It’s Not a Mistake to Learn Thai
IImeew makes some excellent observations in his piece “Was it a mistake to learn Thai?” Answering his title question depends, of course, on what he set out to accomplish in the first place.
If it was to add a tonal language to his repertoire then he has evidently succeeded admirably. I doff my hat to someone of a Western tongue who has the wit and diligence to learn Thai, both spoken and written no less, in his home country with
help only of books, a taped course and the occasional tutor. My linguistic tail firmly between my legs, after several failed attempts over the past five years that I have lived here in Thailand to master the language, I can only salute the magnitude
of his achievement. However, I do have some insights that IImeew may find helpful.
He complains of finding it hard to mingle despite knowing Thai, and his fluency seems to have often been treated an awkward intrusion more than an opportunity to embrace an evidently eager tourist. I believe the answer lies in IImeew’s admission that he moved around a lot. Thais are very traditionally Asian. They are not instinctively as warm and curious a people as those of Mediterranean Europe or Latin America (I hope all readers are past the point of reacting to this statement with “But the smile…”). One cannot hope to ambush a Thai with an understanding of his language and leave with a friend. They need to see you around for a while, get a sense of who you are and, very importantly, feel comfortable in your presence. Only then will they open up, banter, ask questions and – yes – even venture the occasional opinion.
I see this in the Bangkok neighborhood that I live in where veteran expats who speak Thai fluently have obviously easy relationships with local people, often jabbering away with them about what I don’t know. The night receptionist in my building – given my lifestyle the one I see the most – likes to talk to me about football and politics and tells me in no uncertain terms his views (Thaksin’s power-crazy and corrupt and the people of the north are fools for being taken by him) and admonishes me to not subscribe to the ex-Prime Minister’s AIS phone company (mostly, though, he tells me his football picks).
So, I would suggest to IImeew to pick his favorite spot in the country, rent a place there and settle down for a few weeks. Do not pursue people who you think might be interesting to talk to. Instead, sink into a routine and try to get to know the locals on your beat. After they start to see you habitually and after the few minimal “sawadee, khaps” it won’t be hard. Be aware of proper opening moves though.
Say, there’s a sweet young thing you tend to buy a cappuccino from each evening. Surely, after a few times she’ll start to smile as she sees you approaching and greet you with “You are early today” or “I have fresh cakes to go with your cappuccino” or something equally trite and pleasant. I must at this point contrast such behavior with that of the woman at the counter of a Starbucks that I would frequent near where I worked in the States, who would never acknowledge that she knew what I wanted – even after the same order at the same time every working day for months – let alone bestow a welcoming smile. I guess any kind of friendliness towards the Enemy Sex would constitute a betrayal of the Feminist Cause.
Anyway, back to the sweet young thing. Now, IImeew seems to be the cerebral sort. But, on no account should one try to make an opening gambit like “So, what do you think of the upcoming elections?” or “What do you think happened down there in Phuket with the One-Two-Go crash?” Here’s why. In most countries – certainly everywhere in the West – the rule for social interaction is first serious and then (possibly) informal and playful. In Thailand it’s precisely the other way around. Don’t try to analyze this – accept it and get with the program. It can actually be fun.
This custom translates to the fact that even as early as your third or fourth encounter with the sweet young thing it’s perfectly okay to say “You look great this evening so I guess your boyfriend – lucky guy – must be on his way.” But, please, say this in obvious jest with a wide smile on your face and coltish look in the eyes. The same words uttered with a drool could freeze her totally. Early flirtation is fine in Thailand, and to be enjoyed by both parties, provided there’s no crowding. Incidentally, those questions about the elections and the plane crash can come later, most likely as part of after-sex chitchat between the sheets. Like I said it’s all backwards in Thailand so get used to it.
