The Ville of Urban Eatery

A few weeks ago, I shared some pictures of signs I had seen in Shanghai that were good examples of odd translations into English. While the signs in Thailand are generally more accurately translated, I did just recently run into one that made me pause.

An office building across from Central Chidlom department store is being renovated and rebranded as The Mercury Ville @ Chidlom. The tag line: “The Ville of Urban Eatery. The Venue of Urban Dining Flagship in Town.” I have no idea what that means.

Thinglish: Please Abstain Us

Living in Thailand, where English is taught in the schools but not very well, one encounters all sorts of examples of Thai English that provoke confusion, bewilderment, and hilarity. (Of course, being perfectly fair, my creative uses of the Thai language send normally polite and reserved locals into paroxysms of laughter.) The other day at a local mall, I stopped to admire the works of young artists who had created entries for an exhibit themed around environmental awareness.


A painter offers this moose imploring viewers to “please abstain us”. The idea, according to the plaque on the base, was to not eat endangered species of animals. A thoughtful idea and a graphically arresting one, even if a bit off in its use of English. 


Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography

“For me, it’s a cause of some upset
that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language.”

– Stephen Fry


English writer, actor, journalist, and director Stephen Fry has long been a favorite of mine.  He’s tremendously smart and enormously witty, two things I aspire to be.  Last year he released on his blog a podcast about language, its use, and the dour pedants who resist the continued evolution of language.

The podcast is well worth a listen, but even more enjoyable is a six-minute animated video put together by one Matt Rogers.  He takes portions of Fry’s podcast and uses kinetic typography to set it in motion, giving the words the beauty of dancers.  Here it is for your enjoyment.


Misuse and Abuse of Language

Even as a native speaker, I recognize what a messed-up langauge English is.  Because of that, I have a lot of sympathy for non-native speakers.  When I really need a laugh, I’ll stop by to see some of the ways in which the English language has suffered at the hands of non-native speakers, particularly in Japan and China.  One lesson I draw from all this, though, is that one shouldn’t use a language if you don’t really know what you’re doing.

This gets me to wondering about people who cross the line from innocent mistakes – of course a non-native might easily write “corn poops” instead of “corn pops” on a breakfast cereal sign – to intentionally disregarding a language, using it more for decorative purposes rather than for communicating.  I’ve written before about the dangers of getting a tattoo in a language you don’t understand.  What about those who choose to use language for interior design but obviously don’t understand it?


Case in point, the “pan Asian” restaurant RockSugar at the Century City mall in Los Angeles.  Owned by the Cheesecake Factory chain, the entry to the restaurant is decked out with Buddha statues (which, if you really want to get to the heart of the matter, are objects of veneration, not decorative items to place by the front door) and “exotic” looking Thai script.  The Thai phrases appear in odd places, vertically along some of the outside walls (note that Thai isn’t written vertically), in random phrases on their website, and in the entry vestibule, pictured below.


Wow, looks exotic, huh?  Boy, I bet I’m about to get some authentic Oriental food here… maybe I can get a slice of green tea cheesecake afterwards.

Rock Sugar Translation

Putting aside the fact that these are nonsense phrases, much like some of the entries at, they are also written in some absurd out-of-order combination of font sizes that makes it harder to follow in Thai than it is in the English translation, above.

I understand the fascination with other cultures and who wouldn’t want to open a restaurant featuring a mish-mash of Asian cuisines?  But perhaps in doing so we could use a little bit of cultural awareness and sensitivity in the process of designing the interior of the restaurant?  Is that too much to ask?


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.


Really Lost in Translation

A good 70% of the residents of our condo are Thai.  Nonetheless, the company that serves as our building management, a division of Plus Property, usually does an effective job trying to accommodate those of us who are not native Thai speakers.  Within a day or two after notices are posted, an English translation will be taped up alongside.

Tawn and I are still scratching our heads about this one.  Unfortunately, the Thai version didn’t make much sense, either.



Tattoos in Native Tongues

You’ve seen them, those tattoos that people sport featuring words or characters in a language other than one in which they are fluent.  You may even have one yourself.  I’m telling you, though, that’s a mighty dangerous path to tread.

Leaving aside questions of cultural appropriation and exoticization (and there is some potentially rich academic soil to till about this issue), what I’m talking about is the plain and simple, practical reason to not get a tattoo in a language you don’t read: It may end up being incorrect.

