The Dark Side of Learning Thai: Why they don’t want you to.

After putting in a lot of effort to learn the Thai language, it can be frustrating when you get
the impression that Thai people don’t actually want you to speak it. When I first noticed this,
I tried to pass it off, and thought perhaps it was just my perception. But I’ve heard others say
the same thing. I’ve also had an employer who expressly forbade us from speaking Thai in
the workplace – even outside of the classroom – and made it clear that they did not want to
employ foreign teachers who spoke Thai. Of course, it’s not always like that, and Thais are
well known for their readiness to flatter the foreign visitor who speaks a few words of Thai.
But there are times when you feel they’d rather just stick you in the category of dumbass
farang who doesn’t have the mental capacity to speak their language.
I’ve had a few people ask me why this is, and I’ve come up with a number of possibilities
that may or may not be at the heart of this problem.

1. Language is power

Being able to speak a language that others can’t gives you power over them. It puts you in a
position of superiority. It allows you to trick people and say things about them that they don’t
know you’re saying. So when some Thai people discover that you speak Thai, they feel as
though they have lost that power, and they have to watch what they say around you.

2. Inferiority complex

Deeply rooted in the minds of Thai people is the feeling that white westerners are somehow
better than they are. They see our glitzy culture from afar, and it seems so appealing, so
affluent. They realize that until westerners discovered Thailand, the country was still
benighted, and the majority of people were pitifully poor. We brought with us technological
advancements and an outwardly more civilized system of society, which Rama V – one of the
most popular kings – began to introduce during his reign. Nowadays, Thai people model their
society on ours: their music is more westernized, their dress style has lost its eastern flavor,
they have modern shopping malls, and everyone wants to speak English. The point I’m trying
to get at here, is that when we come along and learn Thai, seemingly quite easily, perhaps in
a year or two, the inferiority complex comes back to haunt them, making them feel that once
again we have somehow outsmarted them.

3. You’re listening to Thai, but you just don’t hear it

It’s one thing to speak Thai, but do you really understand the deep meanings behind the
words, phrases, idioms, etc? The truth is, most of us don’t. It would be hard to have such a
deep understanding of the language if you didn’t grow up with it. This is another reason why
I think Thai people don’t want us to speak Thai. To them, their language is more than just
words. It’s the way they think, the way they interact, the way they view the world around
them. So for a foreigner to come along and learn their language at surface level, it’s almost
like we’re doing an injustice to the sanctity of their language. I’m sure most Thais don’t think
like that, but it’s worth considering when asking why Thai people don’t want you to speak
their language.

4. You’re an alien, you’re a legal alien, you’re a farang in Thailand . . . .

Foreigners often hold a privileged position in society in that they are exempt from certain
cultural obligations or expectations. No one minds too much if a farang doesn’t wai people in
Thailand because everyone understands that this is not his or her culture. But Thai people are
expected to wai their elders and superiors, otherwise they would seem rude, and risk losing
respect. As a foreigner learns Thai, it puts Thai people in an awkward position: do we treat
you as a Thai or a foreigner. Although it may be clear from the way you speak and act that
you know a lot about Thai language and culture, on the surface you still look like a westerner.
As a foreigner, you are accepted as a guest, but as you become more like the Thais, you
become subject to their scrutiny. Thais, when they are well acquainted, often talk to each
other in a very direct manner, making jokes about each other, and everyone has a good time.
As a foreigner – even though you may speak good Thai – the Thais may be reluctant to treat
you this way.
If you’ve been searching for an answer as to why Thai people don’t want you to speak their
language, I hope this blog post has been helpful for you. After racking my brains, these four
possible reasons were all I could come up with. If you have any of your own theories on
why Thais don’t want you to speak Thai, please share them here, or leave a link to your own
relevant blog post. 

Horse Pooh and Elephants Ears: Thai Delicacies

For those of you who have never travelled toThailand, your only experience of Thai food probably comes from the local Thai restaurant. While this food is good, and does represent Thai food in some respects, it’s hardly the type of food you will see Thais eating on a daily basis. In fact, there are many more weird and wonderful dishes to be found once you arrive in the country.

Perhaps some of the strangest foods come from the northeast ofThailand– commonly known as Isaan – where the locals eat everything from raw meat to buffalo skin, humming birds to buzzing insects. I have only ever stayed in Mukdahan province, near to the Thai-Lao border, and so when I talk of Isaan food, I can only vouch for the food that comes from this region.

