Then Why the *#%! Did You Decide to Learn It?

Thursday afternoon I was chatting with Khruu Kitiya (“Khruu” = “Teacher”), my Thai tutor, and she told me about her other job.  While she has a few private students like me, her primary job is working at one of the ubiquitous Thai language schools here in Krungthep.  As Khruu Kitiya explained, her Level 3 class, the one in which writing and reading Thai is first introduced, has been giving her trouble.  Of the six students from six different countries, one of them is proving to be difficult. 

Ugly American It seems that there is always at least one in every class.  He (almost always, it is a “he”) asks too many questions, leads the conversation down rabbit trails, and is always demanding the teacher justify why the language is the way it is.  As near as I can tell from my own experience, it is the analytical types (yes, you engineers!) who seem to have the most trouble just letting go and accepting that there are some things in this world – and particularly some things in languages – that just don’t have a rational explanation.  They are called the exceptions to the rules

In this case, Khruu Kitiya’s one student spent a half-hour debating with her during class about why the Thai government should just march right in (between coups) and fix all the problems with the language.  Those unarticulated consonants?  Get rid of them!  Those confusing spellings that come from Sanskrit?  Change them!  He wanted to know why, if the language had these “problems,” someone didn’t fix them.

Khruu Kitiya, with extraordinary patience that is characteristic of the Thais, tried to explain that even if the government wanted to change the language, they couldn’t.  The language is a deep part of the Thai people’s culture and it is the way it is because it is a reflection of the many cultures and people who eventually became a part of the country.  (In fact, as a historical side note, the Thai government has tried to change the language before under the military leader Field Marshal Pibulsonggram during the World War II era.  The changes did not stick.)

The student used the analogy of an old sofa.  If you had an old sofa in your house and you knew it no longer was useful, why wouldn’t you just through it out?  Needless to say, Khruu Kitiya was not won over by that analogy.

What I don’t understand is why someone would come to a country and choose to study the language if he or she was not prepared to accept it on its own terms.  Why would someone be so arrogant as to think that his or her perspective on what was “right” or “wrong” for another language was superior to the way the language already is?

While Khruu Kitiya wanted to remain non-confrontational, I encouraged her to ask the student next time – in a friendly and non-confrontational way – whether in his country (Italy) it is considered polite to go into someone else’s house and criticize their furniture.  She could explain that in Thailand, one doesn’t go into a house as a guest and then suggest the sofa be thrown out.

Anyhow, this is the type of thing that keeps me from hanging out with many expats.  Whether it be the language or a dozen other things, there are many people who seem to lack any understanding of how to appreciate the culture they have chosen to live in.

 

Independence Day in Khrungthep

Saturday July 5th was the American Chamber of Commerce’s annual Independence Day celebration in Khrungthep.  What used to be hosted by the U.S. Ambassador on the stately grounds of his residence on Wireless Road was discontinued several years ago because of security concerns.  A few years later, AmCham resurrected the tradition, moving to a new location at a football field and sports complex in Khlong Toei.

P1070495 Invitations for the event came from two directions: Doug, a friend from Oregon, is involved in AmCham and sent an email.  A second email came from Democrats Abroad Thailand, which conducts a voter registration drive at the event.

There was a nice breeze Saturday afternoon and the gathering thunderstorm clouds provided some intermittent shade and, thankfully, nothing more than a few seconds of sprinkles. 

P1070499 We were able to find a shady place to sit while the grounds were emptied and swept by heavy security.  The process for entering the field was slow – there was only one gate with two metal detectors and everything was being hand searched, much more thoroughly than even at the airport.  But we were in the shade and there were plenty of distractions while we waited to enter.

The set-up was very much like any Independence Day celebration in small town America: vendors offering barbeque, hot dogs and beer; raffles and giveaways; informational booths for different civic groups; giant slides and other games for the children; a stage with life music, magic shows, and other entertainments; the presenting of the colors by the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars; and evening fireworks.

Because it is rainy season, some areas of the field were quite muddy, resulting in more than a few children who looked like they had engaged in pig wrestling contests.  Along with many Americans were lots of Thais and other foreign nationals.

I headed over to the Democrats Abroad table and started my two-hour shift as a volunteer registering people as absentee voters, answering dozens of questions, and selling “Bangkok for Barack” t-shirts.  In those two hours, we probably signed up sixty voters and there were several hours remaining when I left at about 4:30.

P1070494 What was most interesting about the experience was the difference in perception between myself and the other four American expats who arrived with me.  Maybe this is because I was actively working at the booth while they grabbed some food and drinks and sat under a tent visiting and, it sounds like, complaining about the event.

Talking with two of them later on, I tried to understand what they felt was so bad about the experience, because they definitely sounded unhappy about it.  Here is my understanding of their concerns:

  • Security was unreasonably thorough.
  • The field was too muddy.
  • There were too many Americans there (or maybe too many fat Americans?).
  • Too many of the songs played by the band were not from American artists.
  • For the 300 baht entrance fee (about US$10; the event was a fund-raiser for charity), there should have been food and drink included.
  • Instead of hanging around with other Americans trying to do American things, people who attended the event should be participating in Thai culture and doing Thai things.
  • No cotton candy.

In conclusion, the event was designed “for people who actually miss America”. 

Ouch. 

While I discard as completely backwards the view of “love it or leave it” – freedom of speech is a constitutional right in the USA, after all – I can understand where that reactionary impulse comes from.  Since Saturday, I’ve spent some time thinking about their concerns, trying to understand their point of view.  It leaves me feeling kind of odd. 

There are many things I dislike about American culture and I try to hang out with a group that is more diverse than just Americans alone precisely because of the “American group think” that is easy to run into amongst any insular group of expats. 

P1070489

Still, my experience at the Independence Day festivities was very different.  Maybe if was different just because I was actively involved signing up voters, but here were my observations:

  • There are a lot of overseas Americans who, despite being expats, care very deeply about their country and want to make it a better place.  I spoke with Democrats, Independents and Republicans who were intelligent, passionate, and caring.  They have strong views about what their country needs but they are also very interested in talking to and hearing from people with different opinions.
  • In this gathering, I saw a community coming together that, despite their living in a different country and culture, makes an effort to celebrate their heritage and identity – especially for the many families that were there with their children including families of mixed cultures where the children possibly have never lived in the United States.
  • I also saw many non-Americans coming to the event to celebrate an ideal (imperfect though it may sometimes be) that they see in America: a functioning, free and fair democracy in which people can climb to great heights and make their own success regardless of social status or background.  Something that is decidedly not true in many countries around the world, including Thailand.

The reaction of the others to the event left me frustrated.  Frustrated in part at a sort of negativity that, political beliefs aside, looks like a dark vortex around which I wish to steer clear.  Sitting around bitching and moaning just breeds more bitching and moaning.  If you don’t like it, do something to make it better.

Frustrated also by the increasing habit of Americans both at home and abroad to isolate themselves in like-minded circles, interacting with and gathering news from people and sources that only serve to reinforce their already-held views.  It is healthy to challenge our views and beliefs, right?

Finally, frustrated that my friends didn’t have more fun.  The weather was nice, the Belgian beer being poured on tap from the Roadhouse BBQ stand was tasty, and the square dancing group from a local elementary school was cute.  In my opinion, it certainly beats another afternoon at the mall or another night sitting on Silom Soi 4 drinking whisky and ogling Thai moneyboys.