But there’s a glass ceiling. IImeew’s observation that even expat lifers seem not to have Thai friends is undoubtedly accurate. I think Abe Lincoln had the answer to this one when he observed (my ex-girlfriend in the US, a lovely African intellectual told me this) that Negroes could be free but they would never be American because they “look too different”. The interpretation of “look” has to be broad. For example, I don’t think that the Thai guests at the birthday party IImeew describes were too shy to keep talking in his presence. Rather, the concern was what it was they could talk about without the honored guest feeling excluded. A farang may know the language, but not only does he look different, he is not acclimated to the local issues, culture, scandals, boy bands, politics, celebrities and fart jokes (apparently Thais enjoy these last enormously, but clearly would be discomfited to relate one in the presence of an outsider – a serious damper at a birthday gathering).
I wouldn’t complain about this though. I feel far more at home in Thailand after five years, speaking Thai minimally, than I did in the US (admittedly I wasn’t born American but immigrated) even after fifteen years of living and working there (and speaking the language). I would attribute this to the flip side of some of the Thai traits that bother us such as the lack of curiosity about foreigners and the various cultures we hail from, their contentment within what seems a smallish world, and their penchant to live for the present. It means that they tend to accept us for how we are rather than what labels (nationality, religion, etc.) we happen to wear, that they are not particularly judgmental, and that if we are pleasant here and now then they will gladly reciprocate.
I like the fact that a farang lesbian and a Thai lesbian can smooch on the BTS without drawing much attention. I like the fact that a ladyboy, obviously on her way to work, can stop in front of a shop window and pluck her eyebrows in the glass oblivious of passers-by. I find this kind of freedom bracing.
I can live with never being assimilated in Thailand, let alone being married to a Thai. I have no illusions that I will have a meeting of minds with someone who slides off a pole to sit by me. As for the educated hi-so types I wouldn’t touch one with a ten-yard barge pole. I had a few – students from Thailand at a school in my town in the US – give me Thai lessons, and my conclusion, after spending hours with each, was that a long-term relationship with one would be like having haemorroids in the brain. They have world views constrained entirely by their family’s position in the hi-so social order, that itself being a function of two parameters: wealth and nearness (if any) to the royals. All social interaction and equations derive from this. Nothing else matters much.
I have a somewhat amusing anecdote about the strange Thai hi-so community. Some readers may remember an incident a few years ago when a deranged Thai woman tried to assault a couple of kids from an upscale Bangkok high school. She was apprehended before causing any harm and upon police interrogation confessed to initially casing two nearby schools, and then choosing the one whose students seemed to her richer and more sophisticated. Apparently, this was widely reported in the Thai press and set off major firestorms in the mah-jong playing Khun Ying circles. Mothers of kids of the school that had not been targeted lost face, there was a rush to enroll in the one that had, and even talk of the PTA of the “lesser” school secretly trying to organize an incident on their own premises!
It seems to me particularly odd that many writers at Stickman’s – men who have lived in Thailand many years and are clearly smart and aware of their surroundings – expect a happy ending to a relationship with someone they discovered in a bar and grumble when it unravels. Don’t get me wrong. I respect these women. I know how hard they work and how much they miss their families and their kids in Isaan, for whom it is that they are in Bangkok working in the first place. Many of them are smart and almost all funny. It’s pleasant to sit in the Beer Garden and talk to them. Once I offer to buy one a drink, make clear that though she’s lovely that I really can’t take her home tonight, and that she is free to leave the moment a likely customer appears, she is usually happy to sit and chat for a bit. I hear interesting things such as how busy she’s been (strangely enough afternoons are often busier than nights, especially for short times) and how much she makes (depends on how stupid he looks). And when they open up some are exceedingly sweet and alluring. But, then I remember Abe Lincoln, pay the tab, kiss her hand and leave.
I love living in this country and probably will not leave if such can be arranged but – in the interests of full disclosure – I must say that I have not been with a Thai woman in years. No, I am not gay and do play around. It’s just that I like the Russians better, but that’s another story.
Are we going to get the Russian story?!