Monday, October 17, 2011

"Let's start out at the very beginning"

It’s almost one in the morning, but Glenda and I are still awake. Gone are the semi-jet lagged days of being conveniently tired by 9:30 pm and ready to get the day started at 6:00 am. They were filled with beautiful morning runs, the not needing of an alarm clock, and that fantastic feeling of falling asleep only seconds after your head hits the pillow. All good things must come to end, I suppose. I’ve never wanted to be a morning person anyway (sour grapes).

You should probably blame our late night on the fact that the dorm’s fickle wireless internet decided to cooperate for the time being, but if you were to confront us about it, we’d most definitely deny it. We’re awake TOTALLY studying Thai. Riiiight…

This does, however, bring me to what I really want to write about: the joys and frustrations of learning—and living—with a new language.

I’ve always identified myself as a language person, not to say that they are a focus of study that comes easily to me or that I have a natural knack for them, but I do find them interesting. Complicated and seemingly unpredictable, yet at the same time natural and systematic, language can be many things. It’s a science; it’s an art; it’s culture; it’s something we, every human being, has. There are a million ways to define language, to study and understand it, but at the end of the day, I think language is most accurately described as the ability to communicate. To learn even just one more language, or even to go somewhere where they speak a different version of your own, you open yourself up to an even larger pool of individuals to which you can talk and listen.

Beginning to learn Thai has been a great experience, because it has helped us to begin to understand the country’s culture. For example, in Thailand, the concept of the heart is regarded as very important, and you can see this sentiment expressed in the language. In Thai, to say “I understand,” you say “kao jai.” The literal translation of this phrase is “something enters the heart”. Pretty cool, right?

Learning the language has also been a fantastic way to interact with Thai people. One of my favorite post-class activities has been to buy my afternoon fruit fix from one of the local vendors who sets up her cart on our street. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve gone from simply pointing and smiling when ordering my snack (mostly mangos and pineapples—SO GOOD.), to then adding “hello” and “thank you.” After becoming a little bit more adventurous, I started to ask for the names of the different fruits (pon la mai!) in Thai. This all lead to yesterday, when I had what felt like the biggest accomplishment ever: I was able to tell the nice fruit lady that I that I’m American after she asked where all of us farangs were from. That’s my favorite part about language learning. It’s the stupidest little things that feel like the biggest victories.

These language exchanges can also make for moments of pure comedic genius, too. The other weekend, Jane, Kelly, Emily and I somehow ended up on a boat tour around one of the waterways, another adventure that was happenstance and a result of being lost in translation. As we were waiting for the locks to change, we started talking to four middle school aged boys that were spending their Saturday afternoon hanging out by the water. We shouted to them in the very very very basic Thai that we knew, and they would laugh at us and shout more things back in a combination of both Thai and English. After a couple of minutes they got really excited over something on the other side of the lock. They started to scream the same word over and over again. “MA! MA! MA!” What? What is that? We eventually gathered that it was some sort of animal. A fish maybe? Oooooh, maybe a crocodile! Look at us! Learning Thai in a boat in a beautiful country surrounded by friendly people experiencing cultural exchanges in the most organic way possible! What a life!

Eventually, the boat starts to move forward and we can see the other side of the lock.

Ma does not mean fish. It means dog. How did we find this out? There’s a dead dog floating in the water beside us. I do not make this stuff up, mostly because I couldn’t even if I tried. (Okay, you have to admit, that’s gross, but at the same time HILARIOUS! Nothing says, “stop being so idealistic and Anna Leonowens-like” as a decaying, floating animal carcass. Helllooo, reality check!)

I absolutely refuse to completely romanticize this whole language-learning thing, though. Yes, I love it and am so grateful that I have an entire year in such a cool country, but I’d be lying and completely crazy if I didn’t admit that sometimes I want to throw my hands up and scream, “CAN’T I GET SOME ENGLISH UP IN HERE!!!” When you can’t read, or write, or express what you want fully or even somewhat accurately, you’re back to being a vulnerable baby with little to no independence. Definitely a hard concept to grasp after fours years of being an ultra cool college kid, with no limitations and so free to do whatever I want (Right, parents? Hey, mom, can you send me more money, please? Or maybe keep me on your health insurance, still? Or does Obama have my back on that one? Well, whatever, I’m young and healthy. Dad, can you change my oil, you know, if you get around to it? Thanks! See suuuuuuuuper independent and grown up these past four years…HAHA! Anyways, I’ve digressed.)

At the end of the day, though, the 35 hours of Thai class we’re receiving over this month is only going to get us so far. Sure, it’s great to have native speakers teaching us how to introduce ourselves and to teach us food vocabulary so we have a general idea of what we’re buying at markets. And at the very least, I’m confident I know enough direction words so we can tell the cabbies how to get us back to our dorm and not to the opposite side of Bangkok. Being able to navigate the basics also gives us the benefits of learning bits of the cultural mentality as I mentioned before, which is incredibly helpful as we watch the water levels of the floods rise and people continue to say “mai pen rai,” or “don’t worry about it, no worries” even though we now know they actually do a lot a bit.

Most importantly, at least from my perspective, our journey in the crazy voyage of learning Thai is necessary because it reminds us to be empathetic and patient as teachers. Even though we’ll be in front of the classroom, we’ll still have fresh in our memories what it’s like to have no idea what’s going on while learning a new language. You don’t understand the assignment I gave you? Yeah, I didn’t understand how to conjugate verbs for the longest time either. You can’t remember the days of the week vocabulary? Kid, you should see me trying to figure out how to figure out what that sign on the street says. We’re all so confused and just trying to make sense of something.

So here we are. Sitting the International Dorm on Chula Soi 6, our “Thai for Beginners” books open up in front of us and our iTunes repeating long lists of Thai words and phrases. We must look and sound ridiculous bouncing back and forth between our studies and our Facebooks and, yes, season 1 of Ugly Betty.

Remember how beautiful and frustrating and daunting and wonderful it is to start out at the very beginning? Yeah. Me too.


Also, for your entertainment, you too can learn the Thai alphabet!!!

Good night and good luck...

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