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Thai Thoughts And Anecdotes Part 43

  • Written by Dana
  • April 24th, 2004
  • 26 min read


Thai Thoughts And Anecdotes 43


LANGUAGE BARRIER

Life is tough. . . constantly measuring the expected vs. the resultant on the emotional scales of our lives. But throwing the language barrier between peoples into the works makes everything ten times harder.

The following are some thoughts on the language barrier in Thailand. I don't really mean this as a lament or a criticism. Well, maybe a little bit. Just some thoughts and observations. Any frequent traveler to the Kingdom could post something similar.

1. It is a beautiful morning in Thailand and we are tooling across the Khao Laem reservoir near Sangkhla Buri in a long tail boat. I don't know it yet but this is going to be one of the best days I ever spend in Thailand. However, the start was a little spooky! The reservoir is covered with an early morning mist and the houses on the shore over to the right look like something out of a National Geographic magazine. The scene looks like nothing has changed in one thousand years. All of a sudden the boat captain cuts the engine! We drift. . . . I look aft. Ratty shorts and dirty shirt and long stringy muscles and wild black hair and dark skin. Oh Jesus–this must be a hold-up or a kidnaping! He starts talking. Lots of talking. He's worked up over something and animated and throwing his arms around and talking and talking and talking. Then pointing over the side of the boat into the water. Lots of pointing into the water. I can't be the only one in the boat who is starting to review the warning signs of mental instability. There are about 15 of us tourists in the boat plus one tour guide from Australia. We are understanding about one in ten of his words. Finally we get it. He is saying that when the reservoir filled, it drowned out a chedi or a wat or a temple or a Buddhist shrine or something that is now right beneath the boat. That is what he has been talking about and that is what he has been gesturing about. Jesus, who'd have thought it! OK, kinda interesting. But more interesting to him than to us. He can't really communicate with us clearly. Language Barrier. No one's fault. But I do wonder what I missed.

2. A hooker I meet in the Nana car park is passionately trying to tell me something. And she is not moving towards the hotel until I get it. Finally I get it. She has been banned from the hotel. So we have to go in separately and rendezvous in the bar. OK–that's what I finally puzzle out and that's what we do–but I really wish I knew more about that story. Or maybe I don't.

3. Ever tried to hail and communicate to a BKK taxi driver where you want to go? Language Barrier. Hospital–Police Station–Oriental Hotel–Royal Palace–Chatuchak Market. These destinations should be easy. What could be simpler? Forget about it. You are about to enter language barrier hell. OK–I get it. I don't speak Thai. But I don't speak French either and in Paris any taxi knows what ‘Eiffel Tower' means. And I don't speak Egyptian but in Cairo any transporter knows what ‘Pyramids' means. And I don't speak Chinese but in China any taxi knows what ‘Great Wall' means. In Italy any taxi knows what ‘Vatican' means. Not in Thailand.

Does Thailand want to be the Asian poster boy for the ‘All Local Language or Nothing' campaign? Maybe the difference isn't language at all. Maybe it is character. In other countries different speaking locals ‘try'. Do the Thais ‘try'? Does Thailand really want to be thought of in the same breath as France regarding jingoistic native language use? Is this what Thaksin has in mind when he bleats about Thailand becoming a global player?

4. I'm in Chiang Mai and it is really cold. There is a thermostat on the wall. I can't make it turn on the heat. I call the front desk. I can't communicate. They hang up on me. I call two more times. Two more hang-ups. I go down to the lobby and grab the porter by his belt and we make the trip up to my room. I stand him in front of the thermostat and I rub my hands together until they are hot and then touch his face. Now he understands what I want. But the thermostat is broken. OK, no one's fault. Language Barrier. Boy what a cold night in Chiang Mai.

5. Ever tried to make a reservation with a hotel in Thailand by calling from your own country and speaking in English? They hang up. They have people on staff who speak English but they still hang up. OK–I get it. They speak Thai, not English. Except when you get to the hotel you find out some of them do speak English. They speak English fluently. All day long. They just hang up on you. I guess it is my fault that English speaking hotel employees hang up on me. No, wait a minute. That's just bad manners. Is this a language barrier or a poor business practices and social barrier?

6. Ever tried to get information from a tour ticket operation more than two blocks from your hotel? Language Barrier. OK–I get it. It is unfair to expect all business Thais to speak English or any number of other foreign languages. And I wouldn't want to be unfair. Only thing is. If their market is foreigners and they only speak Thai–how exactly do they do business? Maybe this should be in the Mystery category rather than the Language Barrier category!

