Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Chinese

Oh my God. I found out that the woman who cleans the building (and now my apartment unit) speaks Chinese. We were heading up the elevator to my unit when she said, “Can speak Thai?”

“Nit nawy,” I said. A little. Then, to avoid any confusion, I showed her how much by putting my thumb and index finger as close together as possible without actually letting them touch. “Nit nawy.”

“Speak China?” she said.

“Nit nawy,” I said again, but this time I could actually claim some space between the fingers.

“Can you speak Chinese?” she said in Chinese.

“You speak Chinese?” I blurted out in Chinese as my jaw fell off and dropped to the ground. “I can speak Chinese!”

I had to bite my lip from cracking my face open grinning. Instead of only being able to communicate like a 2-year-old, I could now communicate like a 4-year-old. Hooray for college foreign language requirements!

Francisco’s Taiwanese coworker would go around asking Thai people if they spoke Chinese, especially if he was having a sudden communication breakdown. He didn’t have a ton of luck with it, but once in awhile someone would know a little Chinese. It's a clever idea since a lot of Thais trace their ancestry back to China, but I've never tried it myself.

Later today, I was buying food from my favorite cart at the night market. I had an awkward exchange with the vendor about what was in the curry I was about to buy.

“This chicken?” I asked in Thai.

“This thai thai thai thai,” she said in Thai.

“Chicken?” I asked again.

“This thai thai thai thai,” she said again.

I just nodded and bought it, figuring that as long as it wasn’t fried termites I’d eat it. The vendor looked at me for a bit and said in Chinese, “Do you speak Chinese?”

Man! Where are all these Chinese speakers coming from? I know it’s perhaps the most widely spoken language in the world, but still.

“Where are you from?” she asked. I told her.

“Oh, so you speak English, too,” she said.

Yes. Unfortunately, not a language that gets me very far in Thailand.

I’m glad that once again I remembered to pack my Chinese phrasebook with me. When I first arrived in Kenya I told another volunteer that I had brought it with me to Africa, and she laughed and rolled her eyes. But when I got to my village, who were the only other foreigners there? A Chinese construction crew, paving the road.

Incidentally, it wasn’t chicken in the curry. It was fake chicken that was either made of tofu or fishcake. A Thai person could probably say which it was. In fact the vendor did, twice.

I went swimming again this morning. Again, there was no one there. Like every other outdoor activity in Thailand, the heat was a bit oppressive even in the pool. I think the trick is to go early, around 8 or 8:30, when there’s still one lane that’s shaded, and the water hasn’t started warming up yet. Afternoon swimming is impossible in this pool, unless you like swimming in 90 degree bathwater.

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