I thought for the longest time it was the equivalent of the American word Monday quarterback, but, nope, it really is a term for actual people. In the British case, members of Parliament who are not party leaders.
I started this series last year. It was born from sharing some stories with my mother to show how I encounter so much kindness and care, especially as a lone female traveller.
I have seemed to rid of my writer’s block and wanted to revisit the memory lane with these stories. Furthermore, having recently experienced some bad, I needed to reassure myself and many travellers out there, that I had experienced the goodness of humanity and those far outnumber the evil.
I’ve been traveling all my life.. my first flight taken when I was a mere three months old. Of course I wasn’t aware of it, but I have a sneaking suspicion my mother remembers it to great detail.
My first truly independent trips were taken a the end of college, when I set of on my version of the “Grand Tour,” designed under the auspices of an independent study abroad itinerary. Looking back, I realize now how naive I was. I was confident, armed with recently learned languages, in what would be a modernized Western Europe compared to the emerging Asian countries I grew up exposed to.
My first destination was a language school in Nice, where I did a home stay. My school mates were diverse, mostly students studying hospitality and travel and taking the summer to immerse and become fluent in French. It wasn’t a large university program that American kids tend to participate in groups together. I was one of three Americans in the whole school of about 50.
The students I bonded the most were an eclectic group: two Germans, an Austrian, one Colombian, one Mexican. Yes, they had their own languages they could communicate with one another. As true to any language program, we never spoke French to one another. The boys wanted to practise their English, calling it killing two birds with a stone in their language proficiency.
Our program scheduled went over the 4th of July. The boys insisted we go out to the beach, break open a bottle of wine to celebrate on my behalf. How can I turn them down?
We were sitting on the pebbly beach of Nice, enjoying the evening breeze when we heard commotion behind us. Standing up and scanning out of curiosity, the commotion approached us. A group of thugs in their mid-twenties were marching around with a pipes and sticks in their hands, demanding with tangible hostility at everyone “Les Américains? Où sont les Américains? You, from America??”
When they approached us, my friends formed an instinctive circle around me. I never could recall, in the darkness, whether the gang ever glanced at me. I am of Asian ethnicity, an advantage especially in that moment. One of the boys stepped up, quite literally, to answer the questions from the gang when they came us. The rest of the guys backed up, forcing me back behind them. But we all had accents in our French, and the ring leader of the gang kept challenging our guy, a Colombian.
After what felt like an eternity, the gang moved on, in search for victims. They weren’t mollified, just satisfied that we weren’t enough targets for them.
Looking back.. when I related that story in the pre- September 11th days, even shortly after, a lot of my American audience would get indignant and puff up and stated I should have yelled back in their face and been proud of my nationality. Arguing with those statements was futile. I learned that night what it meant to put my attitude and pride aside and to avoid trouble.
More importantly, I learned, even at our young ages from 18-22, my new found friends knew to look out for one another. We never knew what the gang was up to, but their menacing body language told us the threat was real enough to be taken seriously. I didn’t even have to say anything and I didn’t even have a chance to; the boys instinctively physically shielded me from the gang. That was the beginning of the program, less than 10 days in.. we were inseparable for the entire month.
My mother came to visit me while I was in DC for business. It was some nice mother-daughter bonding time we had. It has been a while since we’ve had time like this together. And I found myself sharing more and more of my carefully edited travel stories with her, finally realising that a part of her lives vicariously through me.
I haven’t forgotten my audience. My mother, as many a loving parent goes, worries about us, about our well being. She doesn’t care about that big promotion and whether or not we got it. She worries if we are eating well, staying healthy, and being safe. As I regaled my tales, many forgotten moments came back to me, moments that I knew my mother would appreciate to know what there are many parents like herself looking out for lone wanderers such as myself as if I was their own child.
I was studying abroad, in Italy. I had just arrived a couple of days earlier. Despite having taken a semester of Italian for fun, I had forgotten all my vocabulary, leading communication between my homestay hostess and me to be a comical exchange of gestures and broken French. After a few days in school, I was eager to venture out and practice my renewed Italian vocabulary. As I left, I told my hostess I went to walk, a passeggiata, and will be back in time for dinner. I was gone almost two hours, still making it back with plenty of time before dinner would be served. I walked into a flurry, a barrage, of Italian. My hostess had worked up a worry over me, thinking I was going for a short stroll. Not a long hike. Knowing I barely spoke the language, she began to think I got hurt, run over, or kidnapped. Passeggiata is a stroll, a short one. not a long trek around the entire town.