7. Ever tried to make a reservation for a hotel in Pattaya from Bangkok. It is like calling Mars. Can't be done. Impossible. Forget about it. Believe me I've tried. Boy-oh-boy have I tried. And I am not talking about me on the phone trying to do this. I am talking about going into a ticket/tour vendor and asking them to make the phone call for me. Ain't gonna happen. I've actually had tour/ticket/travel agents within 500 yds. of the Nana Hotel tell me it can't be done–as if it is practical or mechanistic impossibility. As if the phone line signals can't actually travel from Bangkok all the way to Pattaya. Since then I've been advised by others that if the agent does not have a business relationship with the hotel you are trying to reach, they just refuse to call. Maybe. We are definitely in Third World "What?" territory now! Who knows? Language Barrier.

8. Ever tried to call the front desk with a simple request from your room. Forget it. Language Barrier. I guess that's it; but I still cling to the idea that this should be something that a hotel quest ought to be able to do. But not me. I now take the guts out of the telephone receivers. I sure am not going to have any use for the phone, and I don't want the maids making any calls on my room charges either. So, that lump in my pants isn't Viagra–it's the inside of the telephone receiver.

9. Ever gone to Big Mike's Shopping Center in South Pattaya and gone into the supermarket and asked one of the cute female uniformed employees anything about anything they carry. Not once in years of going to Pattaya have I hit the jackpot here. Never one time has the person I was talking to had even the faintest inkling about what I was trying to say. OK–I get it. It's a language barrier. But still. They work long shifts six days a week and have foreigners coming in all the time making the same requests. Wouldn't you think they would have puzzled out some of the answers by now. You would be wrong. I once asked one–and then all of the retail floor staff–where the condoms were. No one knew. Really? Who's going to believe that?

10. Ever tried talking to your bargirl girlfriend about anything at all besides boom-boom? I used to try language foreplay out of respect and the desire to elevate the experience. I used to try to have us get to know one another a little first. No more. Waste of time. No criticism here. Just disappointment. Language Barrier.

Hey, I'm not reaching any conclusions here. Since I'm a boorish, insensitive, ignorant American and all Thais are agriculturally based innocent angels; reaching conclusions would be wrong. Since I am so inferior I don't have that right. But I do remember quite clearly a Thai bargirl whose English speaking skills and English comprehension abilities improved exponentially every time we were together. Gee, do you suppose her English was that good the first time I met her–she just declined to let me know? So, is this a language barrier; or a game? If your bargirl had a thousand English speaking ‘friends' before meeting you; do you honestly think you are the first guy to teach her how to say Beer Chang in English? Now when I am in the company of a bargirl I assume that her English speaking and English comprehension skills are more fluent than she lets on. And I make sure that anything I say about her that she might overhear is complimentary and heartfelt and sincere and uncomplicated. Partly it is good manners and good intentions, but partly it is paranoid defensive behavior. More and more I have adopted the notion that the bargirls around me speak and understand English much better than they let on. I don't want to see the inside of a Thai prison over a Language Barrier issue.

Actually, this routine of reviewing the English word for Beer Chang and other things used to be my modus operandi. I thought getting to know each other by going through Thai-English and English-Thai dictionaries was fun. I thought we were sharing low-stress adult moments. I thought we were getting to know each other. Laying side by side on the bed, or sitting up side by side propped up by pillows; I thought we were becoming pals and buddies. Now, I wonder. Was I really the first English speaking farang to point at her foot and say "foot"? Or was I the 200th guy to do that? Maybe I should have taught her to say ‘violin' in English. Because she was playing me like a violin! Maybe this is a part of my life I shouldn't examine too closely. It will just show me playing the part of a fool. Sometimes it's hard to have fun in a foreign land.

So, how much of this is real–and how much of this is imagined? I'll never know. Language Barrier.

OK, I get it. Thailand is another country and they speak another language. I don't need a geography lesson. But there is a little picking and choosing going on here. Thais can't speak English–but they can count in English and I've seen accusations in English burst from their throats like birds flushed from a nest. Sometimes it is not about a language barrier–it's about a social or racial or manners barrier. Your little bargirl honey may speak and understand more English than you think. Remember, it is a contest of ‘wills'. She ‘will' lie to you, and you ‘will' lose your money. Remember those charming connecting moments the two of you shared when she spoke a little of your language? Well, when she decides to be unhappy and the police are called; suddenly she won't be able to speak any of your language–only Thai and Tears. So, is it a language barrier–or a game? You decide!

