Lost in Translation
Whilst touring the Land of Smiles at the turn of the century 2001 – 2002, the wife and I made a scheduled stop in the Thai-Laos border town of Mukdahan. As seems customary whenever the car engine is switched off in Thailand, conversations automatically turn to food and drink. Not a word spoken about part of the earth that neither of us had set foot in before, and what visual and cultural delights it might offer; it’s all about refuelling the body.
As a Bangkokian, the wife’s accent is considerably different to the local dialect and she’s having to retune her lobes during conversations with locals when asking directions for the shortest route to the nearest decent eatery.
That’s another thing. Is it just me that wants to take a more scenic route when arriving somewhere new? I understand the need to dash to the toilet if needed, but when the call of nature isn’t part of the equation (we’d stopped about 20 minutes earlier for a pee break) I don’t understand the rush to the restaurant, particularly as the Thai way is in my experience, to eat little and very frequently, so you’re never going from full to empty, like on the 2 or 3 main meals a day routine. Although in slight contradiction to this, breakfasts are getting increasingly larger these days, particularly after I brought over some Scottish Porridge and Golden Syrup. They love it, but then follow it up with fried pork, chicken, congee, Chinese dough balls with coffee etc. Breakfast can take between 1 and 2 hours, especially at weekends.
Anyway, back to Mukdahan.
We enter a recommended Vietnamese restaurant and take a large table for two. Why are the tables so large? Well, the amount of plates that arrive with enough vegetation on, to the delight of botanists everywhere, answers that one, and that’s before you’re main menu dishes arrive.
“Are we going to feed their pet rabbit?” gets me a playful dig in the ribs from the Mrs. She’s clearly a more refined diner of Vietnamese cuisine than I am.
One tactic that I’ve always used to my intestines’ delight when dining somewhere new, is to take a look around and see what the locals are tucking in to. This is a tried and trusted method. After all, if the locals think it’s good, why not indulge?
My snack of choice is Vietnamese spring rolls with some tasty looking pork sausages, some seafood and a small bowl of vegetable noodle soup.
Wow! When it arrives at the table and placed amongst the forest of greenery that was laid earlier, it looks like something from Masterchef! Honestly, an artist of the highest calibre would have had difficulty creating such a visual masterpiece. It really did look too good to eat.
I’d already become accustomed to the Thai way of someone digging in to your meal, so when her indoors did some origami with what looked like a genetically modified lettuce leaf and somehow squeezed a bit of everything else plus some dips in it and started munching, I didn’t even flinch. However, I prefer to wait for all the food and drink to arrive at the table before starting, something that has been drilled into me from being old enough to understand. “It’s called manners” mother used to say. Father would nod in agreement, whilst staring at his offspring above his specs.
It’s a good job Mother never came to Thailand, she’d be getting back on board the plane within minutes of arriving once she saw the table etiquette of nose picking, hair brushing, makeup being applied, teeth picking etc. Father spent plenty of time in South-East Asia during WW2, so he’d have had a higher level of tolerance.
My glass of chilled chrysanthemum eventually arrives and I’m ready to start.
Doing my best to replicate the wife’s origami with the enlarged lettuce leaf and adding sauces, meat et al, I take a glance at her for approval.
“Be careful” she adds…does she know something that she isn’t prepared to let her unsuspecting farang husband in on?
“It’s salad, what is there to be careful about?” I replied, completely unaware at that juncture or what was about to transpire.
Placed between thumb and forefinger of both hands (not due to its size, more to stop its contents spilling all over the table and my new shirt) I place the aforementioned origami lettuce between my widened jaw and take a sizable bite.
Another one of mothers rules whilst eating, “Never chew with your mouth open.”
The Thai way seems to be to take in oxygen or chat away whilst munching. I’m always asked why I’m so quiet at meal times. I blame mother, and fathers ‘death stare’.
The first few vertical movements of my lower jaw release a very refreshing mix of flavours and textures and then, following a few more rapid chews…BOOM!
You know that look when someone is inflating a balloon? That’s me. Cheeks fully extended and eyes bulging.
I look to the wife.
“I told you to be careful” she mused.
What she hadn’t warned me about was the amount of chilli that I’d unsuspectingly shoved into my manmade roll from all of the dips & sauces. I just thought they looked so colourful and tempting, and like a stupid farang, I ‘just went for it’.
I chewed away until this fiery snack was small enough to swallow and took a large swig of my drink.
That had no effect at all.
I suddenly remembered a tip that I’d been given years ago that milk is a great cure for spicy food, and I thought that I’d take the opportunity to try some of my limited Thai skills.
Despite the wife offering to help, in the good old ‘stiff upper lip’ English way, I said, “It’s ok darling, I’ve got this…”
Up I get, with my face going increasingly deeper red and tears starting to form in my eyes, and eventually got the attention of the young lady behind the counter.
“Nm Hiy” I uttered from my volcanic mouth.
Her eyes bulged nearly as wide as mine. What did I do wrong? Ah, I remember…I’d been impolite.
“Nm Hiy Krab”
She now resembled a much younger, female mirror image of me. Perhaps my accent was confusing her. I’ll say it louder.
“Nm Hiy Krab”
A chap on the table behind me was starting to sound like a chicken. Chuckling away and gesturing to his female companion to look and hear what I was doing & saying.
The young waitress still looked bemused, so I recalled the wife’s issues from when she was asking for directions from the carpark, and spoke louder and slower in the hope that I’d be understood and put the fire out, that was now moving towards my stomach and hiccups were imminent.
“Nm……Hiy……Krab” By now, I’d got the attention of the waitresses colleague and half the restaurant.
The human chicken on the table behind me was now laughing out loud and his wife had tears in her eyes, and was shaking her head from side to side. She had a cute smile too.
I looked towards the wife for some guidance. It wasn’t forthcoming, for she too was giggling like a hyena with her head in her hands, trying hard not to roll on the floor.
I tried once last time but before I could finish, the waitress folded her arms at lower rib cage height and did a movement that I hadn’t seen since Les Dawson’s Cissie Braithwaite’s character on TV many moons ago. (Les Dawson was a British comedian)
This movement / gesture involves the aforementioned folded arms being jolted gently up and down to make her breasts jiggle.
“Sorry, not me” said the waitress. Her colleague giggled and the guy behind me was in fits of laughter.
“Not me too”, uttered her colleague, both of them now doing the same gesture in sync.
I sheepishly returned to our table and was informed of the errors I’d made.
“Thai language not easy” said the wife. No shit, Sherlock. All I want is a large glass of milk.
Foolishly, my limited understanding of the language made me brave enough to take a couple of words ‘Nm’ which I knew to be milk, and ‘Hiy’ which I knew to be large, and put them in the correct order.
Wifey dabbed my tears with a handful of those tiny table tissues, and informed me that because milk isn’t often consumed in cafes or restaurants, the waitress, her colleague, Mr Chicken, his female companion and half the restaurant thought that I was quite literally asking the young lady for ‘large breasts’.
Oh the horror!
My reputation in tatters, with a behaviour probably not even tolerated on Walking Street, I gesture towards the waitress to come to the table and concede defeat to the wife, who in turn orders a glass of condensed milk to cure me of the erupting volcano and hiccups, which were now quite loud.
Most restaurant staff will understand English equivalents and most quite like to practice their English skills.
Avoid chilli based sauces and dips at all costs or use them in moderation until their power is determined!
If I want to see someone’s boobs, be more discrete and maybe not make it the very first thing you say to them!
At least I made Mr Chicken’s day and I’m sure that he’ll remember it for as long as I will, which is at least 18 years and counting!
The author of this article cannot be contacted.