Language Barrier in Thailand - My Family Travels

“Mai, sip-jet bee,” I corrected. The extent of my knowledge of the Thai language only reached numbers and a few incorrectly pronounced words. However, I could still understand that the lady on the train guessed I was thirteen years old. It was a mistake I had gotten accustomed to, but I was seventeen and the comment was no less irritating if spoken in Thai. The woman froze. This was our first spoken interaction since I stepped on the train. I smiled at her, anticipating her reaction.

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I had been in Thailand for a week. After seven days at the Rustic Pathways Ricefields Base in Udon Thani, I was ready for some Bangkok exploration. The train took three other students and myself on an overnight ride that may have defined my entire experience in Thailand.

Once arriving on the train, we realized that no one spoke English. While we had already acclimated slightly to the culture shock, we hadn’t been placed in a totally falang-free zone yet. We first realized this when we attempted to set up our beds in the compartment. We struggled until one of the workers began to speak to us in Thai, performing a series of hand gestures that caused us even further confusion. Eventually he stepped into our car and set up the bed himself, laughing quietly and flashing a huge smile as he left.

A woman later arrived at our door with laminated papers spelling out the dinner options available to us. We pointed at the most familiar items and waited for her return. When she arrived with our food, there were several condiments that perplexed us. She must have realized this, as she then picked up each packet and pretended to pour them into the different Styrofoam containers. After pushing cups of hot chocolate into our hands, she retreated with another smile, as genuine as the man’s before her.

If I learned anything from my trip, it was that I have found no purer joy than to communicate with people who I cannot understand. It is a constant challenge — a combination of mispronounced words and silly hand movements must be pieced together to form some kind of semantic value. In the end, it becomes a hilarious endeavor that is worthy of a few smiles.

The difficulty in these situations is remembering cultural differences and trying to respect them. At one point I handed a pre-written Thai note to the hostess asking to notify me when my stop had arrived. I tried to get my wai just right so that my prayer-like hands weren’t so low or high that they caused offense. I threw in a dozen kawp khoon ka’s for good measure, hoping that the explosion of thank you’s would measure up to the politeness expected in this Buddhist country.

I realized with sadness that returning to the US would present a sort of reverse culture shock. Simple tasks would become simple again, and asking the location of the bathroom would not elicit laughter.  I dreaded the moment when I would eventually step off the plane into LAX.

The next morning, the woman and man stood outside of our door, smiling as if to ask us if we needed anything. They began to speak to each other, and I picked up a “sip-sahm bee.” Thirteen years old. I issued my correction, hoping to span the language barrier for a second. After a moment she looked at the man beside her and laughed. It was a friendly laugh, one that I would have to savor until the next time I visit the Land of Smiles.

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