Readers' Submissions

Movies, TV and Thai-logic



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok


Have you ever sat down and watched a DVD with your Thai lady? Chances are you have. I get bored of the bars some time and sit down with whatever “master copy” movie I can find on Sukhumvit. Usually I include my lady in this – but as of late I have given up on this. Better to watch it alone, or get her some talking dog movie to enjoy while you read a book. It seems Thais don’t enjoy the cinematic experience the same as us farang do.

Wow where to begin? If you are looking for a Siskel & Ebert type discussion of the film you are watching with your lady, don’t count on it. Thais seem to favor two flavors of movies. Number one, they adore comedies. And we are talking slapstick, Three Stooges pie-in-face humor. People farting. People falling over things. People belching. A dog biting a guy in the seat of the trousers. Surely you have experienced this on any long distance bus ride where they are showing a Thai movie. Or frequently they show excerpts from the comedy / variety show on Thai Channel 3 (or is it 5?). The other type of movies Thai adore are action movies. Ideally they can get both action / comedy in the same movie. Horror movies should be included as well but it seems a 50 / 50 thing with Thais. Some people are deathly afraid of these, and refuse to watch them. Sill they are popular, but probably favored more by Thai men.

I grew up watching cable, when HBO, Cinemax and Showtime came on the scene in the 80’s. I watched a lot of good movies and a lot of bad ones. I grew up in a large family, so there was always a lively discussion about the merits of the movie (usually a running commentary – goofing on bad scenes, dialogue, etc.). We weren’t movie critics, but we were pretty astute viewers. However, any sort of discussion with your Thai companion seems fruitless. Perhaps because watching a movie together is one of the last shared experiences that exists today, we feel compelled, as farang, to analyze, dissect and critique – and expect your viewing partner to contribute as well. The language barrier aside, I found this just isn’t realistic. Thais want to be entertained. <This quote is SO TRUE and applies to much of lie in ThailandStick> Any sort of movie that makes you think, forget it. Any movie with an underlying message, social commentary or complex plot is lost on them. The analogies and metaphors woven through a good movie are lost on the Thai audience. Some sample dialogue while watching a film with my tee-rak :

Me : Wow, don’t you see living in Thailand isn’t reality, it’s just like the Matrix. The Thais are using us as ATMs instead of batteries. We are walking around in a parallel universe of beautiful Thai automatons.

Her : Ooooo-hooo Keanu handsome man. Lor jung loeeeeei.

OK I made some of that conversation up, but it’s very indicative of what I have gone through trying to enjoy a movie together.

I think many farang suffer from a Pygmalion complex, where they feel the need to educate, enlighten and pull their tee-rak up to a Western level of thinking. If they don’t understand and enjoy the movie the way we do, it gets frustrating, even insulting. Do you frequently find yourself asking her “(in Thai, English, Th-english.. however you get through to your girl) :

Do you understand what just happened there?

Why did that guy do that?

What country is this taking place in?

You’re not alone, brother! I finally gave up. If she gets it, she gets it. If not, oh well.

Stop asking. And stop pausing the DVD to quiz her on critical points of the film. It’s pointless. Watch it alone, or pop in something mind numbing that has no meaning (some talking animal movie is ideal – see below for more on this).

When it comes to recounting films, Thais also tend to over generalize (vs. farang who are so specific, our encyclopediac knowledge of TV / movies is embarrassing – man, do we really watch that much TV?). This has a direct correlation with the language in my opinion. Any superhero movie that comes on the tube, my lady calls it “Spiderman”. It can be The X-Men, Superman, ever some parody like Wonderdog. If it involves someone in a costume then this movie is “Spiderman”. The same goes for comedies. The Thai people seem to love Rob Schneider, a American comedic-actor who has had modest success with a dozen movies or so under his belt (he frequently co-stars in a lot of Adam Sandler films). The Thais loved his movie “Deuce Bigalow”. So any film that comes on with Rob Schneider is greeted with “Deuce Bigalow, Deuce Bigalow!”. Also while watching any action movie with some beefed up star, she calls the movie “Arnold” (or “Rambo” – maybe it’s who they fancy more, Arnold or Stallone). And any movie with an extraterrestrial or monster is “Alien”. I can go on and on with this, and I am sure you have your own examples. I feel this can be traced back to the Thai language, and the Thai way of processing information in general (or rather not processing information).

