Sunday, January 10, 2016

Lessons on Culture

I will be writing about my time with The Boyfriend soon, but as it is two weeks of a story I have to figure out how to tell, It is taking some time. For now, I need to tell people about my lessons in culture through the Thai language.

I have asked my Isan translator, Rose (we’ll name her Ajaan Rose now) to teach me some basic Thai while I’m around Bangkok for the next week. Happily, she has agreed and our classes started yesterday.

I am already frustrated with the Thai language, mainly because there are up to six different ways to say the same sound (they have short and long vowels, they have tonal differences, etc.), which means that there are five potential words that you can accidentally say in a sentence if you don’t say the right variation. Rose is patient with me as I protest and growl when I try to repeat her over and over again during our classes, but I know I will probably not get very far in this language for now with only a week and my inability to understand the tones.

It has been interesting to read her language book because often I am confused by the way the structure of the dialogue is presented to the student (a.k.a. me), or why people say certain things at certain times in the structure of the book. Rose is super smart and has taken time to answer each of my questions, and I feel my mind blow a little bit every time she gives me surprising information about the Thai culture.

Why do people respond to a question with “Hi” and not an answer? The answer: because it’s just a polite question to acknowledge someone in a brief greeting, and not needed answering.

Also, the wai is a particular piece of culture that most falang get wrong. The wai is when you press your hands together and bow to someone in greeting or gratitude. Falang do it for almost everyone that passes by us, which is very much unnecessary. It should happen, though, when a person is junior to their current company – either in status or age. The senior person should wait until the junior respects them with the wai, then give it back in return to be polite. You can also do it as a polite way to show respect to some acquaintances, but apparently my giving wai to the motorcycle guys that drive me around is unnecessary. I am still wrapping my head around how these social rules play out. If you did not pick it up, the culture relies on hierarchies and social status to a larger degree than I’m used to, and I find it fascinating. I also mess up regularly.

And, why does everyone have a nickname? The naming system here is interesting; everyone has a nickname that everyone uses to call them. I asked Rose (her nickname is Rose) why there was such a high prevalence of nicknames, and she explained to me the history of names in Thailand.
Until the early 1900s, Thai people were not required to have last names; historically they were not common. The nicknames were the original names, which were based on the parents’ favorite tree, flower, object, characteristic, etc. that was identified at birth. People had only these identifiers for most of Thai history.

Only when colonization became popular of neighboring regions did Thailand pass a law requiring surnames, in a strategy to deter colonization from western countries who presumably saw surname-holding societies as “civilized”. The surnames were created by talking to monks and consulting astrology rules to determine the best combination of syllables and sounds. Around this time (I think), Thai people decided, why not create official first names as well (you know, the names that are complicated to read/pronounce for westerners)! These first names have been normally based on the astrological details of the person, to kind of sound nice and official. But the original, and first, name of people here are what we call their nicknames.

I look forward to learning more things about this very complex place while botching every word I learn.

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