Thai Language As A Bridge – To Your Thai Mia, Her Family And Her Village
Hello from Kiel!
For a long time, I have thought about writing an article praising my dear Thai in-laws and how, in that context, my slowly increasing command of Thai language bore some fruit so that, starting around 1996, I could talk to them directly, without my wife as interpreter. In the end, this effort turned out to be an account of how I communicated with my wife, her parents and family and the other people around in her Thai village.
The first time I met these two dear oldsters was our surprise visit with my (then freshly met!) wife in January 1992, just one and a half days. And my wife translated patiently, spoke excellent English, because I hardly knew a word of Thai. I was immediately impressed that they NEVER talked about money, rather questions to the daughter in the line of “Are you sure you will be happy with this man in his foreign country?”
Sure, I and the whole situation was a huge surprise for the parents-in-law, since my wife had never introduced anyone at home, and then this all of a sudden. Phone call to her parents (relayed through a lady neighbor 300 yards from the family home) – I will arrive at Surat Thani airport at 9:00 tomorrow, will bring a man along and it’s a ‘Farang’ – Anyway, I think I made a rather positive impression, I am not a standard tourist (my wife knew about foreign visitors as a hotel manager in BKK), non-smoker, don’t drink anything except one or two convivial beers in a family gathering. I had never been married before, not always alone but I never found anyone who I wholeheartedly wanted to grow old with. Phorn translated that well. Professional computer scientist at Kiel University, even had material about my institute with me because I had given a lecture on data exchange in education at an institute in Hong Kong.
I will never forget the first night in the parents’ house, alone of course in the room that has since become ‘mine’ or ‘our’ room during many visits, the diverse sounds of the jungle from the plantation and the gardens all around. Countless bats whizzed through the gaps between the walls and roof, cruised through the rooms and took care of the mosquitoes. Welcome, whoever drives mosquitoes away (or eats them) is my friend! All of this had a enchantingly beautiful but also a totally unreal component for me, wow my life had changed since that magic meeting with my wife only five days before. Sometimes it takes a little courage to take a completely new path. Even more so for my wife, who would even give up life in her home country. What a woman!
Back to Bangkok, then goodbye on Saturday because I had to go back to the university in Kiel on Monday – after the unexpected ‘collision’ with my wife I had postponed my return flight by three days and immediately told her that I had wanted to have more time to get to know her and accordingly more opportunity for her to get an idea of me. But I got a very positive impression of her family, they were surprised, but overall very kind, open and reasonable. Had invited a larger ‘group’ (there were a total of 16 people) to eat seafood in Surat, a good opportunity to introduce myself to everyone. And my wife translated better than any pro. Thanks for that, she did just fine.
Now it was all about getting my wife’s ‘visa for the purpose of marriage’, a lot of paperwork. Some confusions and hangups there, I reported about that elsewhere. My wife took a German course at BKK with a Thai who had studied in Berlin for 13 years. Had some positive effects but not quite as much as I hoped. In the period from mid-January to early May, when she arrived, I sent her about eighty letters and tapes, told about my everyday life and that I hoped to see her in D soon. I did that in German and English, her tutor helped a lot with the German things (she told me, no problem) and even assured her from his point of view, “don’t worry, the man is fine!” There had been scares at that time, she told me, about Thai women falling for ‘good’ tourists only to discover, when coming in Europe, they were shanghaied into red-light-districts.
When my wife arrived in Hamburg on May 8, 1992, I had obtained a video camera to report from our everyday life, in my little house ‘out in the sticks’ and the tours in and around Kiel, and we sent the tapes along with a VHS adapter to her family. Everyone could see that the daughter / sister / cousin was doing really well in the foreign country! I assume that these films, which of course have been shown extensively to relatives and acquaintances, have done a great deal to ensure that I was subsequently accepted so openly and willingly in the family and the larger community.
Wedding in Germany on July 17, in the Eulenspiegel town of Mölln. ‘Eulenspiegel’ (Owl glass) is a legendary prankster from the middle ages, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Till_Eulenspiegel. Almost two weeks later we returned to Thailand to marry Buddhist style at her parents’ place, on August 9. My mother-in-law had decided on that date with the local monks. By then, I had acquired a handful of Thai words, my wife immediately supported me, not like some Thai / Farang couples where the woman is quite happy when the man does NOT understand what she is saying in Thai. So starting with phrases like ‘hungry’, ‘tasty’, ‘thank you’, ‘eating’ (and the opposite!) and practicing a few sentences by heart, e.g. “Pom Deejai maak dee maa tini” – “I am really happy to be here with you!” That often fits very well.
