I’m living in a foreign language movie. The line that absolutely killed me was when the kindergartener at school quietly uttered a short, simple and declarative sentence. I murmured encouragingly in response, knowing absolutely nothing about what she said.
This is only one of the characters in this film. Her compatriots hail me (TEACHA!!!!!!!) with exuberant enthusiasm in the school yard at every chance they get. The bevy of teachers that have extremely limited English, welcome me to lunch with them and proceed to discuss all manner of topics in a lyrical, rapidfire chatter that leaves me running behind on a single word I recognize three or four sentences back. There are my incredibly patient co-workers who see me struggling every single day. The primary students who are learning a new English word of the week (generated in response to hearing “I’m fine” about a hundred times a day), but who also enjoy hearing my attempts at the Thai language.
The few English speaking contacts (including a British male teaching three classes a week) that are able to share observations and the occasional translation of the dialog, speeches and shouts that I’m hearing. In the dark moments, I am convinced that I will live in this stupefied oblivion forever.
In the past, I orchestrated my life as a series of campaigns when the going got tough. The “lose weight/train more” crusade is a perpetual, followed closely by “meet new people and attempt at mate finding”. Neither of these has been very successful over the years. After the initial shock of the job termination wore off, I schemed and saved my way to a two year “sabbatical” with three goals: do something completely different, immerse myself in a cultural experience and move forward to a yet unknown outcome. However, in order to be happy, develop community and take care of myself here in this rural provincial capital for the next nine months, I have to communicate more effectively.
The good news is that I can buy the food and conduct most business with a combination of sign language and use of the Lonely Planet Phrasebook or the iphone dictionary in a pinch. The bad news is that most of time that I try to articulate the Thai language in various forms beyond the “Hello, How are you? Thank you. How much is it? This is delicious” category, I am met with a series of puzzled looks. It doesn’t help that I am a habitual nodder and smiler, which many people across the world interpret as actually understanding. Yesterday, I almost walked away with a shirt that didn’t quite fit before I looked up “decide” and added the negative before it.
In terms of intellectual capacity, I seem to be failing hard. I can’t remember the words. Sometimes I reverse order of the words which makes people confused. Once and a while, the meager Spanish I learned twenty years ago appears unexpectedly. The other night, The Director and her son Coon took me over to the Monk’s school for an evening visit to a Chedi (a place where some remains of Buddha are interred). On the way, we made a quick stop at the ATM, where Coon explained that the Thai word for ATM translates to “box buttons money”. Shortly after, I repeated the new word back to them as a check that I got it right. The Director looked at me quizzically, “Why do you say “good man?” “Really?” I replied. “Good man? I meant to say box buttons money.” We all laughed, but inside I was feeling a bit embarrassed. What will it take to imprint this lyrical, melodious and nuanced language in my middle-aged brain?
Just before I was waylaid a nasty sinus infection of last week, I got the idea to learn how to read Thai first. It’s a phonetic language so the way it is written is the way it is said. I’m a visual person so perhaps it might work. This will take some work but it might be the key to figuring it out. Of course, then I’d need to actually understand what the words meant. This will be the epic battle of my experience here and I suppose I need to muster the forces to overcome.
In the meantime, one can dream. I have a few fantasies about how this foreign film will end.
- Science fiction ending: I will miraculously awake one morning and the variety of verbal expressions I hear every day will manifest in perfect translation. I will gloriously understand more of what is being said.
- Love story ending: I find an available, attractive tutor and as we transcend the boundaries I become passionate about assimilating all elements of the language.
- Disney ending: I bumble my way through the year as a well-meaning but clueless character, stuck in the rudiments of language but never moving forward to any significant character development.
- Dark ending: I never learn. I am consigned to the great unknown. I fumble my way through this contract and then work to find a new teaching gig in Latin America where head back to the familiar cocoon of romance languages.
There may be hope ahead. Two days ago, one of the 4th graders stopped by my classroom after school was let out. “Speak Thai.” He said, I think secretly hoping that this could lead to some opportunities to make fun of me. I came out of the classroom, brought out my Thai language textbook and some other reference materials, and before I knew it he moved on but a team of fifth graders five girls helped me through the pronunciations on the Thai alphabet and some basic vocabulary. Ditto for yesterday... I just find a few kids who are hanging out waiting for their parents and ask them to help me. The tone marks on the alphabet have me a bit flummoxed, but progress will be measured in very small steps. Now… what was the word for rice noodle?