I like Thai food because of the herbs.
A little bit.
I like fried rice with pork.
Hilarious, isn’t it? No, I don’t think so either, but the Thais think so. Thai people laugh at just about anything, including the three lines above. The first was said by a Peace Corps staff member and followed it with his own giggling fit. The other two I’ve said and have sent Thais into laughing fits not unlike the dogs in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
One of these days you’re going to laugh yourselves to death!
The Thai laugh is nothing like the American laugh. The difference can be compared to the use of car horns. Americans tend to take offense to someone honking their horn at them even if they spent the last 15 seconds idling at a green light in their Dodge Durango by themselves and nothing but their Ann Coulter audio book to distract them. In Thailand, the horn is used as a warning when approaching a motorcycle or to simply alert a pedestrian of the coming vehicle. It is a friendly gesture. The Thai laugh, much like the use of the car horn, is very different from the states.
In America, we like to say, “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you.” In Thailand, they’re laughing at you, but not in any offensive way (in their minds). Thailand is known as the land of smiles and this couldn’t be truer. But sometimes the smile isn’t enough for the situation. Sometimes they need to do more than smile because they are that happy, so they laugh. The laugh is nothing more than an extension of the smile.
When I speak to a classroom, the over/under as to when the entire class starts giggling is 30 seconds. They waste no time in laughing at my broken, accented Thai. When I ask them questions, they are answered with smiles followed by giggles and then the laugh.
I say, “I’m from America.” Thai reaction: smiles and minor giggles.
“I am 33 years old.” Strong giggles and minor laughs with every girl in the classroom looking at each other and whispering secrets.
“I am not married.” Every student in the room just heard all five of their lottery numbers named and are so ecstatic with jubilee they need to share with the person next to them, but they can’t because everyone is in a sense of exorcistic pandemonium they can’t comprehend single-digit math. Picture the church scene in Blues Brothers with James Brown.
The girls love to giggle and especially in the presence of a foreigner. Thai people are used to dark skin and small noses so when white men with big noses walk into their lives, many of them are attracted to our “exotic” appearance. Because of this, Thai girls find themselves in giggle fits in my presence.
The Thai laugh can also be used as a defense mechanism. I watched three girls give a presentation to the entire school that should have lasted less than two minutes, but stretched on for five or six because they couldn’t stop giggling. They were obviously nervous to speak in front of a large group and the giggle was their way of coping.
When someone laughs in your face in America, you take offense. Should you do that in Thailand, you won’t last long.
How do I cope? I laugh with them even if I just told the class, “It can be very cold in Minnesota.” They laugh at … whatever is funny about that statement and I laugh at the absurdity of their laughter. However, I was able to laugh with one of my classes lately.
I was teaching body parts to 11-year students. I started by pointing to parts of my body (ex. knee, foot, hand, neck, etc.) and asked students what they were. I’d say them in English a few times and write it on the board. After I went through a number of them, I had students split into two teams and line up. I would then point to a body part and the first of the two individuals representing their team to say the body part, got a point for their team.
Simple? Yes, until I changed the rules.
In English, I told the students I would now say the body part and they would have to touch that part of their body to get the point. I told them an example – “elbow” – and then said the Thai word for student and then pointed to my elbow.
Simple? I thought so.
There was a boy and girl first in line to represent their teams. I said, “chin,” and waited for the first to point to their chin.
I waited while they looked at each other, not knowing what a chin was.
Finally, the boy approached me and touched my stomach, thinking that was my chin.
If it wasn’t funny enough the boy touched me instead of himself, he also got it wrong. I turned my face away from the class and had to lean my head against the board to help hide my laughter. The majority of students seemed to understand my instructions as well as the embarrassment of the J.J.-stomach-touching student as some of them fell on the floor in giggles.
When I played the same game in another class, I grabbed a male student and used him like a puppet to show how the game was to be played and also to avoid small Thai kids from touching my abs.