Monday, November 17, 2008

The Stories

Winter has started in Thailand. I was surprised to learn that actually means it’s cooler. In Kenya winter meant dry season, which meant no afternoon rain to cool off the day. Thailand is apparently far enough from the equator that there are subtle temperature changes with the seasons. I no longer need to keep my fan on at night, and there’s a breeze that reminds me of spring time. I no longer take two showers a day.

My language teacher, Noi, has some of the best stories stored up from her seven or so years of teaching Thai to foreigners. I always thought I was pretty good at picking up languages, but I think Thai may have defeated me, at least for now. It’s a tonal language, but it also has so many sounds are nearly indistinguishable to me, and to other foreign speakers as well – apparently.

Noi tells this story of a Japanese student of hers who was trying to buy a bus ticket from a female ticket vendor. He asked, in Thai, if she was selling tickets – “dtua” – but used the wrong tone. So instead the vendor heard, “Are you selling your body?”

Normally this type of story ends in a good laugh and confirmation of foreigner incompetence. This woman called the police. The poor guy was roughed up and forced to leave. I don’t think he ever got his bus ticket.

Noi has another story about a female student of hers who was trying to buy bananas at the grocery store. You can generally find two types of bananas here – the local ones, which are small and sweet, and the larger ones like those found in the States and Europe.

This student asked the sales clerk, in Thai, if they had large bananas. Because the student didn’t know if there was a special name for the large bananas in Thai, she referred to them as “falang bananas” – foreigner bananas.

Of course, she mispronounced the word for banana – “guai” (falling tone) – and instead used a vulgar word for penis – “kuai” (no tone).

So the request went, complete with hand gestures:

“I’d like foreigner penises. The big penises. Not Thai penises. Thai penises are small. Foreigner penises are big. I want the big penises.”

One of the teaching methods that Noi uses is to speak to me in Thai and use non-verbal cues to show me what she’s saying. Because of this, she is a repository of entertaining stories and tall tales.

Once during a lesson Noi told a “true story” about a guy in Africa who stowed away on a plane headed to America. He couldn’t afford to buy a plane ticket, so he waited on the runway for a plane to pass and hopped onto the wheel. As it retracted, he made himself comfortable in the wheel compartment. But since that part of the plane isn’t pressurized, he got cold and suffocated to death, unbeknownst to anyone.

As the plane was about to land in the US, the wheels dropped down and cut off his leg, which then fell into someone’s yard. The woman living there heard the sound of it hitting the ground and went outside to see what had happened, and found this severed black leg. She flipped out and called the police, who came and took the mysterious leg to the hospital, at which point I asked, “Why? It’s a leg, not a sick person.” Noi didn’t have an answer; it was just what she knew of the story.

Meanwhile at the airport police were searching the plane because one of the crew had reported blood dripping. They found the one-legged dead dude in the wheel compartment, a rather unfortunate lesson in what can happen when people think too much about money and try too hard to get to America. (This was Noi’s moral of the story anyway.)

Noi comes up with the most outrageous stories and she always claims “she read them in the paper, so they must be true.” I’m willing to indulge her on this claim because I think that what’s more important is that her stories crack me up.

One of the funniest parts of the story was when she drew a picture of the African guy, because she was trying to demonstrate that “kon Afrika” means African. So she drew this guy with tight curly hair, a broad nose and big lips. To top it off, she drew a bone in his hair so he looked like Wilma Flintsone.

In many cultures, words that embody stereotypes and caricatures of people’s race are just adjectives. They’re as innocuous as telling someone they look fat or old, which isn’t very innocuous to us. My supervisor, who speaks almost as little English as I speak Thai, has initiated two conversations with me, ever.

Conversation 1: “You fat now more than when you come Thailand.”

Conversation 2: “You eat now more than when come Thailand. Become so fat.”

The other day my co-worker’s husband asked why my skin was black and my face was gray. That’s the best question I’ve gotten since arriving here. I’m still working on the answer.

1 comment:

Andy said...

This blog is perhaps the most engaging thing I have read in quite a while, although I might be biased.
But seriously, very enjoyable reading. I really enjoyed the Noi stories. I hope you get back into writing again, the world would benefit from more of your insight.