I didn’t realise it then, but did as I recounted that incident to my mother, ten years after it happened, that my Italian hostess hen pecked me. I didn’t realise it then. She wasn’t my mother so I saw it as a very affectionate protective hostess trying to look after a clueless American girl whose curiosity seemed to land her in odd places.
The only word that came to mind as I stared at the Myanmar written language..
From the Daily Post weekly photo challenge.
A conversation in my Thai language class.
Instructor: [giving me a very dramatic solemn look] I have to teach you a word.
Me: [grinning in anticipation] OK.
Instructor: Robin Hood.
Me: Huh? That’s English.
Instructor: It is slang.
Me: Even better. What does it mean?
Instructor: It is what we call Thai people who go overseas and disappear.
Me: What do you mean disappear? As in get killed?
Instructor: No. Disappear from police.
Me: As in fugitives? People who have done bad things in their home country?
Instructor: No, no. They get visa, they go to America, then they stay for a very long time.
Me: Oh! Illegal immigrants.
Instructor: [pleased that I understood] Chai!
Me: But just Thai people?
Instructor: Yes. Just Thai people go overseas. And only to countries like America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Me: [thoroughly amused by now] You know the story of Robin Hood, no?
Instructor: A little.
Me: Do Thai Robin Hoods send money back?
Me: Then Robin Hood’s name is being terribly maligned!
Instructor: It is Thai slang.
Me: But just Thai people? What about all the foreigners here in Thailand?
Instructor: Slang is just for Thai people. farangs don’t need to be Robin Hood.
Me: Oh, they do! So many people go to Cambodia or Laos and come back just to get new visas for Thailand. Also, a lot of people do overstay their visa and just stay put in Thailand.
Instructor: Why would farangs do that??? They have money.
I then had to break the news to him that Thailand, and now more of Southeast Asia, while a popular tourist destination, is also a popular haven for retirees because cost of living is relatively low compared to their home countries. Thailand offers a retiree visa good for a year if the applicant maintains at least US $25,000 in a Thai bank or prove $2200 monthly income. Not every retiree has that. While in relative scale, many retirees are very well off compared to Thais, many are not when compared to their fellow countrymen.
I also pointed out because of Thailand being the hub of a lot of illegal trade, the country also attracts another level of not so attractive expats. Only last year did Thailand and US sign a more robust extradition treaty, with more recognition of both countries’ criminal court.
My instructor’s biggest disappointment in all these revelations? That not all Western foreigners (farangs) living in Thailand are filthy rich.
But, boy, did I try to insert “Robin Hood” in my usage for a long time afterward. Not exactly a regular conversation topic.
I did it! For once, when approached by a Thai for directions, not only did I understand his request, I literally pointed him the right direction. After all the Thais mistakening me as one of them, I finally am able to actually contribute.
I can’t say I used much Thai. I just pointed. Then tapped him on his shoulder and directed him. It was on the Skytrain. No knowing how to explain that he needed to also get off in one station and switch trains, I had to really direct him. It’s just as well he was trying to go the same direction I did. At the exchange, I had him follow me and finally told him in my limited Thai “four stations.”
Maybe it’s because I had the American iPod earbuds on, or the fact that I was reading the Time magazine in my commute, or the fact that I was carrying a Whole Foods shopping bag (thanks, harraton!), or even the fact that I was completely unable to talk back beyond pointing and nodding, he finally recognized he had asked a farang for directions and asked in excellent English “Where are you from?” and acknowledged my help with a very gracious “Thank you very much.”
I took my Thai instructor by surprise when I plopped myself down in the classroom and started by saying I want to start learning how to read Thai. His surprise should have been clue number 1.
His reply: sure, why not? But, then he spent ten minutes shuffling around between the classroom and the office getting classroom materials together. Clue number 2.
Clue number 3. “Are you sure?”
Clue number 4. “Thai language. We have… (pause)” (takes out piece of paper and writes the number “44” down) “.. 44 letters. English, you have 26.”
Clue number 5. “We also have 12 vowels.”
Clue number 6. “We have long and short vowels.”
Clue number 7. “Letters are middle, low, and high.”
Clue number 8. “Some letters we don’t use anymore. But it’s still in the alphabet.”
Clue number 9. “You need to start using a pencil instead of pen.”
Clue number 10. “We don’t have a specific order you have to memorize the alphabet.”
Clue number 11. At the reception desk. “You should stick with just one instructor for this.”
Clue number 12. “Make sure you do your homework.”
I’m not quite sure what I got myself into. Oddly, I gleefully look forward to Thai classes more than ever now.
postscript. There *is* an order to the alphabet. And the instructor’s calculation of 44 did not include the vowels. The 44 are just consonants.