Today, I reminisced a bit about home. I found myself missing Fall leaves and the stereotypical pumpkin spice latte. I decided to somehow satisfy my seasonal coffee craving as I put on my scarf (in the 80 degree heat) and headed to a quaint café nearby. Even with my personal attempt of a mock pumpkin spice latte, I craved something unusual- what my Gram might call the Sunday newspaper “funnies.” Using this as inspiration, I thought I would make my own written comics, compiling a few funny occurrences and random thoughts from my Thai adventure so far. Enjoy!
- Apparent Differences in Distance
- Language Barriers or Avenues of Understanding
- Finger Foods
- Facebook (and Selfie) Official
Apparent Differences in Distance
My first morning in Khon Kaen, my lovely roommate and her friend wanted to take me and another exchange student out for breakfast. They informed us about a great cafe nearby, Have a Break. We walked 25 seconds down the street from our apartment, hidden from the sun under our umbrellas, to find that Have a Break was closed. Disheartened, our Thai roommates turned around and began to head back to our rooms. I then suggested going to another cafe two buildings down. With this proposal, they stared at the further café’s sign for a couple of minutes and insisted it was too far away. I replied that I did not mind the extra exercise, and in another ten seconds, we arrived at Cafe Me 2 less than 100 yards from our original departure point.
Before leaving for Thailand, I envisioned the people to be extremely active, contrasting them to the stereotypical “lazy Americans” who use drive-thrus so they do not have to get out of their cars to pick up food and who even drive in circles to get the closest parking spot at the gym (I know… I’m guilty of this too). I was shocked to find the existing aversion to walking not only in the city of Khon Kaen, but also in many rural villages. Thais love their motocis. I have been told that “walking four miles is dangerous” and have also been driven to village houses 100 yards down the dirt road. If you see a Thai individual, especially students in Khon Kaen, it is likely that their motoci is just a step and a hop away.
P.S. In addition to seeing up to four people on one motorbike, do not be surprised to also see cages of rabbits, full-grown Poodles, and babies like I was!
Language Barriers or Avenues of Understanding
At my first community homestay, I accidentally caused a ruckus. I stayed in a rural village a half of an hour outside of Khon Kaen with a Thai family for three days. My family consisted of my ‘Mehh,’ ‘Paw’ and another exchange student, Billy. Each morning, Meh made a ginormous breakfast that in actuality could constitute both lunch and dinner, as well. One morning, I approached my Meh in the kitchen with the little Thai I knew. As she fried chicken, I made a chopping gesture to indicate I wanted to help prepare the vegetables. She stopped what she was doing and simply stared at me. I repeated the motion as her head tilted in confusion. I then stated ‘sa poem pack.’ Now, I know this phrase does not come close to what I wanted to say, but at the time I thought “hair wash vegetables” might suggest rinsing veggies. With no luck, I tried ‘ab nahm pack.’
Ab nahm, meaning to take a shower, is a word Thais know very well. It is not uncommon for Thais to shower up to three times per day, so Thai families often offer their shower to guests even before offering a cold beverage.
In actuality, I did not want to shower with vegetables, but my Meh thought I did. She handed me an assortment of greens as she escorted me upstairs to the bathroom. I refused, and in desperation, Meh handed me forks, knives, spoons, and fruit as I was sat down at the table. Meh’s cries for help as she leaned over the fence could barely be heard over Billy’s laughter. Soon enough, I found myself swarmed by ten villagers attempting to understand that I simply wanted to help Meh make breakfast, not wash vegetable hair or shower vegetables.
Although that was an experience in itself, I did not find the next one as humorous. Because I was leaving for Singapore to visit my friend Colleen right after class, I wanted to make a copy of my passport photo on my lunch break. I arrived at the photo shop soaked after an unexpected monsoon and handed the worker my soggy photo. I requested one ‘4×6’ photo, and what did I leave with an hour later? Not only four 6x6s photos, six 4×4 photos, 150 baht additional payment, near tears, and a single 4×6 passport photocopy, but also a new understanding and appreciation.
While I intentionally attempted to remain calm and refrain my frustration, the photo shop worker did it with ease. He did everything he could to help me, from bringing out an electronic translator to offering his own money to pay for the photos I did not intend to purchase. For such a simple gesture, it made me question myself: How helpful am I to those who don’t speak English in America? How accommodating are we as a country to non-native English speakers?
I cannot count the amount of times I have heard the phrase “If you want to live in America, speak English.” I have heard of many people hanging up the telephone or raising their tone of voice with telephone assistants who are difficult to understand. I myself have giggled when I heard foreigners mispronounce an English word.
Since becoming more aware of our nation’s language deficit, I found I do not have much room to laugh. A mere 18% of Americans are fluent in another language while 53% of our European counterparts are fluent in at least one other language.
