By Andrew Biggs
How was your Valentine’s Day? Mine was really, really special.
This had nothing to do with love in any of its myriad forms, running the spectrum from unconditional at one end to Nana Plaza at the other.
I just clocked up 30 years in Thailand.
This milestone won’t garner as much national interest as, say, dangerous air pollution or politicians plotting ingenious methods to return to Thailand. However it was quite jarring for your columnist, who remains a teenager trapped in the body of a somewhat middle-aged man.
My first year in Thailand was one of the most exciting, head-spinning times of my life. And part of that had something to do with my picking up a pen two weeks into the Thai experience and writing GOR GAI.
That’s the first letter of the Thai alphabet.
I have no idea what possessed me to decide to learn the Thai alphabet. After all, I only came here for a short backpacking trip on the way to London where I had work lined up. I had memorized all the Thai I needed to get by — namely “hello”, “thank you”, “how much”, “expensive” and that all-important question: “Quick. Where is the bathroom?”
I’d been backpacking through Isaan on my way back to Bangkok to continue my journey to London. Thais have a disparaging word for backpackers — they call us farang khee nok, which translates as “bird shit foreigners”, the idea that dirty, straggly-haired westerners drop themselves off in remote places not dissimilar to bird droppings, spending as little money as possible.
I was intrigued by the Thai language, so utterly unrelated to my native Australian tongue, that I decided I had to learn it.
Most of the books around back then taught Thai via the English alphabet. Any “karaoke” transliteration dispenses with the tone attached to that word, as integral to Thai as tenses are to English. How do you pronounce >>song<< when it can mean number two (rising tone), envelope (middle), send (low) — or even a seedy brothel (falling)?
(What if I wanted to say: “Send these two envelopes to the brothel!” It’d be written like this: “Song song song song pai song.”)
Some clever educators get around this by adding little bumps and squiggles on the transliterated words. If you’re going to invest time in learning bumps and squiggles– why not just sit down and learn the real Thai letters for god’s sake?
That was my thinking 30 years ago when I wandered into a Khon Kaen bookshop and asked: “Have you got a book that teaches me Thai letters?” I came out of that bookshop with a Primary School Grade 1 exercise book.
If my life were a Hallmark movie you’d next see me seated by an open bedroom window, happily tracing Thai letters, the sounds of traditional Thai music tinkling out of my transistor radio.
No. What transpired was a nightmare.
The very first letter in the Thai alphabet is that GOR GAI, or the sound of G as in the first letter of the Thai word for “cock” … as in “cock-a-doodle-doo”, dear reader. This is a family newspaper.
I traced GOR GAI over and over on page one of that textbook designed for primary school students. Once finished I had a tremendous sense of elation. I had come out of the linguistic closet — I was bilingual and proud!
I crashed back down to earth when I snuck a look ahead and saw there were 43 more letters to learn. Even at three a day, it would take me a little over two weeks to learn them all – which means I’d complete the list sometime in London.
I employed a Thai teacher to help me. I heard from a mutual friend she became a Buddhist nun in 2002. My only surprise was it took so long between teaching me and donning the white cloth.
“Your language has too many letters. I’m only learning the first half,” I pronounced the first time we met. I hit the roof when I learned there were three ways of writing a “T”; imagine how my teacher must have dreaded revealing there were FIVE ways to write an “S”.
When I got to the end of the 44, my ajarn dropped another bombshell.
“Now for the vowels.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, throwing down my pen. “In the English alphabet we incorporate the vowels into the alphabet. We don’t separate them!”
“You’re not learning English,” she replied crisply. That shut me up.
Well look on the bright side, I thought. English has five letters that act as vowels. At least there wouldn’t be so many to learn.
Thirty-two of them.
My teacher tried to smooth over things by explaining there were actually “only” 18 along with compounds and such. Oh well that makes life easier, doesn’t it? Excuse me while I go rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.
I had extended my stay in Thailand. I was three months into my Thai experience, and quickly becoming a finalist in the Mr Boring Farang pageant of 1989.
While all my western friends were out gallivanting around Silom, calling me from the phone box outside Pussy Galore, I stayed at home and learnt yet another letter that sounded like an “S”.
I finally memorized all 76 sounds and letters.
“And now,” my teacher said with foreboding: “… the tones.”
We had to return to those 44 consonants. In Thai, some of those consonants are high class. Some are the hapless middle class, but the vast majority are dirty low class consonants. These classes govern the tones.
Spotting the class differences in consonants was nowhere near as easy as spotting them in the Thais themselves. There is no khunying hairsyle or “Na Ayutthaya” tacked onto the end of the letter to make it high class. Nor is there an elongated fingernail on the right pinky finger to clearly designate the lower classes.
I had to go back and learn ‘em all over again.
The more I delved into Thai, the more I realized I was out of my depth. I knew absolutely nothing.
You would think that this overload of information would build until I exploded like some Khaosan Road backpacker trying to get directions from a tuk-tuk driver.
No. The opposite happened. It started to gel.
I began being able to reading Thai words. I could hear the nuances in the tones as people spoke. Sentences started to poke out of the cacophony of sound.
After six months there was an epiphany, and my hard work started to pay dividends.
I may not have ever made it to that job in London, but the pay-off was more than enough. I got fluent.
It is now 30 years later, and to this day, I still learn a new Thai word every day. I make mistakes and mix up the tones, especially if it’s the morning after a particularly long session chewing the fat with dear Uncle Smirnoff.
Who would have thought a mere 44 consonants, 32 vowels and five tones would open up a new world that I remain in to this day? I got through with a little perseverance, plus the knowledge that if 68 million Thais could speak the language, why couldn’t I?
If I were more of an ethereal, spiritual type of writer I would point out that I arrived in this country on Valentine’s Day and embarked on a 30-year love affair with Thailand, beginning with the language.
But I’m not ethereal. I’m just a hack writer who in a fit of youthful exuberance took an unexpected life turn three decades ago. I’m able to say that last sentence in perfect Thai. That’s the best anniversary gift I can give myself.