A side story will illustrate this. I once had a Thai girlfriend who was educated and had a real job here (i.e. NOT a bar girl). Her English was good, and I picked up a lot of Thai from her, reading, writing, everything. I like to question her and try to find out certain elements of the language. One time I was puzzled because I found out the word for “gasoline” (petrol to you Euros) and “oil” is the same thing in Thai. Naam maan. I quizzed her on this. Over and over I kept getting the same answer, naam maan. So I offered up this question :

Me : Hmmm.. well suppose I pull into a service station, and the mechanic comes out. I tell him I need “naam maan”. What does he do? Open the hood and check the oil, or fill it up with gasoline?

Her : Oh, he knows what you need. He knows whether you need gas or oil, he’s a mechanic.

Me : No. I am not asking for both gas and oil, and I don’t want him to check both. How do I tell him I want just GAS (or just OIL)? And I don’t want him putting oil in my gas tank.

Her : Oh it’s his job, he knows what you need. Don’t worry. Jai yen yen.

Ugh. This discussion went on and on until I admitted defeat. I would guess that the word for “oil” came first – oil has been around for a long time, before gasoline engines were invented. Oil made from whale blubber, nuts, vegetables, whatever have been used for centuries for lubrication. When gasoline came alone (petroleum specifically), the Thais probably just called this similar substance “naam maan” (oil) and any by-product was “naam maan” too (gasoline). Maybe I have this wrong but it sounds logical. Well Thai-logical. Apply this to “Spiderman” movies and it makes perfect (Thai) sense. The problem is that Thai logic is dictated by a single incident, instead of making a conclusion from a series of similar events (induction).

On a related note, Try having any sort of hypothetical discussion with a Thai person. This is a headache, nearly impossible I would say. The language does not easily handle the past / future subjunctive (“If this had happened..” / “If this were to happen…”). Many a discussion I have attempted with the following results

Me: What would happen if X were to happen?

Her : But X hasn’t happened.

Me : Yes, BUT what if X were to happen, what would you do?

Her : I don’t know, because X hasn’t happened.

I feel for you farang English teachers out there. How do you do it? Explaining the subjunctive must be like teaching Einstein’s theory of relativity.

It’s no wonder Thais fall behind in mathematics, engineering, and other disciplines that require a sound foundation of logical reasoning. Ever hear of the “Somboon” Theorem in Mathematics? How about the “Kittikorn” Law in physics? Yeah, me neither. I can’t name one Thai mathematician, physicist or inventor. Bring this subject up to Thais and they figure they probably invented something first, with someone else taking credit. Fire? Forget Prometheus – Khun Pornchai invented it, and the Greek farang stole it! OK enough of my ranting.

To further illustrate the generalization problem, in computer programming (my background), this generalization / specification issue is known as a “Class” (the generalization of something, not a concrete entity) versus an “Instance” (a specific instance of a class). Example : a Class is Cat; an Instance of this is Class is “Tiger”. The mistake Thais make is to use the Instance of a class (usually the first Instance encountered, or whatever their language offers up) as the Class name itself. Thus a Tiger is both the Class and the Instance. This is paralleled in the Latin taxonomy system for naming animals :

Class = Felis (all felines)

Instance = Felis Concolor (a Cougar)

OK, zoologists I am simplifying here, as you know the taxonomy system gets more complex than this – but you get the idea (Class / Instance is equivalent to Genus / Species in my example).

Another case of “non-specificity” I have encountered : Airplanes (kreu-ang bin, in Thai). Literally “climbing or flying machine”. According to Thais, EVERYTHING that flies, is a kreu-ang bin. Helicopter, Airplane, Flying Saucer, Blimp, Rocket. Interestingly, bar girls have picked up on helicopter though – they sometimes use this in place of “butterfly” (“jao choo” in Thai) to signify a man who hops from girl to girl, a cheating man that is.

Back to Movies / TV. Try watching the Discovery Channel or National Geographic with your lady. As such you will most likely see, naturally, animals. In Thai, there is not a wide range of animal words. So, for example, when you see a panther, bengal tiger, ocelot, cheetah, etc. these are all “seu-aa” (tiger in Thai). Other generalizations (Thai word followed by English in parentheses.) :

maa (horse) – horse, deer, antelope, reindeer, gazelle

maa (dog) – wolf, fox, jackal, coyote, WEREWOLF even!

jerokee (alligator) – alligator, crocodile, komodo dragon, any large lizard

noo (mouse) – mouse, rat, chipmunk, squirrel, prairie dog, beaver, any small rodent

Surprisingly, they do have a word for “zebra” (maa laai – striped horse). Puzzling since the closest zebras probably come from Africa. Also, the Thai lexicon of aquatic creatures is pretty diverse (bpoo, goong, bplaa, bplaa meuk, chalam, dtao, mae naam..). But again some related species get lost in the mix : a squid and an octopus are both “bplaa meuk” even though this translates as “ink fish”.