Now, I know someone to whom this happened.  Because of that, I realize that bright, intelligent, thoughtful people can make that mistake.  And because I know that readers of this blog are equally bright, intelligent and thoughtful, I’m providing you this warning: Don’t get a tattoo in a language you don’t read!

Don’t believe me?  Let’s consider this object lesson:

Thai Tattoo

My friend Jack is a Thai who lives in the American midwest.  Note that this is not a picture of Jack’s back.  While he was on holiday, Jack spotted a young caucasian man with this tattoo and curious, asked him about it.

It seems that the young man, a native of Springfield, Missouri, was a basketball player and he went on some program to Thailand where he played ball with Thai high schoolers and spoke to them about basketball and life in the U.S.  Returning to Springfield, the young man decided to get a tattoo, using Thai script.

So far, so good.  Glad to hear that Thailand made such a positive impression on him that he wanted to immortalize the Thai language on his skin.

The problem is two-fold:

First, there are two spelling mistakes.  The words ไม and อยาง are both missing accent marks  They should be ไม่ and อย่าง.  As a tonal language, the use (or absence) of a tone mark can often alter the meaning of Thai words.  In this case, the misspelling does not change the meaning but simply makes the words incorrectly spelled.

Second, the phrase doesn’t say what he intends it to say.  Based on the cross, I guessed he wanted the Christian phrase, “You will never walk alone.”  When I asked Jack, he confirmed that this was the young man’s understanding of how the tattoo read.  Jack, being Thai and characteristically too polite to embarrass someone, didn’t tell him that the tattoo says something else entirely.

The phrase reads khun ja mai duhn piang yang diaw, which means “You will never just only walk” – in other words, you will walk while doing something else at the same time, perhaps chewing gum or humming or whistling.

No word on how the young man managed to get this incorrect translation.  My guess is he thought it would be cool and asked someone he met in Thailand – someone who doesn’t understand English well enough – to write the phrase in Thai.  Given what I’ve learned while living here, I can see how “alone” could have easily been misunderstood as “only just”.

So let this be fair warning to you, your friends or family members.  If you or someone you love is planning on getting a tattoo, stick with a language you can read so you are 100% certain that the tattoo says what you think it says.

That’s today public service message.  Cheers.


Saab Bor Hok – the Sixth Grade Test

Settling back into the routine here in Krungthep, I’m reminded why I carry my camera with me most everywhere I go.  There is always something interesting to see.  On Wednesday I had to run some errands.  I drove to the Ministry of Labor to retrieve my work permit book, the address of which I had modified to reflect the “annex” unit we bought next door to our condo.  Then I continued to the post office to mail wedding thank-you cards.  Next I headed to UOB Bank to drop off some paperwork.  Finally, I stopped at Emporium mall to have some pho at Little Hanoi restaurant.


While sitting in traffic on Sukhumvit Road, I noticed something odd about the cement truck in front of me.  Dangling between the rear wheels was a dirty pink stuffed animal, akin to an Ugly Doll but probably not a branded one.  I’ve seen this before.  In fact, about a year ago I was noticing this on cars and trucks of all types here in Krungthep.  To this day, though, nobody with whom I’ve spoken has an explanation.  Why would you tie a stuffed animal at the back of your vehicle?


From the carpark at UOB Bank (the Sukhumvit 25 branch), I snapped this picture of an unfinished hotel.  This is supposed to become a Crowne Plaza property at the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 27 but the developer halted construction about six months ago, ostensibly in response to the lousy tourism market.  It is very well-located, just a few blocks from the Asoke/Sukhumvit junction and the Skytrain and Subway stations there.  to the right of the picture you can see the Windsor Suites hotel, managed by our friend Ben.  Very nice hotel and also well-located.  If you’re looking for a place to stay in Krungthep, I recommend it.


Tawn was very inspired by our trip to New York, taking careful notes on the styles and looks he saw on Manhattan’s busy streets.  Above is one of his work outfits that he put together as a result of his inspiration.  What do you think?


Speaking of New York, I returned from my 24-day trip to the US only to discover that a Dunkin Donuts kiosk has opened underneath the escalator connection from the Asoke Skytrain station to the Sukhumvit Subway station.  See, the Big Mango is just like the Big Apple!


Since my return, I’ve resumed my twice-weekly classes with my Thai tutor, Khruu Kitiya.  For the past two and a half years, we’ve been meeting at the same place, a small coffee shop and restaurant called Bitter Brown, also close to the Asoke/Sukhumvit junction.  They make cute latte art, like the flowers above.  After having been gone for nearly a month, the owner was a bit shocked to see me again.  “We thought you must have graduated!” he said, upon seeing me.