Small things can sometimes make enormous differences – after all, my wife had spoiled me with her fabulous Thai cooking during our three months together in Schleswig-Holstein, and it tasted just as good with my Thai family (Sure!). And I sat down happily and visibly enjoyed what mother-in-law and / or the sisters had conjured up. Was well received, that.
The wedding party on August 9th was fantastic, with family and monks in the morning, with a blessing by the parents, and some 25 people from the family who prayed for our well-being, even though they hardly knew me. Yes, it helped. Plus a giant party with a good 500 people in the afternoon, I used a trick to protect myself from too much drinking. When someone offered me their coca cola / whiskey mixture, I showed my glass (Yes coke diluted with a little soda is darker than whiskey with soda!) and made it clear that I would rather drink the strong (darker!) stuff and not their weaker kid stuff. I sailed through the long afternoon / evening happily but almost sober and probably scored a little with that.
Two days later, the new family member (I!) had to be introduced to the family spirits. Big family meeting with the ‘witch aunt’, farmer and part-time ghost witch, who then did a detailed conjuring of spirits, with rituals that reminded a little of voodoo, the sacrifice of a chicken and questions to the ‘Pii’ for some family members. I was reserved, but respectful, open and attentive, like ‘Look closely, you ghosts, I am here and that’s the way I am.’ Somehow they must have noticed that too, because our witch aunt later told my wife, “The ghosts say he is quite different – but really OK!” Yes, I can live with that and, well, my wife, our Thai family and their spirits have been able to do this for over 28 years now. There are many levels of communication with a Thai family. Openness and respect are good, but at the same time I do adhere to the principle of not giving up important personal grounds, as I would not ask my Thai people to do either.
I have always lived and advocated an attitude like “I am not worth more than you people – but also not less!” – so feeling to be on the same level, no problem, for example, to spend an hour in the village helping to dig a well or even assembling a palm leaf roof mat. Occasionally with surprises, for which only a few words of Thai were sufficient. When I sat down with the women before our wedding, helping to cut the many pieces of pork, I was told that it was ‘women’s work’ and I made it clear with ‘tamgan dii, jing-jing’ that I considered this to be good and important work. My wife then translated that these customs were so very different from what I knew from Europe, and I therefore wanted to be fully in the thick of it instead of just tagging along.
Fortunately, although I am more scientifically talented, I am not that bad at all when it comes to languages, thanks to an almost photographic memory. I speak almost fluent English, left all ‘natives’ behind in English college courses in the United States, speak good Swedish (to communicate with the fish there, on vacation, and with the Swedish ladies too), plus a little Latin, French and Russian and still today about 20 memorized sentences in Japanese.
Thanks to several evening-school German courses and the daily practice with this language (with me, with friends and last not least also the women soccer team from our village, for whom my wife kicked some goals in Messi style), we were ready after about a year and a half that our private communication happened mainly in German. Sometimes, when explaining news or economic matters, English helped out because my wife occasionally lacked some special German terms. At the same time I tried to learn more Thai, mostly short phrases, vocabulary for everyday things and often the more correct intonation of words.
Some time in autumn 1993 my wife stopped kicking footballs because her own ‘football’ was slowly growing, our son Heinz (after my father) was born at the end of May 1994, after a rather exhausting birth – and I could reassure my dear wife, having not left her side for a moment through the long night, telling her in Thai that we had a little boy, ‘Mi Luk Pu-Chai, Teerak!’
In winter 93/94 we had visited the family for a long time, everyone could see my wife was happy and pregnant, I was happy, what more could a good family ask for. Now in 1994/95 we were able to introduce our ‘Kerl’, and my wife was completely round again, yes, that’s what happens when she hugs me about four weeks after our son’s birth birth and asks “Are you Hungry?” – I was, and our little Sara was born on May 3, 1995, really with a quote of “What? YOU again !?“ upon arrival at the maternity ward in Kiel. Therefore, our two little ‘monsters’ grew up practically like twins, with German as the main language, a good portion of Thai and some English. Btw, ‘Kerl’ is an old germanic word for a very strong or, sometimes, very bad man – reflected in the ‘huskarls’ of the old English and Norse kings.
Grandpa could improvise two swings for the children under the house, simply an old blanket and a rope tied to the carrying beams. He said there was room for three or four more swings, but my wife and I thought that two was enough, each of us adults could catch one if necessary, which would be rather more complicated with three kiddies. Happy laughter with the proud grandma and grandpa, what more can a family want. It seemed as if 50% of the inhabitants of the region came to ThaRua on vacation to see our two really cute ‘Luk Krueng’. Once it was really too much, we were shopping in the SahaThai department store in Surat, I went upstairs for some fishing gear, and when I came back down to the supermarket, about 50 enthusiastic Thai women were milling around my wife and children, a crowd as if Leonardo di Caprio had appeared there. We scrambled to the checkout, got out and executed a real ‘fast getaway’.
