Mis-Adventures in Thai Language
Published on Sun 12 November 2000
(This story is written by Sean Parlaman (firstname.lastname@example.org) and published here with his kind permission.)
In summer 1994, in my first trip to Thailand, I was a student at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, living in the Thai dorms and eating in the student cafeteria. One morning, while standing in line to get a cup of hot coffee, I noticed that the milk the women in the food stall were using didn't look very good. It wasn't UHT Milk, which means it needed to be refridgerated, which it probably hadn't been. As some of the students in front of me got their coffee and passed by me in line, I could see bits of stale milk floating on the surface of their coffee. I decided to have it black instead.
So when I ordered my coffee, I added "mai sai nom, na khap." If you say it correctly, that means "don't put in any milk, please." However, having no sense at the time (or now) of the tones in Thai language, what I actually said was "stop shaking your breasts, please." The three women in the booth literally fell to the floor in hysterics. Now I was pretty used to Thais who found my attempts to speak their language a source of neverending amusement, but no one had ever collapsed before. So I stood there like a big, dumb white guy, confused smile pasted to my sunburned face, and waited patiently while the women stood up and caught their breath. At which point, I (of course) repeated my request again, taking down not only the women in that booth (again) but the servers in two adjoining booths and a few Chula students who were listening in to see what bizarre thing their caucasian classmate had said now. Finally, one of my Thai roommates came to my rescue, and sorted it out.
But I made an impression. Two years later (summer 1996), I was on the Bang-Sue train station platform in Bangkok waiting for the commuter train to take me to work at Internet KSC out in Don Muang, when an excited woman (who looked vaguely familiar) ran up to me shouting "hallo, chon, hallo chon" (Hello Sean). "Khun chon jam chan mai, ka?" (Does Mr. Sean remember me?) I told her I remembered her face but not her name. "Jam, mai" (Remember?) she said, giving her bosom a burlesque (and very un- Thai) shake. I just blushed. One of the coffee ladies. How nice to be remembered for the important things you do in life.
Again in the summer of '94, after three months of studies at Chula, I spent my last two weeks in country at Patong Beach on Phuket Island. A British friend I had met (who had lived there for years but who couldn't speak Thai to save his life) asked me to help him find out if the local grocery store carried food for his cat. So thinking myself quite the language stud after 12 weeks of Thai classes at Chula, I marched into the store, where an older Thai-Chinese woman sat behind a counter, one end of which was occupied by one of the few true Siamese cats I have ever seen in Thailand. (I thought all Thai cats would be Saimese, or at least many of them, before coming to Thailand.)
What a fortunate coincedence, I thought. The cat was beautiful, probably pure-bred, and obviously quite pampered, unlike all of the strays I was used to seeing. I figured this woman would certainly have cat food to sell. So I asked in gramatically-incorrect Thai "mee miaow ahan, mai khap" which literally translated is "(Do you) have any cat food?" The problem was, in Thai the adjective comes after the noun (like in Spanish), not before (like in English). So I wasn't asking if she has "food for a cat" I was asking if she had "a cat for food." "Mai mee, mai mee" (Don't have) she said, quite shocked.
I, as usual, didn't get it, and neither did my friend. When the woman reacted with a horrified expression, I immediately took it upon myself to make my request more clear. So I repeatedly pointed at her cat dozing on the counter, and followed with a pantomimed motion of feeding myself from my curved hand representing a bowl. "Miaow (cat) ahan" (food) I repeated, over and over while the situation seemed only to get worse and worse.
The lady jumped to her feet, grabbed the cat, and angrily yelled "mai dai, mai dai" (You can't). She backed away from the two of us as far as she could, clutched the startled kitty to her chest and began to cry. Figuring that we had done our bit to advance international understanding for the day, my friend and I left, totally mystified. "I thought you could speak Thai," my friend scolded me in his very proper Brit accent. "I was," I said, "maybe she only speaks Chinese." Yeah, sure, that was it.
My other big blunder was in spring of 1995. I was in Udon Thani on an independent graduate study abroad project from my college in Oregon, teaching English to sixth graders at a school for at-risk kids during the day, tutoring high school and tech college students in the afternoon and at night preparing a northeast Ministry of Education Task Force to travel to a one-month workshop at Florida State University.