Most of the food in this region is so different from what the average westerner is used to, that I am sure many people would turn their noses up at it. A typical meal consists of some spicy paste – usually mixed with fermented fish that have been rotting in a plastic jar for 6 months – sticky rice, and anything from geng no mai (bamboo soup), to goi deep (raw minced meat). Although I have tried some of these foods, when I stay in Isaan I can only bare so much of it, and usually head of to the nearest market town to find something a little more “conventional.”

However, I personally think, that on the whole, Isaan food is some of the tastiest and most unique food you’re going to find in Thailand. While staying there over these last few weeks I discovered an altogether new and quite palatable delicacy: horse pooh. Okay, not actual horse pooh.  This is the name of an Isaan sweet which resembles little balls of horse pooh. The Thais call it Khee Ma which literally means horse pooh. The sweets are made from rice and coconut, and have stodgy consistency. They make a great after-meal snack, or an alternative to coffee and cake. However, be careful if you ask for this; if you use the wrong tone, the Thais may think you’re asking for dog pooh! Check out my blog post: Five Great Ways to Learn Thai, to avoid mistakes like this.

Another Isaan sweet is Hu Chang, a large crispy pancake-like sweet which resembles an elephant’s ear. Hu Chang is made from rice, and tastes something like rice crispy buns. Most Thai sweets are made from organic ingredients and come fresh from the frying pan, meaning that you don’t have to worry about eating too many of them! If you’re staying in Isaan, and don’t think you can stomach frog soup, or rhino beetles with sticky rice, try out these healthy and natural snacks as an alternative.

Bangkok Floods: Ground Zero

The floods that have swept across Thailand this year are said to be the worst in over 50 years. When I first heard talk of them, I didn’t pay too much attention. Floods are a frequent occurrence in Thailand during the annual rainy season from June to October. I imagined they’d soon be over, and listed them as unimportant on my mental checklist. Besides, that kind of thing always seems to happen to someone else. But as the floods continued moving southwards, devastating the homes and lives of those who stood in the way, I began to take notice. Still, I didn’t believe they’d affect me.

I have worked as a TEFL teacher these last few years, enjoying the dream that so many people are making into a reality nowadays. The school year starts in May here, with a 2-3 week break in October signaling the end of the first semester. As the holidays approached this year, it became clear that many people’s holiday plans were going to be disrupted by the floods already wreaking havoc in Ayutthaya and other northern provinces.

Initially, our school had planned to take around 100 students on a camp to Kao Yai, a popular getaway just north of Bangkok. But as it became inevitable that the floods would reach Bangkok, the camp date was pushed back until the end of October. Everybody hoped that the floods would have receded by then, and we could all go on camp as planned. In fact, they got worse, and the camp has now been postponed until December. But not only has the camp been disrupted, now the second semester has been pushed back by two weeks, meaning that  precious teaching time is going to be lost.

I also have a family. My wife tends to worry a lot more than me, and so when she suggested leaving Bangkok to escape the effect of the floods, I didn’t take her too seriously. But as the flood situation worsened, I decided that I should support her, at least for the sake of our 15-month-old son. We are now in the northeast of Thailand, staying in her mum’s village and waiting for the floods to pass so that we may return to some sense of normality. All buses returning to Bangkok have been cancelled, and so even if I wanted to return, I couldn’t do it right now. Our money is quickly diminishing, and I’m now waiting on my school to pay me so that we can buy milk for our son.

But we’re not the only ones who are feeling the bite of this flood episode. In fact, we have been rather lucky. Many people have lost their homes, their cars, and other valuable possessions. Years of hard work washed away in a few moments. Our house, as of the time of this writing, has not yet been affected by the flood waters. The last I heard from my friend in Bangkok, the water on the street where we live is beginning to rise, literally rising up through the inefficient drainage system. Perhaps our spell of luck is coming to an end. The only thing in our favour right now is that we don’t have much to lose. We rent the house, and all our furniture and valuables have been moved to the upper floor. Many people in Bangkok will be dipping into those hard-earned life savings to keep their heads above the water – literally and figuratively – in these coming months.

And yet, I can’t help sensing a note of bitter irony in some of these flood stories. Affluent Thais like to build high walls around their houses, creating a physical barrier between themselves and the gritty reality of life for the majority of Thailand’s poor inhabitants. Those walls may have protected them against robbers and thieves, but they were useless against the inexorable onslaught of nature. It’s at times like these that we remember what is really important in life: food and water, safety and comfort for our families. I feel lucky that I have only had my plans disrupted, and I pray for the families of those who have lost loved ones. Let’s hope an end to these raging floods is in sight.