No, I haven’t graduated.  Although, Khruu Kitiya is suggesting it might be a good idea for me to take the government administered “Saab Bor Hok”, or Sixth Grade Examination.  While it isn’t a requirement for me, this examination represents the level of linguistic skills the government expects for certain types of visa holders such as missionaries or those applying for permanent residency.  The test, which lasts about five hours, has four parts:

  • Dictation of questions and multiple-choice answers, in which you have to indicate the correct answer on an exam sheet.
  • Reading of questions and multiple-choice answers, in which you have to indicate the correct answer on an exam sheet.
  • A writing section composed of two parts: Dictation of paragraphs which you have to correctly write on the exam sheet, and then the composing of a short essay based on a question or subject given during the exam.
  • An oral section in which you have to engage in a ten-minute conversation with an evaluator.

Khruu Kitiya’s assessment, with which I concur, is that the first two parts would be very easy for me, the writing section would be challenging (the essay would be harder for me than the dictation), and the oral section would be a killer.  This is because the one thing I don’t spend much time doing is actually speaking with Thais, since I work from home and my work is in English.  As she has suggested before, Tawn and I should probably start using Thai as the spoken language at home.

Contrast this with Jon, a 19-year old Canadian with whom we had dinner Thursday night.  Jon first contacted me through this blog more than a year and a half ago, when he was on a one-year Rotary Club exchange program here in Bangkok.  He finished that program and returned to complete his senior year in Edmonton, with the plan of returning to Bangkok after he has his university degree.

Jon spent most of his year here immersed with Thais – Thai students, Thai friends, living with a Thai family.  Then on this current two-month trip, the circumstances have been the same: all Thai, all the time.  Needless to say, his spoken Thai is way beyond mine and I was humbled by the ease with which he and Tawn were able to converse.  Clearly, there is still some work for me to do!

The good news is, the “Saab Bor Hok” isn’t until the end of November, so I have time to prepare for it as well as time to decide whether or not I even want to take it at this time.


View from my balcony on Friday late afternoon.  We’re in rainy season and there were some spectacular storms this week.  The best part about it, in my opinion, is the way these awesome (and I mean that in the original sense of the word) clouds form: huge, complicated things that build into dark, angry towers.  They are amazing to watch.

Lots of cooking to update you on in the next entry.


Learning Thai Online

When you live in a country for any length of time, I feel you are obligated both by good manners and cultural consideration to try and learn some of that country’s language.  Even if you are just going to visit another country for more than two or three days, I still feel you are again obligated by good manners and cultural consideration to try and learn at least a few key phrases.  “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me”, “Hello” and “Goodbye” are good phrases with which to start.

My experience traveling is that I’ve enjoyed the places I’ve visited much more and received much friendlier, warmer interactions with locals when I’ve made some attempt to speak their language.  This was true in Italy, France and even Australia.  It has also held true when I lived in Hong Kong as well as now that I’m in Thailand.

Learning Thai can be intimidating for foreigners (especially those from Western countries), both because of the non-Roman script as well as the tonal nature of the language.  There are no shortage of tools to help people learn Thai.  If you are in the country, you have many schools as well as private tutors available.  These can be pretty effective resources, as I’ve shown. 

its4thai_logo Outside of Thailand, there are books, CDs, and several websites to use.  These are less effective, as nearly everyone who has used them can testify.  Over the past year, my friend Stuart has been designing a website that takes a very different and, in my opinion, much more effective approach to teaching Thai.  The website,, has been running for a few weeks now and is getting a lot of traffic from around the world.

Not to make this sound like an advertisement, but there are a few things that I think are really effective about the website:

ITS Screen 1 Its highly interactive website uses a variety of games and activities to engage the learner.  As a professional trainer, I know that different people learn in different ways.  Some are visual learners, some are aural learners, some are tactile learners, etc.  ITS4Thai incorporates all those learning styles into the lessons.  Plus each lesson is just a “bite” of learning – only about ten vocabulary words and three or four sentence patterns.  By the time you’ve done the various activities, you’ll find it easy to remember because it is an easy to digest portion.