During this time, I worked a lot with grandpa and my wife’s brothers in the house and on the farm, in particular bringing the electrical system from an ‘extremely dangerous’ state to just ‘not fully VDE-compliant’. On some occasions my wife still had to translate, I once got mad as hell, which grandma and grandpa didn’t understand at first – my wife then made it clear that my anger was not directed against the family but against the idiot who had unknowingly or carelessly built a potential death trap for the residents. That was understood correctly.
Around this time comes, for example, my wife’s casual remark that her parents would now value me nearly like their own son. Almost moved me to tears, wonderful parents-in-law, with an impressive life’s achievement, nine children, my wife the one in the middle, all good and reasonable except for NaTia, the youngest, who, unfortunately, as a toddler just barely survived a polio infection which caused severe brain damage. His mental state stands at about the level of a seven-year-old.
During the first few years I roamed around the village a lot, partly on foot, partly on bicycles with safe kiddie seats which I had brought from Germany. Our wonderful children opened the door to us everywhere, and I was getting better and better with communication, mostly short sentences, probably often with piss-poor pronunciation, but I managed to understand more and more, at least enough to get along better and better. A ‘Farang’ who doesn’t cultivate snooty airs but walks or cycles through the village, just normal with one or two very cute half-Thai children, buying them fruit at the market, a ‘farang’ who even tries to understand and speak Thai. Well, had a long time to improve there.
A key experience around 1997. “Yes yes the Thais do not show their feelings in public!” – Exceptions confirm the rule. I was sitting in the middle of a funeral in the neighborhood, just as normal, when someone calls me – “Jürgen!” (They all knew my name pretty soon) and a really ancient, totally impressive lady from the neighborhood rushes towards me and gives me a big hug, right in front of all the people, is obviously delighted that I am there. Just beautiful.
Not only from what my wife told me, around that time I could clearly feel that my parents-in-law liked me, especially Grandma. She very patiently prepared the small fish I caught in the pond near Lung Jack next door. Thank you Grandma! I also had a nice episode with Grandpa. We sat together under the house, he stretched out his arm, which was pretty dark as a result of his field work in the sun, next to mine and said, “We are so different!” I was just holding my pocket knife, had been cutting a larger fruit, and indicated a cut along my lightly-tanned forearm. “Nyng millimeter, same-same, Paa!” ‘We look just the same, a millimeter deeper, father!’ Grandpa took a double take, first when he saw the knife, but then immediately understood and nodded long and approvingly. In the evening, we enjoyed a generous helplng of his special ‘medicine schnapps’ together, some LaoKhao concocted with what looked like herbs, pine cones and dried bats, yes. Surprising but not bad at all. A toast to the oh so big differences, which, when viewed correctly, are none at all…
There were many such important moments with grandma and grandpa, often only small events but all full of deep understanding, we are a family, even if the son-in-law comes along a little lighter colored and doesn’t speak Thai so very well yet. Around 2003, I sat with grandpa in a ditch near the house, we installed a water pump for the new bathroom and kitchen. Real work like measuring, sawing, connecting, sealing. ‘Well grandpa, can you still remember your greatest surprise in life – when the daughter calls “I will arrive at Surat airport tomorrow at 9:00 and bring a man, a European!” We look at each other, both more than only a little mud-tainted. Don’t know which of us laughed first. But we had quite a ‘laugh-in’ there for a while. These are experiences that can only happen with a sufficient level of Thai language. I’m happy about it. It is very important to me because of respect for my wife, her family and her country. And it is a lot of fun, surely.