11. Ever tried to order a mixed drink in a bar. I used to give up and just drink what they brought me. Now I don't even order anymore. OK–it's a language barrier. But wait a minute. It's a bar. This is what they do. Oh, forget it. I give up.

12. Ever tried to talk to your tri-lingual (she couldn't stop herself from telling you) tour guide about anything outside the subject of her canned speeches. Can't be done. That ain't tri-lingual honey.

13. Ever tried to talk to the Tourist Police–you know, the specially trained police all the guide books say you should go to if you need help? Good Luck.

14. So where do you get fluency in something besides Thai in Thailand? The Four Star rated and up hotels (sometimes) and Don Muang airport (always). It can be done. But this is pretty thin. Especially since I am never in expensive hotels and I am only in the airport on arrival or departure. The airport has the highest standards in the nation. And as the fluency in other languages goes up so does the general deportment and social reliability. But I said I wouldn't be critical. It's a foreign country. No one should expect them to speak someone else's language. I think.

15. Ever try to talk to someone who is studying English at university. Atrocious. Incomprehensible. I guess this is no one's fault. There is no way in hell I can level a criticism or complaint here because my Thai is beneath contempt. But the result is the same. Language Barrier. Too bad. Makes you wonder what we are all missing because we can't talk to one another.

16. What I want to do is get the river commuter boat that starts from the end of the Skytrain and zigzags up the Chao Phraya river letting school kids and workers and business people off at each stop. At each stop I'll get off and just wander around and then get back on the boat and go to the next stop and get off and wander around in the neighborhood again. It is a pleasant cheap way to some of the Thailand that is not on the postcards. I like being a tourist. I have done this before so by pantomiming and gestures and rudimentary Thai I ought to be able to get on the right boat. There are other boats. There is a short haul ferry that just goes across to Thonburi and there is a tourist boat that goes up the river with someone talking on the loudspeaker. I can't figure out which boat is which and I can't make my needs known. I've done this successfully before but this time I just can't put it together. And as usual I can't get any one to listen to me and take an interest in my human problem. Tell me again how this is the Land of Smiles! So I get on a boat. Every Thai knew I was on the wrong boat. No one said anything. I had gotten on the short haul boat that goes across the river to Thonburi. After paying a landing fee I had to turn around and get back on the wrong boat again and go back to where I started. More pantomiming and more gestures on my part and more imploring for help and assistance. I guess in retrospect it's a good thing I wasn't having a heart attack and in need of medical attention. Because I wouldn't have gotten any. The next boat I am pointed at is the farang tourist boat. As soon as the tour talk starts I know I am on the wrong boat again. I look like an idiot and I am being treated like one. I am picking up social signals and body language–the Thais think this is funny. That is a reflection on them, not on me. My vengeance is that I get to get on a plane at the end of my vacation experience and rejoin the world. And of course it is so easy to understand how this could happen. It is all a matter of being able to communicate. And I can't communicate. Still, I have been in countries where I wouldn't have been allowed to flounder so much. Some kind soul in Greece or Portugal or Germany would have stepped in and helped me. This is because of something called ‘recognition of species commonality'. That's why you stop and render assistance to a stranger when you see an accident on the highway. That is the reason you donate blood. It is an abstract notion that delineates us as belonging to a higher evolved species. ‘Recognition of species commonality' is why when you are sent back for the ammo you return to the front line. It is why sad movies about fictitious people make us cry. Instinctive recognition of species commonality is why winning sports teams make us happy and why we donate to charity and why we worry about someone else's children. Not in Thailand. Still, I'll take most of the blame. I can't make my needs and wants known. Well, maybe I could if the Thais would be better listeners and try just a teensy bit harder. But I'll let that go for now. It's all my fault. I can't communicate. Thank Christ I don't need an insulin shot or blood plasma or an ambulance. The difference in Western countries that don't speak English is that you are seen as mostly the same even if you can't speak the local language. In Asia you are seen as a foreigner of racially inferior stock who doesn't naturally earn courtesy because of a common species connection. This is part of the barely concealed racism that infests Thai culture like the toredo worms in a ship. I would actually be interested to know if the average Thai even has a scientifically based knowledge of what it means to belong to a common species. Do they think Thai blood is different than Foreigner blood? Don't laugh. Anyway, I was on the wrong boat . And it was my fault because I couldn't communicate. That's right, it was all my fault. Wait a minute. All my fault? Isn't communication something that involves two interested parties? Ah, forget it.