The format provides a lot of flexibility and real-life applicability.  You can conduct the lessons in whatever order makes the most sense for you.  It is easy to track your progress and choose the direction you want to take.  If you are going to be here on holiday, then choose the lessons that are most applicable to your interests.  If you are going to be here on business, make the appropriate choices.  If you’re going to live here… well, you get the idea.  Unlike a lot of other learning resources, that are laid out in a linear A-Z fashion, ITS4Thai gives you much more flexibility.

Finally, ITS4Thai is inexpensive.  All packages are less than US$20, so you can get a lot of learning without putting down a lot of money.  I truly wish that this option had been available to me in the year and a half before I moved to Thailand.  Had it been, I would have arrived much better prepared.

P1060446 Tawn and I have both been helping out Stuart.  Tawn has been providing PR, doing his first freelance job, and I’ve been helping with the editing of more than 100 additional lesson which will build upon the 60 that are currently on the site.  Needless to say, Tawn and I are both closely involved and enthusiastic about the site.

The results of the PR efforts have started to pay off.  After crafting a press release in both Thai and English, Tawn pitched a story to the education reporter for the English language newspaper Daily Express.  This past Friday, Stuart, Tawn and the reporter met at Starbucks Ari, above.  I tagged along and wound up being used as a model in one of the photo shoots.  Thankfully, those pictures were not used in the story!


Yesterday morning the story ran on page 3, a half page above the fold.  This was very good coverage and a success for Tawn’s freelancing efforts.  It was also, of course, a success for Stuart and ITS4Thai.  In addition to other press coverage and additional PR events, I’m hoping that many people will be drawn to this resource.

And as for you, dear reader, if you are considering a trip to Thailand, I hope you’ll take a look at  Stuart is offering ten free lessons at the site, so you can visit it, learn a little Thai, and evaluate the effectiveness of the website for yourself without having to commit any money.


Got DSL?


The quest for a DSL line in our apartment nears its end, but is not over yet.  Monday morning a technician from TOT (Telephone of Thailand) came to the apartment complex and switched on our home phone line.  Then on Tuesday afternoon a maintenance man from the complex came to our unit and actually activated the telephone jack itself.  Then this afternoon I attached the DSL modem/router, used the enclosed CD-ROM to format the modem and get ready to actually use the DSL line.

Everything appears to be properly installed and ready to go.  The DSL and LAN lights are on full-strength.  The connection appears live.  And yet, when I open Internet Explorer, the request to go to a particular address times out.  I think the settings (“Obtain IP Address Automatically”) are not correct.  So I’ll ask Tawn to help me sort this out, which may involve a phone call to TOT – a daunting task in and of itself.

Halfway Quiz at ULS

Today was my tenth day of Thai language instruction at Union Language School, the halfway point in Module 1.  So today each of the thirteen students had an oral examination with the khruu, or teacher. 

I selected number ten in a random draw, which may have been somewhat beneficial as khruu Lakkanah realized that she was taking too long for each student and the exams became increasingly brief.  I was in the exam for about five minutes, maybe less.  As each question was asked, if I didn’t have the answer right now then she moved on to the next question.  Kind of like being on the speed round of the $64,000 Pyramid game show.

The general areas of knowledge that we were quizzed on:

  • Being able to name yourself, ask names, and ask for clarification about names
  • Being able to describe how you are doing and ask others the same
  • Being able to ask what things are called, and to respond to the same questions
  • Being able to identify common colors, classroom objects, eating objects (bowls, plates, utensils), fruits, vegetables, and meat products.
  • Being able to request basic food and beverage items, and to say how many of something you want, using the right classifiers (“glass of water”, “cup of coffee”, “bottle of orange juice”.)

The biggest challenge for me was to remember the fruits and vegetables.  The first challenge is that the fruits and vegetables common here in Thailand are not regularly available in the United States.  Mangosteen, rambutan, and wax apples (those are just the English names – I have to remember “mangkut”, “nhoc”, and “chompuu”) are all terribly commonplace here but I rarely see them at the local Safeway in the US!

Tawn spent quite a bit of time reviewing the foods with me last night.  I drew pictures in a notebook and he quizzed me on them until I had most of them down.  Tomato (“makhuatheet”), papaya (“malahkha”) and fruits in general (“pohlaymaay”) were three of the stumbling blocks.

All in all, I think I did fine with the quiz.  The purpose of the quiz was really to make sure that students are getting the basic concepts, constructions, and pronunciations before we get too far through the class.  The last day we do have a final – oral and written – and passing is mandatory to proceed to the next module.