Friday, November 12, 2010

To Enter the Heart

I have covered rain and rambutans, the eccentricities of my college classroom and the traffic rules of Chiang Mai, but there is one entire area of my experience that I have neglected to touch on. That of course is pashaa Thai.

As I mentioned in previous posts, my Thai lessons began informally with my students acting teacher, to their very confused teacher. Thai has five tones: middle, low, high, rising and falling, thus the same collection of letters can have completely different meanings. Having lived in the Kingdom for six months now many of the tones have come to sound very distinct. That was not the case upon arrival.

Just like Kiswahili which has wonderfully similar words (Ona = to see, and Oa =to get married. Or: Elewa = to understand, and Lewa = to get drunk) Thai also has its share of aggravatingly similar sounding words that have the potential to lead you easily astray (Glaai – falling tone = near, but Glaai – middle tone = far. Or Suay – rising tone = beautiful, but Suay – low tone = bad luck).

Learning three words a day from each of my classes, I had, within a couple of weeks, collected a hodge-podge of words that my students thought necessary additions to my slowly expanding Thai lexicon. Pen, pencil, eraser, blackboard, leek, car, fan, sticky rice, dance, door, mackerel.

But my Thai teachers have not been limited to my students. While I have taken some more formal Thai lessons, the best lessons have been those that happen by chance in the markets, at food-stands on the roadside and in the school office.
I have learned colors from my Thai co-workers who explained one morning that each day of the week is assigned a color and that government officials are traditionally supposed to dress accordingly. Monday = Lwang (Yellow), Tuesday = Chompoo (Pink), Wednesday = Ke-ow (Green), Thursday = Faa (Blue), Friday = Som (Orange), Saturday = Mooang (Purple), Sunday = Dang (Red). While many no longer organize their outfits based on the official colors I was told that some do continue to observe by wearing color-coordinated underwear.

I have come to notice that Thai is spoken, at least for women, two to three octaves higher than normal western speech patterns. This was made apparent to me when returning to Thailand after my three weeks away and speaking Thai again for the first time. You smile a lot more when you speak Thai. This is partly because there are certain sounds that can only be made by pulling your mouth back in a wide grin, and partly because (again for women) there seems to be an emphasis on making everything sound extra cute.

Fruit words are my strong point, a direct correlation with the quantity I consume on a daily basis. There are a number of ladies who have helped expand my vocabulary in this avenue. The smoothie woman at the Chiang Mai Gate Market who has come to learn how much I love mangoes was the first to teach me the staples of my smoothies. A woman who runs a fruit stand outside the back gate of CMU quizzed me multiple days running and only when I had successfully repeated malago back to her would hand me a bag of sliced silken papaya. Another woman who runs a stand at the corner of Suan Doak Temple not only taught me the words for Pomelo, Jackfruit and Pomegranate, but had me teach her the English words for her produce and write the English names below their Thai counterparts.

I’ve learned vegetables from Denali’s host mom who runs a vegetable stand, body parts from the women who I receive massages from, and I’ve collected a handful of dirty words from my older students. An old couple that sell noodles at the school cafeteria were first to instruct me in the words for small and large rice noodles and the all important pet nit noi (only a little chili please).

In my linguistic wanderings I have come across a few classic examples of words that are truly excellent when heard with a western ear. Two personal favorites: The Thai word for a pumpkin = Fuck-tong and the Thai word for an incredibly bad smell = Men.

One of the most fun and fascinating aspects of learning Thai is how so many words are a kind of puzzle. Two simple words will be combined to create an entirely new word. There is a kind of poetry to these words and they seem to inherently encourage you to ponder the deeper meaning and understanding of the word. My favorite collection of puzzle words are ones that utilize the word Jai meaning "heart" in Thai. There is:

Tok Jai = “Falling heart” which means: “surprise”
Jai yen yen = “Heart cold” which means: “calm down”
Tang Jai = “Balanced heart” which means: “balance”
Kao Jai = “Enter heart” which means: “understand”

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