Monthly Archives: August 2011
Sitting on the Skytrain at 12:30 p.m. today, after attending some pressing business in downtown Bangkok (ahem), I was struck by the profusion of languages being spoken around me. Directly opposite me sat three tourists speaking French. On the seat next to me, a man who appeared to be of Turkish or Eastern European descent was talking to a blonde-haired woman in a language that I could not place, though it sounded to be European. To my left, a Thai woman was in conversation on her mobile phone, most of which I could understand (poor guy, I guess he just wasn’t “performing”, but to dump him like that!). And not too far away to my right, two men were communicating with each other by sign language. Another man, further down the carriage, was talking animatedly to his friend in English.
All in all, I realized that five different languages were being spoken around me and those were just the ones I could hear (or see in the case of the sign language). It’s fascinating to think of all the ways people can communicate. Languages are not only spoken, they are the way we tell the world how we’re feeling. Sometimes they’re verbal; sometimes they’re non-verbal: body language, written language, Braille, and codes; to name a few. Art and music are both abstract – and some would say universal – forms of language: we can communicate our innermost feelings through a beautiful painting or piece of music in ways that words would fail to convey.
It also taught me how much Thai has become part of my life these last few years. To think that this strange*, tonal language now means more to me than French – a language spoken only a few hundred miles away from where I was born, with words that have seeped into our own language (boutique, blonde, chaise longue etc.). It made me proud of my achievements, and yet, at the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if I know who I am anymore. The Buddhists teach that there is no you. But we grasp at an image of ourselves, often unwilling to let go of even the bad things.
In retrospect, it was one of those rocky precipices on the journey of self discovery where we are able to look out across the landscape of life and view our surroundings and progress with absolute clarity: I saw that there is no me, and that I am free to shape my destiny however I choose to. As Nina Simone once sang: “If I die and my soul be lost, aint nobody’s fault but mine.” Change can often be uncomfortable, but in the long run, those who experience more diversity develop a greater appreciation of life than those who never open their mind to new things.
The automated female voice of the Skytrain announced over the tannoy: Satanee dtor bpai Anusawari Chai Samoraphum, then followed in precise, mechanical English: Next station, Victory Monument. I woke up from my musings, which suddenly seemed like so much meaningless conjecture, and I was back in the dense, foggy jungle of life. Keep the mind sharp, so that you may cut through the vines, creepers and poison ivy that block the path to happiness!
*Strange in the sense that it is strange to me. Of course Thai is no stranger than English.
For the artistically inclined among you, the opening of a new art gallery in Bangkok can only come as good news in this artistically dormant city. Don’t get me wrong, the Thais are a very artistic race, but they lack the liberalism inherent in Western culture. There are, occasionally, some impressive works of graffiti, one or two galleries, and a few urbane places to hang out. But that’s nothing compared to places like New York, where modern graffiti as we know it first started, or cities like Paris, with art galleries in abundance. Read the rest of this entry
Could this be the dawn of Asia? The coming of a new global superpower? With all the troubles happening in the West at the moment, it seems as if Asia is the place to be. As more and more Westerners flock to the East to find a sense of purpose, a new kind of story is emerging, a new pilgrimage. But this time it ought to be all the more difficult. For, unlike the discovery of America, where we were the superior power, taking by force, this time, we come on humble terms: we are simply the tolerated visitor. Read the rest of this entry
Mark jumped off the Skytrain at Siam station – weaved between the crowds of people, all heading selfishly in their own direction – and crossed the platform to catch the connecting train to Mochit. At the edge of the platform, a puzzled-looking man was glancing up and down the tracks. He seemed to be lost, as though he wasn’t sure where to catch his train. Mark walked to the edge of the platform and chose his place to wait for the train.
“Excuse me,” said the man, he appeared to be of Middle-Eastern descent. “Is this where I catch the train to Nana?”
“Erm, I think it is,” said Mark. “Let me just check my ticket.” He pulled his ticket out of his wallet, which had all the stops on it, and looked for Nana. “Ahh, no, it’s not here. You have to go downstairs.”
“Ahh, downstairs,” said the man. “Thanks.” As he walked away, another man approached Mark:
“Was he looking for Nana?” He asked. He was an American, well dressed, and polite.
“Yes,” said Mark.
“It’s the one downstairs. You have to head for On Nut.”
“Yes, that’s where I sent him.” Mark smiled and turned away. He felt as though the man wanted a conversation with him, but he didn’t know what to say.
The train arrived and everyone boarded in that selfish way that people do in big cities: ready to elbow each other out of the way for a seat on the train. Mark got on and went to stand by the doors at the opposite side of the train. He usually left the seats free for others. The man stood next to him. Mark didn’t want to be rude so he changed the hand he was holding onto the bars with so that he was facing the American. He must have sensed the opening:
“So, do you live here?” He asked. He was tall, casual, and looked like the type who couldn’t help being friendly.
“Yes,” said Mark. “How about you?”
“Oh, I’m just here on vacation. What do you do out here?”
“The same as most foreigners here: teach.”
“Oh yeah? Is it good money?”
“Not really, but I’ve just been interviewed for a new job. It’s a music teaching job, which would be right up my street as I trained in music.”
