Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Confusing English

If one is not convinced that English is a bewildering language, try explaining to a non-English speaker the terms used for the front and rear compartments in a car. This morning, I wanted to learn the Thai terms for a car's "trunk" and "hood." When the driver asked what they were called in English, we amused him by attempting to sort through the differences between British and American terms for the same item: "Trunk" in American English (I guess originating from the trunks affixed to early cars) is called a "boot" in England (and Australia), while "hood" is the "bonnet" in England. To complicate matters, my friend Tracey from Newfoundland, noted that in Canada "boot" and "hood" are used. The driver just chuckled.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


It's easy to forget the cultural and environmental underpinnings of one's homeland when away for a while. Last week we flew to the States for a short visit, to celebrate our son's university graduation. Following is a list of those things that surprised, delighted, or shocked me:

1. The variety of people in America is stunning. Immediately upon arrival in San Francisco, I was struck by the many shapes and sizes (especially the large sizes) of people in The U.S.! After living pretty much as a giant among a whole lot of short dark-haired people, I blended in right away. No one had a clue that I lived 10,000 miles away in a land where spoken English is an ongoing struggle, even more than it is for many Americans, where shorts are the norm, and shoes an option. I just stood in the airport concourse and stared at everyone, a goofy smile of wonder on my face.

2. Driving isn't scary at all. It was just plain fun driving around streets on which only vehicles travel. No dogs sleeping in the passing lanes, no handcarts to avoid, and no motorcycles weaving through stalled traffic. It was a pleasure humming along the roads in an over-priced rental. I didn't care! It was great!

3. I actually ENJOYED going to a mall. Prior to my return to Bangkok, I avoided them at all costs. But compared to the crazy cacophony of Thai malls, they are convenient and quiet! I could read with no distractions, and get a meal with no rice. Admittedly, I did crave Thai food toward the end of the visit, but it was nice to have western food in something other than a fast food restaurant. In Bangkok, it is difficult to carry on a conversation at a mall due to the madhouse atmosphere of computer games, shouting salespeople, and high-pitched girls in miniskirts sending a sales pitch out into the aisles with the aid of a huge sound system; at a mall in St. Louis, I can shout from one end of the cavernous enclosure to the other and be heard.

4. How nice to sit in the sun and have a drink without dripping sweat down my chest into my waistband. The weather was absolutely perfect, with temperatures lower than Bangkok ever sees. We sat at a corner sidewalk cafe, sipping Long Island Ice Teas and petting a parade of well-behaved pooches who were out walking their owners. Here, I carry a stick the better to keep my ankles free of dog teeth marks. When walking our dogs, Thais smile in an amused sort of way. I know what they're thinking: "What is that strap you have attached to your dog?"

5. I felt like I was eavesdropping all the time. In Thailand, my limited knowledge of the language allows a certain kind of audio veil to envelope me. I hear people talking, but it's just background noise, and I am not distracted. Last week, I couldn't NOT listen to conversations all around me, even though I tried. It was impossible to tune them out because I understood every word. There were times, though, when I wanted to turn to people who were blathering on about inane things and say, "Do you mind? Your moronic discussion is driving me crazy!" The Thais may be saying the same things, but I don't know they are.

6. I could read books in bookstores, and not just look at pictures. That was enjoyable!

Even though I am an American, I still sometimes feel like a stranger when I return. It is kind of nice, though, to be able to be inconspicuous, even though I often feel out of place, because I'm the only one who knows.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Learning About "Jai Yen"

Once in a while I have the opportunity to put patience to the test. In Thailand I get the chance to practice the art of "jai yen yen"--keeping a "cool heart" more often than in, well just about anywhere else.

Today is a school holiday; a great day to get done those things I have to do. I have a number of tests to correct, some labs to go through, and planning for the rest of the semester. Normally, I would do that at home, but with two bored dogs and the cleaning lady around, concentration is not guaranteed. No problem, I think. Just go to the cafe, enjoy the air conditioning, have some coffee, plug in the ol' iPod, and cruise on through the day. In addition, I'll stop by the bank and apply for a new ATM card to replace the one eaten by a machine on Friday, which was a national holiday.

My first stop is to a nearby educational book store where I can get online and check email, as my computer has decided to not link up at home, possibly because our new puppy chewed partway through the power cord causing a number of strange things to happen on the screen. No problem, I'll buy another cord--someday--when I can find my way into the city and visit the Apple store. Meanwhile, I'll use the computer at school, and at the internet cafes. As I pedal up to the book store, I find to my great dismay that it is closed. Upon closer scrutiny, I notice that it appears to be permanent. Oh, well, I'll go to my next favorite spot, which I discover opens at 11:00; in three hours.

Mai pen rai. No problem! The air is cool as I pedal along the busy thoroughfare, going the wrong way next to the curb rather than cross six lanes of traffic, only to have to do it again in less than a mile. I swing into the bank parking lot and casually stroll upstairs to speak to a customer service agent. Of course I can get a new card, she says smiling (always smiling, and they always mean it). May I have your passport and bank book? Uh... I say. Loosely translated into English, it means; "Uh..." They are both safe at school, securely locked away in the finance office. Will a copy be OK? I ask hopefully. Still smiling, she replies, "No." OK, I'll bring them tomorrow. "Oh, sorry sir, closed tomorrow--holiday." Of course; we are taking the day off today to lengthen the weekend. "But the branch at the mall will be open." I make a mental note to get the passport and bank book then travel to the mall tomorrow after school, and move on to my next destination.

Naturally, the little cafe where I can sit and do my work is not open on Mondays. Mai pen rai. No problem. Glancing across the street, I see something I have never witnessed since moving here last July: An empty seat at the internet shop. I hurry across the street and grab the last seat. As I settle in, the sounds in the tiny cramped shop begin to build, assaaulting my ears with loud, excited childish chatter and the clakking and bursting of soundtracks from 20 video war games. I check the time: only two hours until the ADULT internet cafe opens closer to home. I sigh and reach for my iPod, which I find to my increasing concern I have forgotten.

This is the ultimate test of Jai yen. I wonder if this is how monks test their mettle?