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Sunday, March 04, 2012

Thank you very big

Jomtien Beach, Pattaya, Thailand
At first, I thought it was condescending.

For the most part, the Thai people here speak English quite well. Basic stuff. Enough to do business, which is important. And, most foreigners speak enough Thai to get along and engage in a business transaction or get themselves transportation or order food and drink.

It’s enough.

Those Thai people who do speak English speak it in very basic terms and with no sense of grammar, syntax or tense. That’s because they are translating from Thai to English and there isn’t the same grammatical system.

It’s just words, you see. Which is fine. I’m sure foreigners speak Thai in the same sort of baby-sounding language we hear them use English.

The truth of it is that the Thai written language is very complex written in an elaborate style that looks to my western eye as a mix of Sanskrit and Arabic and contains over 80 letters.

The spoken language has five tones or pitches which help to determine the exact meaning of the word. There are also several words for the same thing – like, for example, ‘love’. And, ‘rain’. And ‘heat’.

Problem too much, as one Thai person said to me.

What I still haven’t gotten used to and continues to be shocking to me is that English-speaking people speak English to Thai people in the same broken, baby-sounding English language they do.

“Water. Cold. Two. One her. One me. Sir”.

“How you? Okay? Same-same, yes?”

“Twenty baht you. No tell mama-san, maybe.” (giggle, giggle)

“Oh, look sky. Very big rain come, today, maybe, yes?”

It feels – well – condescending and disrespectful to speak to another adult human being in baby talk. I mean, when my kids were little, we never spoke baby talk to them.

So, because it was bothering me, I asked Rob why everyone does it. He said that it’s not because no one respects them or is being condescending. He said it makes the Thai people less self-conscious about their own use of English.

Apparently, it’s quite respectful, at least in intent, to not only make it as easy as possible for them to understand a language which is as foreign to their ears as Thai is to us, it levels the playing field so everyone’s English sounds the same as our Thai sounds to them. It sounds more like the grammatical construct of their own language.

It’s all quite confusing and I’m not at all convinced any of this is true, but I’m going along with it for now because, really, what other choice do I have?

What’s really amazing to me is that all street signs are written in Thai script as well as English. Not Spanish. Not French. English.

Menus are the same – English and Thai script along with some very helpful pictures showing you what you are ordering. So, there you are, an adult, educated person, reduced to saying, “Number 3, please,” as you point like a four year old to the corresponding picture to prove that you actually know what you’re ordering.

If you don’t point to the picture, your waiter or waitress will often ask you to point to the picture of what you want, as s/he smiles beautifully and nods approval.

Well, this was once a British colony, wasn’t it? It was once known as “Siam” – as in The King and I – but it became Thailand after the Brits left.

“Thai” means “smile”. So, this is the land of “smiles”. And, I must say, nothing is quite as beautiful as when someone from Thailand smiles at you.

Julie, the woman who runs the hotel pool and lunch place, smiled at me today – nearly melting my heart – and said to Rob, “She sister?”

“Yes, yes,” said Rob. It’s just easier that way.

“Oh,” she said, looking at me but talking to him, “She most beautiful. Very, very most,” she said as she smiled. I actually blushed like a thirteen year old, which caused her to come sit by me and stare deeply into my eyes.

She reached out her hand and touched my face tenderly, stroking it gently. “Beautiful too much,” she said. I was absolutely undone by her honesty. This was not an empty compliment or something designed for a bigger tip.

I suddenly realized that she was fascinated by me because I was so different from her and, because I’m Western and not Thai, that was the very definition of beauty.

It broke my heart, really. What kind of ingrained cultural conditioning causes people not to see their own natural beauty? What monstrous damage over centuries had been done to the psyche of the people of this land when they were colonized?

There was nothing else to do but gather my wits about me and find the same place of truth in me and speak to her from that place. I took her face in my hands and, with my thumbs, gently followed the outline of her eyebrow and the almond shape of her eyes, resting my thumbs on her beautifully shaped, high cheekbones.

“Oh, you very much beautiful. Different, yes. Beauty is beauty. Different face. Same beauty. Beauty is beauty. Come from inside. Here. Not outside. Here.”

I could see her taking in the words, reading deep into my eyes for truth and meaning. Suddenly she got it. “No, no, no,” she said. “You, you, you. Very beauty.”

I held her face in my hands and repeated my words as she continued to search past my eyes and into my soul. She saw that I was speaking the truth as I knew it and she returned it with the most beautiful smile I have ever seen in my whole life. She just simply glowed and shone with an inner light that was breathtaking.

“Ah,” she said at last. “Thank you very big.”

I nodded my head and said, “Korb-koon, Krup.” (Thank you, sir.)

“Ka,” she says, reminding me of her lesser, female status.

“Krup,” I say, looking her square in the eye.

“Very good,” she giggled appreciatively. “Very good Thai.”

It still feels funny to me to have two adult human beings speak to each other like that, but that’s just the way it is, here. I suppose this is all part of the “adjustment” of an experience of “cultural immersion.”

Actually, I’m quite grateful to Rob for this “real view” of Thailand. I’m certainly not getting the same images as the folks on the tour buses who gawk and point and stare.

Then again, they are here for the entertainment value. I’m here to visit a very dear friend in a land that is strange to me but is now his home.

I find that I wake up in the morning filled with gratitude for the experience of being here.

Thank you, very big, I say to God.

I know that makes God smile.

I see it reflected in the beautiful smiles of the people of Thailand.


David@Montreal said...

Oh dear Elizabeth, this post is definately one for your book!

You always have been 'Very, very most,' that's why you're such a living gift.

robert said...

Thailand was never, ever a colony of any European country

suzanne said...

FYI! It's is a beautiful sunset on the bay this evening.

JCF said...

Wonderful, Elizabeth.

“Thank you very big.”

Fran said...

Blessings on this amazing journey!

Malcolm+ said...

While Wikipedia can be a problem, the article confirms what I thought.

Siam / Thailand was never colonized by the European powers - in part becuase a succession of able rulers were able to play the Europeans off against each other.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

David, Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Robert and Malcolm - Hmmmm....I'm sure you are absolutely correct - I never looked it up. I was just repeating what I overheard.

My apologies. I stand corrected.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Suzanne - The views are breathtaking. Have you noticed I have a "thing" for living/staying by the water?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - I'm happy to share my Big Phat Thai Adventure with you all.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Fran - It is more amazing that I can express in words. My mouth stays open most of the time.