Learning the Thai Language: “Pasa Thai”

By Lani Valapone Cox

Sometimes I say as few words as possible to try to get away with being Thai, whether it is ordering food or getting into a songtaew; other times the vendor or mae ka will answer me in English just to let me know how badly my pasa Thai is. (Or how good their English is?) Other people who have been here for less amount of time speak the language better than me but I am reminded this is not a race or a competition.

Only I know what it feels like to go from listening to my mom speak to her friends or family and picking out any English words to comprehending some of the Thai words, the questions asked of me and being able to understand and answer back. To the outside ear, I’m a bumbling idiot but to the inner ear I’m undoing years of getting by.

But excuses aside, because I have plenty, I love what learning Thai does for my English. This has been one of the unexpected joys of living here. First of all, I appreciate English. A lot. Never really gave it much thought before except its impact on a global level. But now I give thanks that I learned English first because it’s terribly complicated and because I love all the words we have! Excess never felt so healthy and wholesome. Aroi!

But I also love some of the direct translations of Thai words. Honey for example is nam peung or the words “water” and “bee” as in water from bees. Excited is dteun dten which are the words “get up” and “dance”. The same word you use as a classifier for fruit you also use for children. Adoptive parents have the word boon in it which means “merit” and that concept is a pretty big deal in Buddhism. A cheater is literally a sticky person and a sock, a foot bag, the directions or tid is coupled with “above” to mean north, south under, east sunrise and west sunset.

Although my favorite translations have to do with the word heart or jai. Like surprised is dok jai or “falling” “heart”, to be sad are the words broken and heart or sia jai and when you are happy (as in to receive something) you say dee jai or “good heart”.

For the phrase to go “on honeymoon”, the Thais say, deum honeymoon and deum means “to drink”. To drink love, romance, and the honey of the moon because when I think of the moon, I think of a full moon; it’s such a rich saying, I love it.

I never imagined speaking a foreign language would open two vocabulary doors; one into the appreciation of my own native tongue and the other through the gateway of another set of senses. And I’m not even good at speaking Thai but new words swirl in my head, replacing my dreams with night school lessons. My respect for those who are bi and multi-lingual grows.

Another surprise is I am beginning to understand why my mom talks the way that she does. I thought she spoke in metaphors because this was just her broken English style. Like how she’d refer to a mobile phone as a hand phone. Well, of course, what else are you going to hold your phone with? But then I learned the word for cell phone in Thai is – you guessed it – hand phone.

Now I don’t know what all this stuff means for the future but for now I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to push my way through the resistance.

Lani Valapone Cox is a first generation American currently living in Chiang Mai Thailand where she is subsisting on poetry, music and wicked awesome food. Notable jobs of sunsets past include: archaeologist, pizza maker and Waldorf teacher.

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