17. Wan and I have had so many miscommunications about time and appointments that I have made up a little cardboard clock with movable hands that I keep in my wallet. The problem is that we can only communicate in terms of whole numbers. Ten O'Clock. Fine. No problem. Ten- Thirty. Disaster. All she hears is the ‘Ten'. Late again! So now I pull out my wallet and move the hands to the proper places on the clock face and show it to her. She thinks the farangs little cardboard clock with the little movable paper hands is hysterical. But at least we can communicate.

18. Shoes sold in department stores in Thailand aren't as cheap as you'd expect them to be but some of the crocodile shoes are nice. I'm in the Royal Mall in Pattaya and I'm in the shoe store and I'm interested in buying shoes. Now it starts. I want shoes wider than the floor model. Incomprehension. Eventually, I get it. The shoes don't come in widths. Language Barrier. Sort of amusing now to think about it but mostly frustrating at the time. Sure, it is all my fault because I can't speak Thai. But wait a minute. It's a shoe store that has foreigners streaming in and out of it in the thousands. All of the shoes manufactured in their own countries are offered in widths. Am I the first customer to ask for shoes in different widths? I doubt it. Not a chance. They get this question a thousand times a week. So why the big act? The complete befuddlement. Come on Thailand. Chill out. You knew what I was saying and you knew what I was asking. You just didn't want me in the store. OK–you might get your wish. There are other countries–many of them more fun and friendlier. It's not all a language barrier. Sometimes it's a social barrier masquerading as a language barrier.

19. There is a leather goods store on the first floor of Big Mike's Shopping Center in South Pattaya that has crocodile briefcases in black and blue and brown that are mouth-watering. But they won't negotiate. Maybe 10% and that's it. They are very expensive. OK, I can respect that. It is your store and you can do business anyway you want. But instead of telling me that the price is the price–basically non-negotiable as a part of store policy; they pull the old ‘we can't understand you' routine. Bullshit. They understand me fine. I eventually (the second trip to Thailand and the third time I go in the store) buy two briefcases. But it could have been a lot more fun. This wasn't a language barrier–it was a social barrier. They just didn't want foreigners in the store. Well, you may get your wish Thailand. I'm thinking about it.

20. I am tired and in no mood for hookers so I decide to go over to the Angelwitch bar in the Nana Entertainment Plaza and just watch a show. A woman sits next to me but I pay no attention. She taps me on the shoulder. I turn. She speaks. Holy cow! It turns out her name is Bang and she knew Noi during the two years I was involved with Noi. She was the woman in the background I never noticed because I only had eyes for Noi. She is able to recite to me all of the things Noi and I did together. She pulls out her cell phone. She has Noi's number. Would she like me to call Noi. "No", I say. I just want to forget two years that ended in heartache. I don't want to go over it all over again. I ball up my fists and rub them in my eyes to show her I am sad. I hold my hand over my chest and look stricken to show that my heart is broken. I just want to heal. She offers the information that Noi is now married to an Australian. I am happy for Noi. I think. . . .

So many bargirl–foreigner relationships don't go well. Articulate foreigners place blame and arrive at conclusions about character. I wonder. I'm not so sure any more about a lot of this. If you can't understand another person's language it's possible to reach the wrong conclusions about their character. You miss nuances and social signals and commonalties. It's no one's fault.

Maybe that is the real reason Noi and I couldn't connect. We simply couldn't understand each other. The language barrier was too high for us to get over.

"Noi, I'm sorry I couldn't understand you when you tried to talk to me. And I'm sorry you didn't understand me when I was trying to communicate something to you. I guess your Australian husband speaks Thai better than I could. I'm sorry for me. And I'm sorry for us. I miss you. I would like to be able to tell you that I will always love you–but I don't speak Thai."

21. Yaow and I are off to Chiang Mai for four days. This is my idea (she doesn't get ideas). As the plane lands in Chiang Mai it starts to rain. This triggers some kind of mood change in Yaow who on arriving at the hotel burrows under the covers and disappears. It rains for four days. The lump stays under the covers for four days. More farang money wasted. More wasted time. More disappointment. It could have been fun. But there was a language barrier. I am trying to be charitable.

