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.
News Update: Folks, I am safe. Those of you with mutual friends, we are all safe. It is indeed getting tense and scary at times and the action feels like it is often too close for comfort but we are all safe and sound and very alert of what’s going on around us. (2300 hrs, 22 April 2010 local time)
I am happy to report I made great progress in my Thai. In addition to having mastered “Taxi Thai” I now can say:
– Red Shirts,
– Suvarnabhumi airport,
– Ratchaparasong intersection,
flawlessly, to the point of almost perfecting the tonal nuances enough for people to think I’m Thai.
In all seriousnes, I do not make light of the events going on in Bangkok. There’s little I can say that you won’t already read in the news. Like many Bangkok residents, I, we, are attempting to maintain some semblance of routine life, only in areas away from the protest and conflict activities. It’s easy to get sucked into the sense of frustration but I find maintaining a sense of humor, a healthy Thai dosage of mai pen rai
, and resisting the urge to judge is crucial to remain calm and objective as a non-participant. As I am no professional reporter or international affairs analyst, there’s little I can contribute on this blog about the events surrounding me. I offer instead to continue catching up sharing observations, experiences from my time in this region.
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.”
Learning foreign languages amuse me.. because, inevitably, I’m bound to run into a misunderstanding that it’s too funny to not make.
This post: “Excuse me.”
In Thai: kor tot ka/kap.
Except, if you don’t pronounce “tot” right, it might come out as “todt” which means fart. I can’t even hear the difference.
And I’m dying to see someone yell that while squeezing through a crowd.
Someone tried to talk to me, presumably asking for directions. I replied with
“Dichan mai dis pasat thai.”
Well, I guess I could say that I did say “I don’t speak Thai.” Except “dis” is speak in French. One one hand, I could be glad I still remember my French vocabulary and conjugations to blurt it out without thinking, but, seriously.
Another example why having bad hearing is not conducive to learning a foreign language:
Me: (writing and muttering) bpõo
Me: (quizzical look)
Me: (Incredulous) Crap?
Instructor: Chai. Crab.
Me (thinking: he just said crap!)
Me (really hung up on the fact that he said “crap”): bpõo. I’m going to remember this one!
Instructor: You like crab?
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.