5 August 2013; AT5 = 1042 hours; total class time = 1980 hours; TV = 311.3 hours
Sometimes when I first meet someone, after about a minute or so of conversational back and forth (all in Thai) they’ll ask me if I speak Thai. I’m never really sure how to take this. After all, aren’t we already speaking in Thai? Doesn’t the fact that we’re responding to one another mean that I’m both speaking and understanding effectively?
On the other hand, maybe it’s a fair question. Maybe it really means: Do you really speak Thai, or have you just memorized a bunch of phrases? Or: Can I speak to you as I would a Thai person, or do you only know a few words? Or maybe it’s not even so much a real question as it is a conversational maneuver, akin to commenting on the weather.
I never feel comfortable giving an unequivocal yes. I always hedge, saying something like, I speak a little Thai, or I can understand but not 100%, or I speak Thai but sometimes can’t say things. I want them to speak to me in Thai, but at the same time want to warn them that I’m not really fluent and that there could be some snags in the communication. Most of all, I don’t want them to interpret a failure to understand or inability to speak on my part as evidence that my Thai abilities are so minimal that there’s no point in talking to me.
Sometimes when I speak to someone in Thai they reply in English. Some people do this even if their English is not really up to the task. I’ve gotten into a number of conversations where I’m speaking Thai and the other person is speaking English – the exact opposite of crosstalk, of what they teach you to do at AUA.
I’m not sure if these people want to practice their English or if they simply believe that even though I can apparently speak a bit of Thai, I wouldn’t be able to understand if they responded in kind. This isn’t such an unreasonable assumption as a lot of the time I find it easier to say something in Thai than to understand the response. Maybe they just want to make things easier for me.
I used to get really irritated when my Thai would be met by English responses. After all, hadn’t I put a lot of time and effort into learning Thai? Wasn’t my Thai good enough for them? How was I to move beyond the realm of the classroom to “real life” Thai if people insisted on speaking English? And, from an ALG/crosstalk perspective – a perspective probably not shared by many people – what good was it doing either of us to be speaking the other person’s language? Of course, I never said these things; but it took me awhile to begin considering that maybe the people who wanted to speak to me in English had their own reasons, similar to my reasons for wanting to speak in Thai.
Now though I’ve mellowed out. If someone wants to speak to me in English, I’m OK with that; I even don’t mind helping people practice their English. It seems like most of the Thais I meet don’t speak much English anyway, so conversations usually end up being wholly in Thai. And if someone wants to persist with English, that’s fine. If their English is good enough – especially if it’s better than my Thai – I’ll switch over to English too.
Sometimes when I say something in Thai I’m met with complete incomprehension. It usually happens when I speak to someone I don’t know, something fairly basic like ordering food at a restaurant or asking a simple question. Did I somehow use the wrong words or completely mangle the pronunciation? In most cases this seems unlikely, because I’m usually using language that I well have the hang of. I always suspect that it’s similar to the person who, after chatting a bit with me in Thai, asks me if I can speak Thai. Maybe to some people my farang (i.e. white European) appearance says cannot possibly speak or understand any Thai so strongly that it doesn’t matter what words come out of my mouth. Or maybe I’m the one with the short circuit in my brain, and my pronunciation really is off, but I’m somehow failing to hear it.
Who really knows.
A few days ago I went to a restaurant that I go to all the time, and there was a new waitress. She took my order – a dish that I eat (and order) fairly frequently – and disappeared toward the kitchen in the back. A few minutes later the owner, who’s also the cook and who I’ve known for probably over a year, who I order food from all the time and sometimes get into short conversations with, came over to retake my order. He told me that the waitress hadn’t understood me. I thought this odd because I was pretty sure the waitress had repeated my order back to me. When the waitress brought my food she seemed a little embarrassed, so I told her my pen rye (roughly: don’t worry about it) and thanked her for the food.
A day or two later when I went back it was the new waitress again. As I ordered I started feeling self-conscious and could hear my accent and pronunciation slipping. But I still got her to repeat the order back to me, correctly. Again, she went back to the kitchen. I wasn’t really paying attention – was there a brief exchange of conversation coming from the back? A customer who’d been sitting in the corner got up and came over. He had apparently been listening and wanted to help out. He repeated my order in Thai, and I confirmed it for him. Then he asked, not spicy?
Really spicy, I said – which was the way I’d ordered it in the first place. In fact, it’s taken me quite some time to convince the cooks at the restaurant that not only am I able to tolerate really spicy food, but that I like it that way. Even though I eat there all the time, I always have to ask for my food pet-pet otherwise they tend to make it only slightly spicy. Every once in awhile they’ll ask me if the food was spicy, or they’ll comment that a certain dish is very spicy, and I have to again reassure them that I enjoy it like that.
Anyway, when my food finally came it was pretty much what I’d ordered – but not as spicy as I prefer.
I think that in the same way that my euro-looking face can mean doesn’t know any Thai it also marks me as can’t tolerate spicy food.
And just as I sometimes find myself in over my head with the language – completely unable to understand what someone’s saying to me, or totally lost as to how to communicate something – I also sometimes find myself chewing on something whose level of spiciness lies well beyond the threshold that separates really hot from unpleasantly painful.
Yesterday I was ordering som tam (shredded papaya salad) and a few other things from the woman who sells Isaan (northeastern) food outside my apartment building. One of the other customers commented on my choice of food, and a short conversation about my eating habits ensued between the two of them. Although they spoke in Isaan I got the gist of it: the customer was surprised that I ate such things, and the som tamiste was telling him that I ate that kind of food all the time.
I get this type of reaction with certain types of food but, especially in this case, find it a bit odd: som tam is actually a very common food in Thailand; it’s not particularly weird or off-putting by western standards; it’s mentioned in both of my travel guides, and I get the impression that eating som tam is one of those things you’re “supposed to” do if you’re a tourist in Thailand. Maybe part of the issue is that I live in an area that not too many farang get to, so people here don’t necessarily have a lot of experience dealing with westerners.
I got into a short exchange with the man – all in Thai – and of course he ended up asking me if I spoke Thai. What to say?
“[Since I] eat Thai food, [I] can speak [Thai],” I told him. Then I headed back to my apartment. The som tam was pleasantly fiery, and I ate it with sticky rice, raw leafy greens, and pulverized catfish.