The single hardest thing about living in Bangkok is the language. Nothing drove this point home more than my recent two month trip to Mexico where, despite my (initially) mediocre Spanish, I was able to communicate with everyone.
In a couple of weeks, I felt right at home. I could talk to everyone, get around, find the hard to locate corners. It was if I’d lived there for years; I felt at home. I’ve lived in Bangkok for two and a half years, and I feel more like a stranger today, than the first day I set foot here.
For most of us, the longer you live here as a foreigner, or farang, the more you tend to realize that you are an outsider. And not speaking the language is the nail that seals your casket of isolation.
For those who are here on a two or three year contract and content to live in their expat bubble communities, perhaps they feel learning thai isn’t wroth the effort. All those things lost in translation can be wittily aired at condo cocktails and pool parties.
The rest of us are faced with trying to master thai tones and maintaining the momentum long enough to actually progress. And this is what usually ensues:
How Most Farangs Fail at Learning Thai.
For most of us, thai learning looks something like this:
Phase 1: Woohoo I am moving to Thailand! Immediately rush out to local bookstore and buy thai language learning book and cd.
Alternatively you may take phase1b – which is: Woohoo, i am moving to Thailand! Immediately start browsing amazon for Thai language learning book and cd and three days later, your shipment containing a new pack of 6 hanes underwear, discounted swim suits, eco friendly sunblock, and the latest Dan Brown thriller arrive along with your Thai Learning book.
Phase 2: The Thai Challenge: Breaking the Language BarrierGive up on the book 24 hours later. it will be easier when I get to practice in Thailand.
Phase 3: Arrive in Thailand, realise textbook/cd combo isn’t enough. Register for 12 week intensive language course.
Phase 4 (weeks 1 & 2): Feel extremely pleased at your incredible progress. Thai really isn’t that difficult. After all, there are no conjugations! Subjunctive what?
Phase 5: “Ok, no one seems to understand a word I am saying, and I definitely don’t understand ANYTHING anyone else is saying. (Sawatdee does not count).
Phase 6: “Oops I blew off Thai class again, but after that stressful taxi ride, I really needed my $15 two-hour massage.” Possibly finger-through originally purchased book as a way to make up for skipped class.
Phase 7: Either barely cross the Thai school finish line or put your classes ‘on hold’ only to never return.
Phase 8: Decide you can survive in Thailand without learning Thai.
Phase 9: Realise that living here long term without learning Thai is a never ending series of frustrations which you want to be angry about but really can’t since technically you are in Thailand and no, they don’t ACTUALLY have to speak English. After all it’s their country and I am pretty ASEAN launching next year will make zero difference.
As you may have guessed, I am at Phase 9.
I am through with not understanding when people make fun of me straight to my face. I am through walking into a shop and asking for something only to have them say “my mee” or I don’t have, when they don’t understand my english and find it easier to send me elsewhere. I am through being taken for joy rides by taxis. I am done avoiding the fish and vegetables I don’t know because I can’t ask anyone what’s this called and how can I cook it, among other things.
I am through being unable to talk to my neighbors and local shopkeepers, and people on the bus. And though I am told they probably don’t want to talk to me, well in that case, I want to at least be able to eavesdrop. After all, that’s what we writers do!
Which brings me to my Thai Challenge!
Curious yet? Tune in next week for my new Thai Tuesday series. My first Thai Challenge post will kick off with a review of a great seminar on languages I attended and the new program I am starting called Cracking Thai Fundamentals by this crazy talented polyglot called Stuart Jay Raj.