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For The Love Of Mike

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FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE

By Andrew Biggs

There has been a 33-year gap between the last two conversations I’ve had with Mike.

“Hey Biggsy remember me? Your old mate from school! How the hell are you? Guess what … I in LERVVVVV as the septics say!”

That was the more recent of the two conversations.

Society has radically altered between that conversation with Mike and the one before it; in that three-decade space in time human beings no longer communicate face to face. We communicate Facebook to Facebook, and that is where Mike found me.

There are usually good reasons why we drift away from friends. We tend to outgrow, tire of, have an argument with, move away from, take second place to kids with, or just no longer enjoy them.

Mike left school in year 10 to be an apprentice plumber. Now he is back and he is in love, albeit with an American accent (since we Australians refer to our American brethren as “septics”, which is short for “septic tanks”, which rhymes with “yanks”, which gives you a telling glimpse into the Australian psyche, unfortunately).

Nice to hear from an old school friend, I wrote back, but what has being in love got to do with me?  

“I love Thailand and have beautiful girlfriend. My Buddha heart tells me she the one!”

She the one?

I myself have experienced the inebriated state of full-on love on occasions, but not once did I ever forget to use the verb to be.

Mike divorced his first wife (or, I suspect, she divorced him … his lacking the verb to be was the least of her problems). He took a trip to Thailand, went to Krabi, and there, on a beach bar amid the Mekhong bottles and backgammon boards, Mike fell in love.

“My girlfriend she from Isan,” writes Mike. “She from just outside Khon Goen! But now she live Krabi! In Ao Nang she manage bar. But not bar girl. She the BRAINS!”

Without a doubt, in that relationship.

What is it with us foreigners? Why do we have to talk, and write, like this?

I remember meeting one girl, a Brit, on the beach at Phuket. She’d shacked up with one of those Thai guys with the ripped chests and six packs who pretend there’s such a thing as “traditional Thai fire twirling”, which is really just Thai for “picking up foreign chicks”.

These girls pay these guys to teach them the age-old nonexistent Thai custom of twirling paint cans of methylated spirits around one’s head, meticulously explaining the steps in the process, the last step being bedding the students.

Anyway the girl in question would speak like this: “Me no like mango shake. Me want banana shake. Me same-same happy girl if you make me banana shake now.” What chance does her boyfriend, already a solitary notch above vegetative state, have improving his English when she talks like that<<??

But back to Mike, whose parents paid $AU30,000 per annum to send him to one of Brisbane’s most prestigious all-boy schools, only to have him end up speaking broken English like an impoverished third-world.

“She 37! Daughter 18 lovely girl and one son give to ex-husband!” he volunteered.

“Does she have a mother back home on the farm?” I asked. “Is she sick?”

“Yeah! How you know? She go hospital but I help my girlfriend with that!”

“Are you planning to buy a house for her in Khon Kaen?”

“Yeah but we buy together! She not for the take our family! We do together from Australia! I want marry! Beautiful women and same with heart! I trust and love! She and me no butterflies!”

He then went on to explain how he sent her 7,000 Baht per month for rent but that was “for our room … she no boom boom!” What on earth does that mean?

As I read his words I was taken back to when I first came to Thailand and was staying at a guest house in Soi Ngam Duplee.

There was a Thai girl living there. Her name was Nok, beautiful and petite, with almond eyes and dark skin.

Nok had a Swiss boyfriend and one day she asked me for help in writing him a letter.

In her letter she wanted to say how much she loved and missed Fabian, and really looked forward to his return in a few months, and she dreamed of the day she and Fabian would get married and live together in Switzerland, and by the way her mother was sick with dengue fever and could he send one thousand American dollars to the following Bangkok Bank account ASAP, and she loved him very much and he was the only one.

I wrote a beautiful letter to Fabian, dear reader. By the end of it I was beginning to fall in love with Fabian myself; it was as if Fabian and I had known each other in another lifetime.

A few days later Nok was back clutching a letter. No, not a reply from Fabian. This one was from Steve in Wisconsin.

Would it be possible, asked Nok with fluttering eyelids, if I could help write a similar letter to Steve, not unlike the one I wrote to Fabian, but with a few of the details changed? Like, her mother fell down stairs, not that she has dengue fever?

I did it, I am ashamed to say, though with a heavy heart. I can only hope Fabian finds it in his heart to forgive me in our next life.

When I asked the guest house owner about this, he explained that Nok had at least three such guys, and that the letter I had written to Fabian had been photocopied and sent out to all her friends so they could write them themselves.

In summary: if you were a westerner in love with a Thai girl circa 1990-1991, you probably received a letter from me.

I didn’t have the stamina to relate all this to Mike.

Does one tell Mike the truth?

Does one lay it on the line, call a spade a spade, or any other idiom one can think of in order to make him see reason?

My policy on this throughout the years has been “no”. My favorite singer, Kate Bush, once sang: “Let the pendulum swing between a man and a woman” and she is absolutely right. Stay out of other people’s relationships.

Put it down to being the New Year. This is what I wrote:

“Look, I wish you all the best with this woman, but in the end you are going to buy her a house in Khon Kaen which cannot by law have your name on it. She will fleece you of all your money. You may as well gather up all your money on your front lawn, douse it in petrol and burn it because that is going to be the same result.

“However, having said all that, I do wish you the best. I really do hope your case is different but I don't think it is.”

To Mike’s credit, he didn’t get angry with me.

“I understand. We have already done our pre-nupts. She understands!”

She understands very well. Like Mike admits, she is the brains in the relationship.

But look at that last message he wrote. At least … at the very least … his grammar is improving.

/Andrew



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As a public service announcement, and as a means of utilizing some of the $40,000 worth of graduate school learning I "invested" in years back, I'd like to add this:

Mike not only sounds like an idiot when he begins to mimic the pidgin English of his girlfriend, he's also effectively preventing her from getting any benefit out of her English language interactions with him since he is now mirroring her deficiencies in the language rather than modeling the correct way of speaking for her.

It may seem to Mike (and those in his shoes) that the broken grammar they are employing will be easier for their girlfriend to understand because the girlfriend is already using it herself, but that's not the case. It is always best practice to model correct grammar just as you would always want to use English vocabulary words appropriately and according to their correct meanings.

Simplifying one's vocabulary is often a good strategy when speaking to a non-native speaker, that's true. But using simpler words is vastly different than using the WRONG words when speaking with them. If you use English words incorrectly you will pass along that error to them and they will end up confusing others or wasting a lot of time being confused. Or you might just confuse the hell out of them (and manage to look like an idiot too) if they already know what the word is actually supposed to mean. It makes zero sense all around.

In conclusion: Adopting the non-native person's grammatical errors and then using those as an ad hoc pidgin to speak with them is NOT the equivalent of the reasonable practice of using very basic vocabulary words to make things easier for ESL speakers. It is more rightly analogous to someone using the WRONG vocabulary words entirely, which will only result in confusion and  tears for everyone. Just speak clear and simple English with your ESL friends and loved ones rather than doing some weird impression of them back at them. You won't sound like an idiot and you might even improve their English in the process.

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