Up North

26 July 2013; AT5 = 1040 hours; total time = 1978 hours; TV = 269.6 hours

I recently came back from a week and a half away, mostly in the province of Phrae in northern Thailand, but also with some time in Phitsanulok (central Thailand) and a quick visa run to Vientiane in Laos. Compared to the trip I made back in December it feels like my ability to make my way in Thai has grown.

In addition to meeting up with a friend I made on the previous trip, I met a number of new people who, once they realized that I could understand and speak Thai, were more than willing to talk with me. They were very generous not only with their time and patience (given the fumbly-stumbly nature of my Thai abilities), but also with things like sharing food, giving rides, showing me around, and helping me figure out transportation options. I feel really grateful to have been extended such a warm and enthusiastic welcome, to have been given so much help, and to have gotten the opportunity to see so much that I would have never seen on my own.

As usual, my ability to understand spoken Thai varied greatly. When he got going, one particular man tended toward a rapid-fire monologue that it was all I could do to get the general gist of, whereas with other people conversation was usually a more reasonably paced dialogue that was easier for me to understand. People addressed me in standard Thai, but when speaking to each other they sometimes switched into the local dialect. I actually felt like I was doing somewhat better understanding the local language in Phrae than I had in Ratchaburi a couple months earlier, which struck me as odd given that Ratchaburi is physically so close to Bangkok, whose language is the basis of standard Thai, while Phrae is all the way at the other end of the country and in a different region altogether. (I’m assuming that degree of difference between local dialects corresponds at least somewhat to physical distance).

To get through the difficult spots, comprehension-wise, I employed a few basic “techniques” (if you could even call them that) that I’ve come to use in conversation. One is simply telling the other person that I don’t understand what they’ve just said, in the hopes that they’ll find a different way to phrase things. A second is asking the meaning of a particular word or phrase that they’ve used which I don’t understand. Because I don’t want to derail the conversation or make it bog down by asking about every little thing, I only resort to these strategies if I feel like I really don’t understand either the overall meaning of what someone’s trying to say or a particularly important point that they’re trying to get across. A third technique is paraphrasing, in my simpler and more limited Thai, what the other person has just said in order to confirm that I’ve understood them correctly. I do this when I’m feeling uncertain about my understanding, or when things seem to have grown “hazy” – but again, I’m selective about when to do this and when to simply let the conversation role on. A lot of the time I just respond to what the other person has said in line with my understanding, no matter how uncertain that might be, and then see what happens next.

In terms of speaking, I did pretty well in that I was usually understood. My problems were the usual: Not having the necessary vocabulary to express an idea or answer a question; realizing that the word I need to use is one whose sound I’m still “fuzzy” on and don’t really know how to pronounce; and getting tongue-tied from trying to push too far beyond my current capabilities or simply from tiring out. (In contrast with English, using Thai can get really fatiguing after a few hours, and once I pass a certain point my ability to function in Thai falls precipitously).

Several conversations that I would have thought difficult turned out to be not such big deals; a number of these were phone calls in Thai, which I typically dread. Not having any visual cues can really lower my ability to understand, and earlier on during my time in Thailand I suffered through calls that were totally incomprehensible to me.

Well, I had a number of phone calls during this trip and they didn’t feel significantly more difficult to make my way through than an equivalent in-person conversation, though perhaps they could be more exhausting: during one particularly long phone call I had to outline for the other person the next leg of my trip, including precise details of my upcoming visa run to Laos as well as different options in terms of both destination (Vientiane vs. Savannakhet) and timing (ie, leaving either earlier or later, but in either case avoiding making my visa application on a Friday, which would leave me hanging around Laos for the weekend until the consulate’s reopening on Monday). Anyway, I got through it and was able to get the person on the other end of the phone to understand why some of the things she was proposing weren’t going to work – she was at one point offering to drive me to Laos herself, but was under the mistaken impression that getting a new visa could be done in a single day – but the effort left me increasingly exhausted with speaking becoming more and more laborious. At some point in the conversation I realized I was speaking a very Choppy. One. Word. At. A. Time. Thai.

Then there were a couple lengthy conversations on topics that would probably be considered abstract or even abstruse: the Buddhist teachings on the three characteristics (inconstancy, stress, and not-self) and on causality (dependent origination, or paticca samuppada). It helped that each of these conversations was one-on-one, allowing me to ask questions and get clarification. But even more helpful, I was already familiar with these subjects from English sources, so that once I figured out what the topic was I had a fairly good mental “map” of the territory being covered. I even got a break with the terminology since it was drawn from Pali, the ancient Indian language used by Theravada (the predominant school of Buddhism within Thailand) – also already familiar from English sources. The end result was that I understood fairly well what was being said, and without too much difficulty.

Not bad, huh? But coming home I got stymied by the simplest thing. It was 5am in Bangkok and the last leg of my trip. Since checking out of my hotel room in Vientiane at noon the day before, I had either been in motion or waiting around. Now as the local bus bumped and rattled its way toward my neighborhood, I realized I was being addressed in Thai: Where have you been? The woman standing there was apparently waiting for an answer. Her simple three-word question was one that I’d heard countless times, but my brain froze in confusion and I found myself unable to speak. Why?

Maybe it was fatigue. Or that at that moment I totally wasn’t expecting anyone to speak to me – in any language. Or her choice of words: Where are you going? is a typical Thai way of greeting someone, even a complete stranger, but I don’t think I’d ever before gotten Where have you been? from someone I didn’t already know. Did I know her? Was she a neighbor? Someone from the local market? Her face didn’t seem familiar. I couldn’t place her. Finally I stumbled something out – I think I told her I was going home, as if she had asked me the standard Where are you going?

We both got off at the same stop and immediately headed in opposite directions without further exchanging a word. The dark street was well lit and already noisy with the bustle of the local market in full swing. It seemed to be both very late at the end of a long night and at the same time very early, pre-dawn before a new day’s start.

My increasingly serviceable Thai is still light years away from my English: understanding fades in and out, expression is limited and imprecise, and I can be easily thrown. Standing in the remnants of the night at my building’s front door, I dug for the key lying in my pocket alongside my new 60-day visa. I was home.

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