Ahh, Thailand--the Land of Smiles. I've heard from tour guides that the origin of said title (though I'm unable to verify it in any google search, and we all know if it isn't on the internet it can't be true and vice versa) is that the Queen of England, upon her first visit to the country, found that everyone smiled at her. Thus she deemed it "the land of smiles" and it stuck.
The punchline is that they were smiling because they had no idea what she was saying.
Since arriving almost two months ago I've largely subsisted on English communication: that I can is a testament to Thailand's educational system, its openness to the world, and the conscious efforts its people to make a farang feel welcome.
But some Thais can't speak English (for example, almost every taxi driver)--and the scant handful of Thai phrases I know** do little to ease communication with them. They serve, more than anything, to show I'm trying, and that I want to honor people who welcome me as a guest.
- Sawasdee khrap: Hello, I'm a man
- Kap khun khrap: Thank you, I'm still a man
- Djai: You betcha
- Mai pen rai: Hakuna matata
Even among Thais who do speak English, few if any speak it as well as their native tongue. And when they get together socially, they largely speak Thai.
So what is it like to be the one non-Thai speaker at a Thai dinner party?
It fucking sucks.
It fucking sucks to see funny stories being told and you haven't a clue what they're on about.
It fucking sucks to see the charming personalities and simple interactions and you're stuck trying to glean context from body language.
It fucking sucks to have the occasional story and joke relayed to you and feel like the "slow one". It fucking sucks to cling to those moments and go back to your own staring into space, looking forward to be included again. Eventually.
It fucking sucks to realize, along with the people who are trying to include you, that there finally ceases to be a point.
"What's wrong?" I'm asked for the fifth time. Guess I'm scowling.
"Why do you keep asking me that?"
"I just want to make sure you don't feel left out."
"Well, I am."
And I don't take issue in any way for anything that was said, or done, or not said or not done. Of course, of course, in your country, amongst your friends, you can and should speak the language that's most comfortable. I'd feel like an asshole asking anyone to do anything else.
It's just a reminder that I'm an outsider. And unless and until I learn enough Thai to be conversant, I'll remain an outsider.
And I hope it's a reminder to my peeps at home, when you say or think things like, "If you gonna come to my country you need to speak Aynglish! I ain't como no Espanyol, amigo!" Fine. You can be that way. After all, it may, or may not, have been good enough for Jesus, so it's good enough for you, right?
And for those of you thinking, "so take a class." Right. Because you show up to the class and when you walk out, boom! Polyglot. Because knowing what to do is the same thing as doing it--just like NFL analysts who advise that the key to beating the Patriots is to stop Tom Brady.
That's why he has all those Super Bowl rings and I've yet to, in 39 years, learn another language. Because t's really freakin' hard.
So what I'm saying is, there's nothing wrong with having a little empathy for those trying to learn. Lord knows the kindness I've experienced here, and the tremendous effort Thais make to help me out, is greatly appreciated.
Even if I'm not always smiling in the moment.