The evening my night class job ended, some of the high school boys in my village that I tutored insisted I go out with them to a club that evening. They all had dates, which means (to a Thai teenager) that you and about 50 of your closest friends go to some public place somewhere in the general vicinity of the 50 or so girls each had invited out. You spend the night in gender-segregated groups, drop by a Swensen's Ice Cream Parlor or Kentuck Fried Chicken for a bite afterwards, then gather in the parking lot to take, like, a gazillion pictures before everyone goes home.
Anyway, we went to a typical E-san (northeastern Thai) club/bar, sitting on pillows at low, round tables. The boys all drank beer, a few whiskey (since everyone was over 15), and the girls drank coke. (I play the role of the good Buddhist and just had Sprite.) A DJ with a cordless mike would prowl the room, engage in funny banter with a customer or two, take a request and plays the song. Everyone stands up where they're at, dancing by themselves and occasionally waving to their girlfriends who are at a table about 30 meters away. (Not much like the Oddessy or Sugar Shack or any of the other temples of sin teen clubs I haunted as a youth in L.A. the 1970s.)
Eventually, the DJ makes it over to our corner, and must have thought he has struck gold to have a farang in his club for the first time. He ran through the usual questions with me. How long have you been in Thailand? Do you like E-san? Do you think E-san people are nice? Do you have a Thai girlfriend? Is she "khon issan"? (a northeasterner); Do you think Thai women are beautiful? (Which I did finally learn to answer correctly, saying "suay maak" (very beautiful) with the "suay" vowel sound said short, not dragged out for emphasis (as in English) which I repeatedly did on my first few trips, inadvertantly expressing the opinion that Thai women were "very unlucky" (with the long vowel sound.))
So the DJ gets a little mileage out of the fact that I'm a vegetarian, speak a little E-san/Lao, practice Muay Thai and live in Nongbua (a poor village north of the city). Pleasant enough chat, not really too funny. But when he asked me if I wanted to request a song, the guy hit paydirt.
I had spent the previous hour sitting at the table drinking my Sprite, trying to find a comfortable position for my sore back, and practicing in my head what I could say if the DJ asked me for a request. I liked the teen singing duo Raptor, (aka Joni & Louis) especially one song off of their Waab Boys album titled "Blawp Peun" ("support your friend"). In the song, one boy is laying down outside looking up at the night sky and mourning the fact that the girl he loves doesn't love him. His friend consoles him, pointing to the stars in the sky and telling him that just as there are thousands of stars in the sky, there are thousands of girls to love in the world, and thousands of people who will be his friend.
Sugary, bubble gum pop, that's for sure, but I'm a sucker for sentimental songs. So when this guy asks, all I have to say is "Blawp Peun." Not too difficult. I could sing the damn song acapella in perfect Thai I had heard it so many time. I had even practiced making the request in my head for an hour before the DJ came over. But when he asked. I didn't say "Blawp Puen." I accidentally left the "L" out of the first word and said "Bawp Peun," which in the most crude Thai slang, translates as (to put it nicely) "perform oral sex on your friend."
There was about a second of stunned silence in the room, then it sounded as if a bomb went off, with 200 people, mostly teenagers, laughing their heads off. The DJ never even chuckled. He looked at me with a slight, appreciative smile, calmly patting me on the back and (I'm sure) contemplating the money he could make by taking me on tour and asking me simple, mundane questions so that I could answer with the most inappropriate responses possible. After about what seemed like an hour, the room settled down a bit, and with that same calm smile of satisfaction on his face, delivered his punchline in Thai, "talk about making your friend see stars. That's really supporting a friend!"
When I sat down again, it took five minutes before the guys at my table could calm down enough so that they could figure out how to explain to me what I said wrong. Their limited English, my limited Thai, and the Thai modesty about discussing sex made it a long and difficult process. When I finally realized what I had actually said, I switched from Sprite to Singha beer for the rest of the evening.
(As when I posted this before, I hope others follow up with similar experiences of their own, or discuss whether or not this *alleged* "Thai Language" is just an Asian plot to make farangs use words like "dong," "f*ck," "sh*t," "krap," "clit," in public and think they are speaking a foreign language.)