I myself have traveled throughout Europe and I cannot say anything more than ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘goodbye’ in any of the six countries I visited. Many citizens in these European countries; however, could hold conversations with me in English. They did not know if I was a tourist, new community member, or established citizen, yet they catered to my little comprehension. Yet, I can still recall several moments of frustration when they did not understand my questions and requests—all in English.
Until now, I have expected others to accommodate to my sole English speaking capabilities. I had never honestly and intentionally tried to master a language. I had never been in a place for an extended amount of time where I could not find a single soul who could speak English. Have you?
I swear that if the Thai people had not expressed so much kindness and patience with me (and my language incapability) as they have so far, my experience would be very different. Studying abroad in any location is a difficult transition, even if you do speak the same language. I could not imagine permanently moving to the U.S. as a foreigner or refugee, searching for a new adventure or new life, and not being given the same assistance the Thai people have willingly offered. Before evaluating someone else’s communication abilities in the U.S., I hope to recall the difficult language barrier I faced, and the beautiful friendships I formed through eventual and somewhat unconventional communication methods.
I have always been a fan of eating with my hands and playing with my food, and I am happy to say Thailand is too. In my first week of orientation, I took a class called “Thai Etiquette.” Along with learning how to properly wai, situate my legs while sitting on dinner mats, and point my feet in a temple, I learned how to eat with my hands.
Although I was thrilled to eat with my hands, I was not initially as keen on all the food sharing. For any fans of the television show, Friends, you might say I was Joey who “doesn’t share food” as easily. That has sure changed for the better! In Thailand, communal eating is very popular. In Isaan villages, the families roll out mats onto bamboo tables. The family will then gather cross-legged on the mat, surrounding the bowls of traditional Northeastern Isann food.
At any homestay, I can be sure to find Som Tom (spicy papaya salad), blah toad (fried fish), ky toad (fried egg), guy yong (grilled chicken), and moo bing (minced pork) at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Proper technique includes making a small ball of cow neow (sticky rice) and using that as a ‘spoon’ to scoop up small bits of each of the dishes. No one has a personal plate and communal eating utensils are also used (which means less dish washing).
This communal finger food setting is one that I love! Not only does it avoid loading your personal plate with more than you can handle, it also ensures you will not feel bad about wasting food left on your plate or stuffing yourself (too much, although it is inevitable most of the time). You do not have to worry about finishing your meal too early or being the last to finish because you simply eat until you are satisfied-no rush needed.
You can also extend the ‘communal’ eating aspect to ‘community’ eating. At each of the five village homestays I have been to, it is not uncommon to have seven or more additional friends and relatives gathered around the family’s table. Eating is considered an art form, and one that everyone should enjoy. Meh and Paw do not hesitate to yell “gin cow” to random passer-bys on bicycles, tractors, and motorcycles. ‘Gin cow’ literally means ‘eat rice,’ but also ‘eat food’ because most every dish involves some form of rice- white, black, purple, red, sticky, sweet, fried etc.,. The list goes on and on.
Facebook (and Selfie) Official
Farang; a word I might even consider a nickname now. Farang in Thai means “a person of white race.” I hear this term quite often followed by shutter clicks and camera flashes. Once, while on an overnight seven-hour bus ride to Bangkok (without my fellow ‘farang’ friends), I was sleeping with my night mask near the aisle. I woke up quite quickly when a bright light crept under my cover. A girl two rows ahead of me was taking a selfie with my ‘farang’ self and forgot to turn off her flash. She was initially shocked when I became quite aware of it but was not too embarrassed as the picture taking continued without hesitation.
This experience was unique, but not too dissimilar to others. In Thai culture, it is much more acceptable to take pictures of people you do not know. I have had hiking tour guides, children, restaurant owners, gym instructors, and even Thai government officials sneak pictures of farang.
Keep in mind; however, that even if you don’t ever meet those people again, those stealthy photos may resurface. Many times, you can even view them as a shared link or as a post on your facebook wall. When I was studying Thai with a friend at a local café, two Khon Kaen university students were seated next to us. We didn’t speak to each other during the four hours we were there, and I only occasionally heard giggles after I attempted to formulate Thai questions and responses. (Then again, if I heard what I actually sounded like, I would laugh at me too).
It was not until I packed up my belongings to leave when the two girls stopped me and asked if I could be friends with them. “Of course,” I responded. I wanted to hang out with more Thai peers. Rather than exchanging phone numbers, they immediately handed me a pad of paper to write down my name, asking if I ‘facebooked’ often. They then requested a ‘selfie’ with me. Before even walking down the stairs of the small café, I had two friend requests and was tagged in a photo. Before coming to Thailand, prepare yourself. Be aware that Thais are #selfiegame strong.