Imagine if most of your English vocabulary was based on American daytime television. You might develop a flair for dramatic pauses and cliches. Or, like my mom (who picked up on neither of those things), you might start thinking all Americans have sordid sex lives and survive prolonged comas, only to wake up with amnesia.
Mom did watch a great deal of American soap operas. As if that wasn’t unbearable enough, I was also subjected to Thai soap operas that she rented from various video stores in the International Village. They came in VHS box sets back then, and it would take her weeks to get through one season.
Just like their American counterparts, the Thai variety is melodramatic and always follows a central love story. But unlike risque encounters that only got more scandalous with the downfall of censorship in American television, the Thais always maintained some modicum of decency. This is best illustrated by the snuffle-kiss.
The snuffle-kiss is the hallmark of a leading male in Thai soap operas. If he likes a girl, she will be unobtainable and stare off in the distance every time he makes a verbal advance. Somewhere around Season 3 Episode 6, he will corner her and attack her with snuffle kisses. Picture someone sniffing and Eskimo-kissing a baby’s neck, except this is going on between two adults. It is implied that the two had non-consensual relations because she adamantly HATES him and finds out she’s pregnant. But by the end, they are happily married.
[Confession: There were a couple series that I secretly enjoyed. My favorite was Kaeo Na-Maa (“Kaeo, the Horse-Faced Girl”), a fantasy story that takes place in boran times. The main character is a courageous, beautiful princess who is cursed to live half the time with a horse’s face. Not an actual horse head on a woman’s body…don’t be ridiculous. Just picture horse-like features. But she did gallop and neigh like a horse. The handsome Prince, who loves her, doesn’t know she is also the village pariah and is sometimes cruel to her. It’s so flipping great.]
Being forced to watch this rot for so long, I started to understand Thai. But I never claimed to speak it fluently – in fact, I had never spoken it, period.
In preparation for our Chiang Mai adventure, DP purchased Rosetta Stone: Thai. For a couple hours a day, he sat at his ancient laptop that sounds like an airplane and takes 30 minutes to load. Six lessons later (over the course of a year), he decided it was too much work. His pre-adventure Thai vocabulary consisted of “hello,” “thank you,” “airplane,” and “jumping rope.” (But then everything that flies also became airplane, including insects.)
I’ll learn a lot more once I get there, he insisted.
Of course, I knew he was banking on my Thai-speaking ability. It’s true that Lao and Thai belong to the same linguistic family. In fact, the Thai Isan who are found in Northern Thailand speak a dialect nearly identical to Northern Lao, which made it easier for locals in Chiang Mai to understand me.
However, similarities aside, I insist that I cannot speak Thai. Understanding and speaking are different things.
And as I learned in my first week, some words differ enough that you may as well be speaking Martian.
“Hi, there! I would like some kuaa paak (stir-fried vegetables).”
… Kuaa paak (Lao) = pad paak luam (Thai) …
Blank stare from the street vendor. I carefully repeat my request two, three more times. Really? Was it THAT different? I gave up and asked for Pad Thai instead.
I posited that you could be straight up white, speak only southern American English, and be more comfortable in Thailand than I was, from a linguistic point of view. Or you could be American-born Thai or Lao, clueless about your native tongue, and similarly not experience my troubles.
I concluded that it’s worse if you only know some of the language. Like a soap opera’s amount. People expected me to feel right at home, and instead it was a reminder that I had always straddled two worlds.
There were other times when I misspoke and people laughed at me. This was not the well-intended, loving laughter I received when I misspoke among relatives in Laos. This sounded like derision.
I just wanted to scream at them,
Don’t you know I learned all my Thai from soap operas?!
And then there were times people assumed I didn’t understand Thai at all and gossiped freely about me.
I retreated further into my shell. Insisted I never wanted to say another Thai word. Begged DP not to make me order at restaurants.
You did the Rosetta Stone – YOU order!
[There is an episode of The Simpsons that comes to mind, in which Bart is forced to live in France, doesn’t speak the language, and one day finds himself lost and prattling away, tearful, in French. It is a case for total immersion education.]
But I couldn’t hide forever. There were long days of sitting in conferences conducted entirely in Thai, which comprised 25% of my internship experience. There were times I had to talk DP and myself out of precarious or even dangerous situations. Or times when getting a good cab fare meant pretending to be Thai while your white friends hid in the bushes – no respectable cab driver would rescind an offer after making a verbal agreement, and by then my friends were piled in the back.
Although I didn’t like it, I had to grow up. Much later, I realized DP wasn’t being mean when he pushed me to speak, and I stopped giving him dirty looks. I understood his intention – he wanted me to be fearless.
I can’t say it ever really got easier – every meeting, every encounter in which I was forced to speak Thai left me feeling drained. But what’s the worst that can happen? Someone doesn’t understand me? In life, who really understands anyone, all of the time?
Being comfortable your whole life is a handicap.