“Cool! I’m a teacher also but I wasn’t able to find any work out here. I have a degree in psychology, and I work at a school in America, but I couldn’t find anything that matches the perks I have in my job back home.”
“I see,” said Mark. “Because it’s easy to find work here, it’s just not that easy to get a high-paying job.”
“I hear you. I just come here on long vacations. I love the place but it’s nice to have the option to go back home.”
“Yeah. Honestly I think that’s the best way: enjoy a long holiday here, then go back and earn more money in the West. I would probably do the same if I could.”
A Chinese-looking man sat watching them, probably listening to their English, seeing if he could understand the natives at play.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, me I’m from London.”
“Not much to go back for at the moment then; except the riots and looters.”
“Yeah! Or beating up some innocent kid! Where are you from?”
“I see. Whereabouts?
“Ahh, I’ve always wanted to visit New York.”
“Yeah, it’s a cool place. A lotta history.”
“I was always into the New York graffiti, thought it was cool.”
“Yeah? I used to do some when I was a kid.”
“So are you like a famous graffiti artist or something?”
“Naa, just did it because everybody else did.”
The train stopped, and Mark was about to continue the conversation when he sensed the man moving away from him:
“Anyway, this is my stop.”
“Nice to meet you.” Mark reached out his hand and they exchanged a curt hand shake.
As the train sped off, Mark felt glad for his brief encounter. It was good to know there were still some friendly people in the world. He realized about a minute too late that he never asked the guy’s name. He cursed himself for missing the opportunity to extend his circle of friends in this lonely city. He looked out the windows at the concrete mass of Bangkok and knew there’d be other times.
Learning to speak Thai can be a difficult task for Westerners who are not accustomed to tonal languages. But there is one obstacle that will get in the way of your learning that is not mentioned in any language books: Thais do not want you to speak Thai. Okay, this may seem rather severe, in fact, it is. The truth is, some Thais will be very flattering when it comes to speaking Thai: pood Thai keng (you speak good Thai), pood Thai chaat (you speak Thai clearly). But there is –despite this – a bit of a taboo regarding Westerners speaking Thai. It does not extend to Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Malaysians or any other inhabitants of Asia; only white-skinned Westerners. If you are white, you simply cannot speak Thai, it’s beyond you; you are too sophisticated for this base language.
If you teach English in a school, you will more than likely be forbidden from speaking Thai. This can be a frustration when you have gone to great lengths to learn the language, impressed yourself with remembering tones, only to have it thrown right back in your face: DO NOT SPEAK THAI. This rule does not extend to Chinese teachers, who clearly have the grace to speak this tonal language; only the dumb farang should be forbidden from speaking Thai. I believe there are several reasons for this:
Firstly, Thais believe that English is the most important language in the world right now; quite rightly so, it is the international language of business. But the Thai parents have no concept of balance: it’s all or nothing with them. If there was a spectrum showing how enthusiastic a parent was about his or her child’s education, Thai parents would be at the far end of obsessive. I once tried to explain to a Thai father, who couldn’t understand why his seven-year-old daughter didn’t speak English as well as his fourteen-year-old son, that you need a balance: don’t push your child too hard, but don’t be completely blasé about their education, either. You need a middle ground, I tried telling him, where you care about their progress, but accept their shortcomings. I don’t know if he really heeded me, and besides, let’s face it; most seven-year-old girls are more interested in Barbie and playing with their friends than learning a foreign language.
Secondly, the Thais have gotten onto the band wagon of total immersion, and believe it’s absolutely necessary that the teacher should speak English at all times if their children are to learn the language. To some extent, they’re right. But once again, Thais show themselves to have a culture of extremes: there’s no middle ground; no Thai, not one word, not even outside the classroom, not even in the school grounds. Speaking Thai in a lesson can often be necessary to get a word across, and although there are sometimes Thai helpers in many English classrooms, even they sometimes don’t know the translations, though this is rare. The prevailing thought is that, if we speak Thai, they will not make any effort to speak English to us and just resort to Thai. There is some sense in this second point.
The third reason why farangs speaking Thai is taboo is that foreigners have a historically bad reputation for being able to speak it. It seems that until recently, relatively few farangs could speak Thai. It’s only now that a more progressive generation of visitors are flocking to the country that people are really eager to learn Thai. It seems to be more popular among the younger generation, though no doubt, there are older farangs who speak perfect Thai. Conversely, there are older farangs who have lived in Thailand for ten/twenty years and claim to speak not a word of this exotic lingo. Because of this reputation, Thais often make the assumption that you can’t speak Thai before you even open your mouth, which can be highly frustrating when you understand what they’re saying: farang pood pasa Thai mai dai (the foreigner can’t speak Thai), I’ve been known to walk away from shops that have given me that treatment.
If you’re applying for a job as an English teacher in Thailand, just be aware that your proud claim to speaking Thai might actually be an impediment to you getting the job. Sometimes, they prefer to confirm their stereotypes and meet the big, dumb, white farang, who can’t speak Thai, and is easy to gossip about right in front of his face. They don’t always like you to be smart enough to understand them. The Thais want us in their country, but only on their conditions: remain dumb, white, and farang, then leave after you’ve taught my little angel to Speak English!