Because of this tendency to over-generalize (or to be more precise, to use a specific instance as a generic name) perhaps this is why Thai ladies find all us farang “hansum man”!

Ironically, the Thais have a wide range of words for “ghost”. English does as well (ghost, wraith, spectre, poltergeist, etc.) but by and large these are used interchangeably. Thais have an astounding array of words for the ghosts that inhabit their world, with specific meanings. The generic word for “ghost” is “pee” in Thai (get your tone right, this also means older brother / sister, people!) :

* pee – ghost (generic)

* pee kraseu – a ghost of a dead woman who is just a floating head and torso with her entrails hanging out

* pee dtai horng – a ghost of someone who has met a violent death, usually inhabiting their room for 3 days after their death or so

* pee am – a ghost which lays on top of you when you sleep. I have heard several accounts of “actual” encounters with this ghost, from Thai ladies who have had nightmares.

Here is a good link listing many of the Thai ghosts (wow – there must be 20 or so). Take a look : http://www.thaivisa.com/forum/Thai-Ghosts-t78621.html . Scary stuff.

Another word on Thai TV (Sorry I am all over the place here – my first submission). Have you noticed how all Thai stars whore themselves out to every kind of media outlet? I remember seeing some Thai “dara” on a tampon advertisement on the BTS.

Lo and behold I just saw her on one of the Thai soap operas. I have also seen some Thai stars pull a trifecta and enter the music world as well. Well that order is probably backward, I’d hazard to say most start as singers (e.g. Tata Young), then get boatloads of commercials and ads, and then pop up on TV shows or movies as well. The point here is, Thai stars seem to have limited exposure outside of Thailand (Tata Young probably is the only exception – and she’s a leuk kreung), so they milk their fame for all it’s worth here in the Kingdom.

Another example is the Thai actor “Mom” (sometimes transliterated “Mum”). He’s the short, slightly paunchy Thai man with a shaved head who pops up in half the Thai films it seems. He frequently stars in comedies, but also shows up in action films (in the popular Thai martial arts flick “Ong Bak”). Mom is on billboards, commercials, TV, movies… the only thing missing is music, but perhaps he cut and album or two I don’t know about. Here is a link to Mom :http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petchtai_Wongkamlao

This guy is all over. He hosts some variety / sketch comedy show on Channel 3 with a gang of other Thai clowns. I am sure you have seen this show, it’s part music, comedy, game show – with a cast of Thai comedians and an assortment of strange characters. As much as the Thais shun people with disabilities or deformities, they love to laugh at their antics. The show’s cast includes midgets, dwarves, obese persons, old folks and people with Down’s Syndrome. Annoyingly, this show, along with most Thai TV shows, has mandatory zany sound effects and a laugh track constantly playing.

Some standard elements of Thai comedy movies :

* Katoeys (naturally) – but usually someone who is very masculine, dressed up as a woman, more of a parody of a katoey.

* Animals – soi dogs are common, and talking animals are a gut-buster here. Thais ADORE movies with talking animals or babies (NOTE : you want to keep your lady occupied, pick up a movie of this genre).

* Midgets / Dwarves – see above

* Farang – not as common, but always get HUGE laughs. Goofing on farangs brings the house down, esp. making fun of farang messing up the Thai language (hey we like to make fun of Thais who screw up English too, right? )

* Monks – oddly I have seen quite a few Thai comedies where Monks are parodied. Not in a real disrespectful way, but still it’s surprising to see anything related to Buddhism satirized. Additionally, Monks always seem to show up in Thai horror films, usually being consulted to banish some ghost or evil spirit.

* Drunk Taxi / Bus Drivers – of the Isaan persuasion usually (naturally), always with a good heart but a little liquored up, usually overly amorous to some female character.

* Cops / Government Officials – usually of the bumbling persuasion, inept, lazy, and greedy (Comedy? This sounds like real life). This seems one place you can criticize the boys in brown and the hi-so gov’t officials without repercussion (well you probably shouldn’t portray some actual person too accurately).

* Isaan Maids – same as Cops above, portrayed in the most stereotypical light (always gossiping, slacking off, napping, cheating their employers). Well I have to say the gossiping is spot-on, for any Thai girls for that matter.

That’s all I get for this posting. I know some of you all are far more educated in Thai language / culture than I am, and some of my linguistic musings probably aren’t 100% accurate. But that’s my two cents (baht) on the subject. Feel free to e-mail below with any corrections / comments.

Keep it real people.

Somchai Jones

Stickman's thoughts:

I really liked the movie / TV analysis part of this submission. You nailed them!