A lot of close moments with grandma, too. One morning around 2010, NaTia (actually very nice, but the one with the unfortunate brain damage) came home late and without his motorbike, which he had pawned because ‘friends’ had coaxed him into paying for them in an entertainment venue (?) in Banna Daem, turned out to be a sum he couldn’t pay. Then my wife totally ‘read the rule book’ to him for a good ten minutes. I was sitting next to Grandma on a bench under the house and we listened to her tirade. I couldn’t help but whisper to Grandma, “Funny. Normally she only speaks to ME like this!” Grandma looks back at me, looks at the daughter – whom she knows very well that she can also be an extremely convincing ‘dragon’ at times – and then we sat there and giggled at each other until my wife drove to Banna with the pickup to reclaim the motorbike. No, we did never tell her why we giggled so much…
Buddhism does not know saints, but I would nominate our wonderful grandma as a candidate, immediately. Yes, she has already worked a few ‘miracles’. One day I had a conversation with Chai, my wife’s second oldest brother. He was facing the rest of us without a shirt. He still limps a bit, and there is a huge scar on the left of his stomach as if he had once been hit by a bad-tempered samurai. You can’t see the scars farther below. As a child, he was grieviously injured at a party here by a drunk who had ‘fired a salute’ with live ammunition. Doctors actually wanted to give him up. No chance that it will heal. No chance that he will live as a man. Well, they made their prediction without grandma! With the help of the village witch, Chai was cared for, patched, supported for long, painful, full-of work years…
Well, he still limps a bit. Has a beautiful wife and two darling daughters. When I mentioned the scar to Chai and Grandma’s tireless efforts, there was such a deep smile on his face! “Yes I know what you are talking about…”
Another ‘miracle’ by Grandma: Lung Jack’ (Uncle Jack) has been with Aunt Cee – my wife’s oldest sister – for ages. But this was not without problems in the beginning. Grandpa was vehemently against this ‘no-good-man’ and Jack’s parents did not find the relationship to their liking either. What did the two young people do against all the family “theatre thunder” – they eloped! At that time there are said to have been bandits, communists, robbers and similar people in the mountains of Nasan or in the area of Khao Sok. More than 40 years ago, the whole thing. They were gone. For years. Until one day at the market, Grandma met her daughter and Jack with a couple of new kids in their arms. What does Grandma do? Gave a great hug to her daughter. And the grandchildren. Tells Jack to shut up and gives him a hug, too. Dragging everybody to grandpa’s. Put grandpa on the spot and told him to stop being offended. And that the guy (Jack) must really be good to stick to their daughter and the grandchildren under these conditions. Then grandma and grandpa went to the parents of Jack and grandma laid down her rules to that family, too. Well, the wedding was organized, with the kids celebrating along, Grandpa and Jack built them a neat little house just 100 meters from the parents’ estate. Over the years, they have occasionally had their quarrels, but that’s life. Unfortunately, ‘Uncle Jack’ died last year.
Yes, Grandma. She was just great. One of the last times I talked to her was the evening before we left ThaRua 2011. I had just brought her a pillow for her aching back on the wooden floor in front of the TV in the living room. Thais rarely get such ideas. And told her, “Thank you, mother. I just realized that for the whole four weeks here, I’ve been calling you ‘Mae’, mother. I haven’t done that in 35 years, since my mother died.” Oh, ‘grandma’ was pleased, but Thais often don’t really show that. I saw it clearly, I know her well.
Unfortunately she died very suddenly the following spring from a sepsis, aged 79. My wife flew to Thailand for the funeral ceremony, I looked after the house and the kids and worked. Yes, grandma, I loved her and she loved me too. But the story with grandma isn’t over yet…
Well, believe it or do not. Summer 2013, four months after Grandma had died, all of us visited the family in Thailand. One quiet evening, reading, I had a split moment’s glimpse of something that looked very much like Grandma in her customary attire, in the big old house that had been her life’s focus for about 60 years. As I had not been able to come for her funeral, Grandma may just have welcomed me once more. I told my wife and the rest of the family, and whereas my connection to my wife’s brothers and sisters had always been very good, I think it gained thus still another quality. Some of them had even had a similar experience. Well, when the ‘Pee’ (ghosts) of the family welcome someone, that one is surely no stranger any more.
2013 in March, I had had over a score of holidays ‘leftover’ which would have just evaporated on me if unused, so I visited my Thai family on my own (wife had to work, kids in school!) and it was an extremely positive experience. No problem with the climate, the food, the language. And all the people know me for up to 22 years. Sure, I will always be ‘Farang’ there, but I can sometimes almost read the minds of family and neighbours in Tha Rua, namely “He may be a Farang, but he is OUR Farang!” I can live with that very well. In 2017/18 I spent another three months in ThaRua.
During that time, another ‘special impression’ from ThaRua. I had cycled to a small shop along ‘Soi Ha’ one of the main village roads. Two smaller boys were calling out ‘Farang, farang’ after me. Until some older woman turned around and told them “That is NOT >Farang< that is the husband of Phorn from the T.-farm over there!” – I do not think too many Europeans can enjoy that same level of acceptance, ‘out in the sticks’ in wonderful Thailand!
Yes, friends, so far the story of me, my wife, our family and the Thais around. Probably wouldn’t have gone so well without openness and lots of efforts in communication. Although totally spontaneous and unplanned, the best decision of my life was to ask my wife if she would like to become my wife. After only three days of “getting to know her” always in company…
The author of this article can be contacted at : [email protected]