Wednesday, September 26, 2007


I’m a fairly independent person. Not extremely independent, but I’m certainly capable of doing things on my own. At least in the U.S. I am. Here, I am not as independent, and what independence I have involves far more effort. This is all because of the language barrier. My last post notwithstanding, my Thai is extremely limited. I can have an entire conversation about my kids, because I've heard it all many times, but outside of that topic I'm pretty useless. And my pronunciation, while improved, is still not that good.

I didn’t realize how limiting not speaking the language would be until I was on study abroad here as a student in 2001. I had already been to Guatemala at that point, but at least in Guatemala I spoke a little of the language (though not as well as you might think after four years of studying it. . .I did get proposed to so I must have said something interesting!) It is VERY limiting to not speak the language here. If I can’t find an item I’m looking for in a store, I can’t ask where it is. I can’t ask if they are just out of stock or if they never carry it at all. I want to go buy some fabric but it’s too difficult to explain what I want and how much, unless John can come with me. I also need to get some pants hemmed, but John will have to do that for me as well.

I have to be careful about where I go by myself. If I get lost, I can’t stop and ask for directions. I have never seen a decent map of Khon Kaen, and definitely not one in English, so I don’t just take off and go places. I get really good directions first (and I have to get these from an actual person, instead of just using Mapquest like I do in the States). I try to take the cell phone and I stick to the places I’ve been to before.

It’s strange not to be able to ask simple questions either. I can’t talk to the daycare teachers who take care of Trea and Adia. Normally I’d make small talk at least, but here I just smile. If I really need something, I’ll get John to translate for me, but just for routine things (did she take a good nap? Did she eat a good lunch?) it’s not worth it.

I should say that Adia’s teachers (who used to teach Trea, and live nearby) do talk to me a fair bit, and I to them, and sometimes we even understand each other. As I’ve said before, they are used to toddler gibberish so they’re patient with my attempts to speak Thai!

Worse even than the spoken language is the fact that I’m functionally illiterate. I used to volunteer as a literacy tutor; I worked with a 21-year-old guy who read at a first-grade level (and had passed the Maryland reading exam to graduate from high school, on the first try, but that’s a separate rant). Anything below fifth grade is considered functionally illiterate. Now I know what that’s like. Menus? Can’t read them. Directions for using a cleaning product? I guess, or ask John. Signs listing services and prices? No good to me.

John forgets sometimes what language he’s reading in, and it’s kind of funny. We were walking through the mall a couple months ago and passed a pizza restaurant. He turned to me and said, “We’ve gotta do that soon.” “Do what?” I said. “That pizza deal, the two-for-one special.” It was in Thai, so I had no idea. There are lots of those types of things. You don’t notice until you can’t read.

I also really miss reading for pleasure. I LOVE to read. I was an English major! I can’t wait for libraries. Libraries full of free books in a language I understand. What an incredible resource we have in libraries, and I’ve always taken it for granted. I've been lucky that other farangs here have lent me books, and my mom has sent me some as well. And luckily, we've got Internet and I read a lot of random blogs and forums.

(And in case anyone is wondering why I don't read Thai. . .it's not like I didn't try. There are 44 consonants alone, each a different sound/tone combo, and then there are subconsonants and vowels. There are no spaces between words and no punctuation except periods. It looks like this if you want to see it).

1 comment:

Ariana said...

When I spent a month in Brazil in 2000 I felt like I was under water most of the time....I could understand maybe 40% of any given conversation but not speak anything back in Portuguese. I could understand a few written things, but it sure made my brain ache to constantly be trying to figure out the language. And I had my dad with me all the time...he would usually forget to translate unless I poked him. It was pretty frustrating.

I can't imagine being surrounded by such a difficult language (Thai) for 14 months with kids. You are way the heck more brave than I ever will be!