Smoked eyelids, driving downtown Pittsburgh, Thai-glish and self-deprecating translations

“And I said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that
But then again, there’s only one I’ve met
And he just smoked my eyelids
And punched my cigarette'” – Bob Dylan

You know that immigrant in the states from Laos, China, Korea or Taiwan?  Do you know the one who barely speaks any English and you giggle to yourself out of earshot about their poor use of the language?  They want to know where the bathroom is and instead of saying, “Where is the bathroom,” they say something like, “Bath?  I go to.  Room where is?”

That’s me in Thailand.

One of the differences is that the Thai people don’t wait to laugh at you; they do it to your face.  They mean no offense to this.  They laugh at just about everything and I’m more than happy to put a smile on their faces, even if it’s at my expense.

I mentioned the above countries because that’s the region of the world a lot of immigrants are from in the Midwest United States.  Before coming to Thailand, I was tutoring a Hmong woman and I remember telling her, “In a few months, I’m going to be in your shoes.”  Looking back, she very well may not have understood the metaphor and thought I planned on stealing her shoes – live and learn.  That’s exactly what I’m doing to an extreme right now.

I’m learning more and more Thai every day.  I’m even learning how to write Thai, which isn’t easy.  I’d like to get to the point where I can read the road signs that say what city I’m approaching as I fly by in a bus.  Of course, sometimes I can’t read them fast enough when they’re in English and I’m driving in my own car through downtown Pittsburgh.

I spend a good part of my time at the office with my notebooks and Thai/English dictionary open at my desk.  I keep a pen and a small notebook in my pocket at all times in case I either hear a word I don’t know or if I think of a word I want to learn and look up later.  I then do my best to bring up these random words in conversation, but it can sometimes be a stretch.

An exception to the rule that most men don't slow down their speech patterns for me. This guy knows a little English and loves to point out anything in sight and say it in English for my approval. The other day he pointed to a dog and shouted, "Dog!" When he found out he was correct, he giggled with delight.

I eat lunch most days with three women from the office – Su, Chook and Kang – and it’s there I do my experimenting – most of the time with embarrassing results.  One day they asked me if I was married and when I said no, they asked me if I had a girlfriend.  I said yes and told them where she lives.  (Thai people always seem disappointed when I tell them my girlfriend is American and not Thai.)  This got me to ask each of them if they’re married.  Two of the three are, but Su is single and doesn’t have a boyfriend.  This led to a slightly awkward situation as we’re about the same age and I told her that I liked being alone and she said she agreed.  I then took things too far, as I would soon find out, and said, “Pom chop bpen kon diaw … Kon diaw sa-nook.”  This translates (I think) to, “I like being alone.  Being alone is fun.”

From their reaction of laughter that nearly put them on the floor and what they told me, “Mai su paap!  Mai su paap! (Not polite!),” I apparently made some sort of Thai masturbation joke.  Like I said in a previous blog, I am going to embarrass myself.  I’m glad I was raised in a family that taught me to laugh with and at myself.  It’s paying off.

I’ve also noticed a difference between men and women in terms of teaching me the language.  Most women will slow down their speech, act out what they’re saying and/or change their vocabulary to make things simpler for me.  Men rarely do this.  They don’t seem to want to subject their pride to slower speech patterns.  Think of it this way: If someone came to the states and had only been learning English for three months and someone walked up to them and quickly said, “Heyhow’sitgoin’,” they’d likely not understand it.  But if that same person slowly said, “Hello.  How are you?” the new English speaker should understand.

Another fun frustration I find is when the locals mix in English with their Thai.  I’m at the point where my Thai is better than their English.  There have been numerous situations where someone is sounding out a word and I can’t understand it.  After saying it four or five times, I realize they’re speaking English.  My mind wasn’t even ready for my own language plus it’s spoken so poorly, that I couldn’t understand it.  It usually makes matters worse when my neighbors try English.  Most of the time, after I figure out what they’re trying to say, I repeat it in Thai anyway and they react with shock that they could have been speaking in their language the entire time.

How is my Thai?  To you, it’s good.  To Erin, it’s very funny.  To the locals, it’s good … and funny.  I’m complimented every time I meet someone and I can speak any Thai.  Then I’m complimented further when they find I’ve been here for only three months.  I want it to improve and I know I’ll get there.  Until then I’ll be sure to keep them laughing.


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