People wash up on foreign shores for many reasons – opportunity, sanctuary, happenstance, adventure, love, vacation or in my case, a dependent spouse visa. While tourists come and go, ex-pats (ex-patriots) settle in and take root. In Thailand, most ex-pats are from neighboring countries. Some are permanent ‘migrant’ workers, some are bigwigs of international corporations, and some are things in between. Then there are the Westerners, who also run the gamut and number somewhere between a couple hundred thousand and a million. Over the years, a fair few of these have ended up with Thai wives. The malls are full of heavy jowled, thinning haired, sagging belly, tattooed, flip flopped old white men holding their high-heeled, smartly dressed, 15-year younger wives’ Louise Vuitton monogrammed purses while window shopping at the new Gucci store. While these fellows have a lifetime to figure it out, all ex-pats, regardless of where they came from, why they’re here, or what they are doing, face the same question: what do you do about the language? While the poorer Asian immigrants learn the language to survive, the wealthy and the Westerners, in general, do not. As one fellow asked, “Why bother?”
The task is certainly daunting.
Learning any language takes mountains of time and effort. It requires the humility to be a novice; the confidence to speak knowing you sound like a brain damaged imbecile, and the willingness to flounder in an endless sea of not knowing and incomprehensibility. For a really really long time. Thai is further complicated by having the audacity to have its own random squiggly lined alphabet instead of using the Latin alphabet as God clearly intended. They also don’t put spaces between the words. Even more problematically, Thai is a tonal language, so 'mai mai mai mai mai' means 'new wood doesn't burn, does it?', but only if you get the tones right. If you don’t, it’s just meaningless gibberish. And though you may never need to question the combustibility of green wood this lifetime, it points to the larger problem: almost everything you try to say will be said wrong and met by either a bewildered, glazed-eyed uncomfortable silence, or a smile and a sing songy response that loosely translates, “What in the name of the Lord Buddha, the bodhisattvas, and all the celestial beings are you trying to say to me you foreign tongued devil?” Suddenly, ‘Why bother’ seems
like a valid question. Given the infinite opportunities to sound like a blathering idiot, most farang (foreigners) take a hard pass and decide that ‘hello’, ‘beer’, ‘pad thai’, and ‘turn left / right’ constitutes sufficient linguistic competence.
The farang bubble of privilege offers some linguistic refuge. Everyone related to the exchange of goods, services, and currency usually speaks some English. Tourism in Thailand is a $60-70 billion dollar industry, so English intersects with a lot of Thai’s lives. However, if you stray too far from the center of the bubble, the natives and their funny language are waiting. Luckily, if the purpose of communication is transactional, there is endless patience for bad Thai, pantomime, pointing, and drawing pictures in the dirt with a stick. In general, the more privilege you arrive with, the bigger the bubble and the less Thai you learn. For the very important international professionals doing very important work and knowers of very important things, there are far too many important meetings for there to be time for Thai. While the legions of retirees and the dependent spouses have fewer pressing concerns and more disposable time, a lot of them are working on their golf games.
What often motivates language learning is salvation, sin, and survival. The missionaries are, of course, here doing the Lord’s work. They study Thai because you can’t save the heathens and browbeat them into forsaking their idols if you can’t tell them the good news. Meanwhile in the bars and brothels, true believers of a different persuasion pursue language for more worldly purposes. Their efforts are fortified with alcohol, which promotes the raging over-confidence needed to butcher a language without fear or shame. Although whispering sweet nothings in bad Thai undoubtedly helps in matters of the heart, it isn’t critical. The ladies working the foreigners have very sympathetic ears and a stronger motivation to learn English – even your below average, pot-bellied Western-born brute is a lottery ticket if he puts a ring on it.
In some places, such as the United States, linguistic assimilation is assumed, but here, the Thais don’t seem particularly interested in Westerners speaking Thai. And maybe this is for reasons other than how bad we are at it. Perhaps language is the firewall that keeps out the imperialists, the colonists, the crude, the crass, and the foreign. Perhaps the fabric of culture, family, and
identity is woven in Thai, whereas the ‘Thailand: Land of Smiles’ tourist brochure reality is created with English incantations. Perhaps language is the moat that keeps these world’s separate; the delineator of in-group versus out-group; the marker of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Then again, the reluctance to hear farang speak Thai really may just be that what we do to their language is akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. Maybe Westerners – or at least, me - trying to speak Thai is so utterly incomprehensible that they simply grin and bear it and hope it stops soon.
In the end, I don’t fault Westerners who don’t bother. Thai is difficult, frustrating, time consuming, and not as entertaining as Netflix programming. The important people having important meetings certainly have more to show for their day than the meager accomplishment of successfully communicating to the lady grilling meat on the street that I don’t need sticky rice or a plastic bag with my pork on a stick. Now at this point in the narrative, the smart thing to do would be to follow the ‘embrace the small victories’ sentiment with an inspirational quotation about failure and wisdom and courage etc and ride off into the sunset as the hero of my own story. However, the lesson of language learning is that it is humbling, a daily reminder of how little you know. And although my linguistic failings say more about my mental (in) capabilities than I like to publicly discuss, I, nonetheless, fall in with those who believe, ‘fail you will, but try you must’. Even if it’s ultimately a fool’s errand. borrowed images
tones: from https://guroo.asia/welcome-to-chiang-mai/the-thai-english-language-barrier/
soi cowboy: from https://www.bestpricetravel.com/travel-guide/soi-cowboy.html
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