22. Sometimes it may be a good thing that there is a language barrier. It keeps people from getting killed. Wan and I are sitting in the lobby of the AA Hotel in South Pattaya talking to Anna the tour director. I am booking Wan and I for the evening transvestite show at Alcazar. These shows have graduated from singers in bars to revues in leased space on Walking Street to professionally staged big money productions in free standing Vegas style buildings. It's a great night out and a fun date. Everyone has a good time. Anna is explaining to me and to Wan (in Thai) that for a premium (more money) I can get the best seats in the house. We will be right up front (2nd row) and in the middle, no sight line issues, we will be able to hear better and to see better, we get a free drink during the performance, and we can exit the building quicker and more conveniently to have a photo opportunity with the performers. I pay. When we get to the auditorium I am ecstatic. Everything Anna said was true. The seats are fabulous. I actually feel sorry for the people in the bleachers and the people way in the back. Wan is not ecstatic. She is not even happy. She is unhappy and petulant and making faces. There is something about the seats she doesn't like. She finally flounces off to the bathroom. In her absence I review the seat situation point by point. I look at her seat for defects. I sit in her seat to check her view. There is nothing not to like. I have paid for the best seats in the house and that is what we have received. There is no reason for her to be unhappy. I just zone out. I'm not going to allow my heart rate to elevate over this. Of course she has a great time watching the show. She smiles and laughs and claps. It's probably a good thing that I couldn't speak Thai. If I had been able to speak Thai and gotten a load of presumptuous, ungrateful crap from her; I'd have probably strangled her. Thank god for the language barrier. It probably kept me out of a Thai prison.

23. I decide to take Na to the Hopf Brew House restaurant on Beach Road in South Pattaya for dinner. It will be something adult and civilized and fun. An excuse to dress up and participate with each other as the middle-aged adults that we are. The Hopf Brew House restaurant is just a door and a sign on Beach Road. Easy to walk by. Easy to miss. But inside it is great. It is big and fancy and fun and there is a band playing Beatles music. The food is good and the service is fine. It was a mistake!! The problem is that between the time you order the food and the moment the food arrives at your table; there is just interminable, awkward, embarrassing ‘dead air'. You can't talk to each other. So you sit there like two idiots–bored and anxious and embarrassed and waiting for it to be over. Na sits to the left of me like an Isaan lump and I squirm around trying to be charming and chatty. But no one is fooling anybody. It ain't workin'. So I learned that there is something else I can't do in Thailand. Another dream I can't dream. I can't take my girlfriend to a nice restaurant. Language Barrier!

24. The language barrier is a huge boost to the Thai economy. It only takes an hour for sex and then you have another twenty-three hours to fill with your sweetheart. And you usually find out that it is a long twenty-three hours because little Miss Polehugger isn't really that interesting. That's when you learn that you've got to keep moving, keep entertaining; otherwise the social balloon will deflate right before your eyes. That's why all the stuff gets bought for her, and the motorcycles get rented, and the plane tickets get purchased, and the tours and activities are signed up for. You are just trying to hold the house-of-cards relationship together. Millions of baht daily are pumped into the Thai economy by desperate farangs trying to keep their bargirls occupied. You can't talk to each other so time is filled by doing things, and by buying things. Farangs jump around like dancing bears in a circus; juggling balls, cracking jokes, making funny faces–all the salesmanship required to keep Noi or Poom or Gai or Nok interested.

"I'm worth your time! This relationship has value! Isn't this fun?"

You instinctively know the importance of keeping her interested and amused and occupied so that she doesn't reach into her purse and pull out her goddamned relationship-killing cell phone! As soon as she starts talking on her cellphone to her thirty-five best friends–mother–sisters–Thai boyfriend–husband–and other farang suitors you are a dead man. Games up! You lose! So you spend money like a drunken sailor and dance like a bear in a circus. Language Barrier! Thaksin should promote the language barrier and prohibit bargirls from learning foreign languages. It's money in the bank!

Stickman's thoughts:

Good points. The level of English in Thailand is still fairly low. Hell, in TOEFL testing, Thailand gets the lowest scores in SE Asia and despite the way the Thais constantly berate the people of Laos, Laotian students score higher in this international English test.