characters in the book is expat who runs a hangout for other expats. He accepts things as they are and often makes extremely insightful but politically incorrect statements about Thais. When you meet these type of characters in real life, they are usually misunderstood and seen to be full of hate or racist. They are interesting characters in that they are able to accept things as they are and contradiction or paradox does not bother them.

The entire book is about misunderstanding between Pete and Joy, and how each misunderstanding builds upon the previous one causing an out of control avalanche of events. Through out the book, different characters like the expat hangout owner jump in and give their perspective. They know what is happening, they have seen it countless times before and yet they are powerless to do anything.

A tragedy which you think can’t happen to you

Everyone when they first go to SE Asia, think they are too smart for this to happen to them. On one level the book is about the bargirl scene in Thailand, one another level it is a book about the clash between two cultures. Everyone who has spent time in SE Asia most likely had a similar experience to Pete. The difference is most of the time we managed to figure out what was happening, and then managed to extract ourselves from it before anything serious happened. Along the way you treat it as a learning experience.

There is a difference between visiting a place, and actually living there. Visiting a place is like sticking your toe in the ocean, actually living in a place means actually swimming in the ocean which means being pulled by unseen forces which you do not understand. These unseen forces are your subconscious which has been heavily influenced by your culture.

There is a tug of war between your conscious and subconscious

Culture affects our belief system at a subconscious level. Conscious is our logical rational mind. Both Pete and Joy are facing an internal tug of war between their subconscious and conscious. In the case of Joy, her culture says that she must help her family at all costs. But her conscious mind wants to break free from her culture and start a new life. She is being constantly pulled back and forth. Pete I think wants to play the rescue the damsel in distress role. Consciously he knows it isn’t possible but his subconscious keeps on pulling him into this role.

Our brain is a rationalization machine or hamster

The book on one level is a story about a stupid foreigner who is getting ripped off by a Thai bar girl. Depending on your perspective, Joy is being exploited by Pete or Joy is exploiting Pete. This is the simplistic view which appeal to most people.

Most people are scared to look into the story deeper. The story shows the view points or rationalizations used by different characters in the story. We are influenced heavily by what benefits us the most and our subconscious beliefs. But then our conscious brain attempts to provide a logical justification for these subconscious beliefs.

The character whose perception of reality is closest to the truth is expat businessman who runs the bar. Instead of adjusting his perception of reality to his belief systems, he attempts to change his belief systems to reality. He does not assign simplistic labels like good or bad to Joy or Pete, he just accepts them the way they are. This type of view of reality scares people because it forces them to question their own beliefs and actions. When they pull back the curtain, they will find out that they are not the noble individuals they claim to be.

Destroying your rationalization machine or hamster.

The expat hangout owner is able to get a more accurate view of reality because he has destroyed his rationalization machine or hamster.

You too can destroy your rationalization machine, if you want to. Most people don’t, it scares them. As yourself a simple question like Are dogs suitable for eating ? Answer the question yes or no and then ask yourself to justify your answers. Then go and ask yourself the question Are sheep suitable for eating ? Or substitute other animals like cows,pigs,fish,lobsters etc. Compare your answers to the dog answers.

The reality is we can never destroy our rationalization machine or hamster, but we can become aware of it. Myself I have seen dogs being killed and butchered for meat. I observed the dog before it was killed, the dog was healthy. When I examined the internal organs of the dog, I saw they where healthy also. When the meat of the dog was being cooked, it smelled really good. Sometimes I would forget it is dog being cooked and my mouth would start to water, then I would remember that it is dog and I would feel revulsion.

So people often ask me, do I eat dog ? I tell them no, and the main reason I don’t eat dog is because of my illogical beliefs. The difference between myself and most people is I am honest enough to admit that most of my beliefs are illogical. Steven Leather on one level is telling a story about Thai bargirls, but on another level he is challenging our beliefs or rationalization machine.