30 March, 2015

Thai Acabemy (555)

A native of Arizona, Emily Foree, is an avid outdoors adventurer, slack-line enthusiast, and mediocre picture-taker. Currently teaching English in Phitsanulok, Thailand through the Fulbright Program, Emily hopes to continue fostering her passion for traveling while focusing on her interests in community development, ecology, and environmental issues. Emily's narrative explores an unexpected and surprising language classroom in Thailand.

Thai Acabemy 

The Thai language is intimidating. After just one week of language lessons, my Thai was minimal at best. Simple statements like “yes” and “no” were just beyond my grasp, and I was trying as hard as I could to end each sentence with a polite and expected “ka.”

One afternoon during our orientation month in Bangkok a few fellow ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) and I decided to visit the Grand Palace, the former official residence of the Thai monarch. The complex houses a number of noteworthy buildings, including Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which is breathtakingly beautiful—lots of gold leaf. If you are unfamiliar with Bangkok, this is arguably one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city. We hailed a taxi not knowing it was about to become our most valuable classroom.

Having just learned important taxi-taking vocabulary, we were eager to practice with our driver. He laughed with us as we butchered tones and pronunciation, but somehow managed to decipher our request. Slowed by never ending Bangkok traffic jams, and wanting to continue the playful atmosphere of communication we had created, we began yelling out any and every word in Thai we could remember. “What…name?” we inquired in broken Thai, effectively achieving our desired introductions. 

Bangkok traffic.

Our conversation quickly turned to shouting as the four of us competed to use our new vocabulary. We laughed, asked our driver where he was from, shouted "ma muang!" (mango!), "tuah fak yow!" (green bean!), "nam blah!" (fish sauce!), pointed out things that were “suaay mak mak!” (very very beautiful!), pointed at things that were “see chompoo” (pink), attempted to say we liked spicy food, told him we were teachers, and talked a lot in general, considering we really did not share a common language, and it was an all-around positive cultural exchange. "Sanuk! Sanuk!," we shouted, noting the fun!

Our conversation was fueled by laughter and maintained by a mutual desire to connect despite a significant language barrier. Even though we spoke little to no Thai, and our taxi driver spoke an equivalent amount of English, we learned each other’s names, discovered that Pi Jo was originally from the Northeastern part of Thailand (Khon Kaen, to be specific), and that he had two children, a son and a daughter. It was evident that our playful approach to using Thai and communicating was well received and created an open road for practicing a wildly difficult language—not just for us, but for Pi Jo as well. 

ETAs Krista, Emily, Griffin, and Ned at Wat Arun.

At some point along our ride to the Grand Palace, while waiting at a traffic light, Pi Jo opened his door and called to a woman selling bags of food on the street that were unidentifiable to our foreign eyes. When Pi Jo pulled out 20 Baht and bought a bag, we figured he was just a little hungry and wanted a snack for himself.


Instead, he was buying a bag of fried bananas to share with us—some khanom, the Thai word for “snack.” He told us, in far fewer words than I now write, that this particular type of banana-snack is his favorite, and he wanted us to try them. The bananas were absolutely delicious, but that is not why they are (and will remain) my favorite Thai dessert. More important was the implicit communication that was expressed and received through our first silent moment with Pi Jo. This small action was the nicest, most genuine moment I had shared with anyone thus far, and it really gave me an insight into Thai culture. Although I have experienced countless moments of unbelievable courtesy and compassion since arriving in Thailand, this memory will always stand out to me as the moment I felt entirely capable of making meaningful connections with people despite an inability to fluently express myself.

Adding some transportation words to my vocabulary greatly altered my experience in Bangkok and in Thailand. Taxis had previously caused me a certain level of anxiety, considering the worldwide sentiment that Taxi drivers generally take advantage of tourists by refusing to use their meters and exorbitantly inflating prices. Some Bangkok drivers would try to take me to various scams, and others would drive in frustratingly roundabout ways to my desired destinations. However, as soon as I began using even a little bit of Thai this all changed. By greeting others with a respectful “sa wat dee ka” (hello) and appropriate “wai,” I am able to express my desire to engage with Thai culture, and this effort continues to be appreciated by every person I meet. Taxi drivers are no longer anonymous beings, but temporary friends who I can exchange a few meaningful words with, or maybe even share some fried banana.


Shayna and Emily with host teachers in Mae Hong Son Province.
After spending a month teaching in Phitsanulok, I stepped into a taxi for the first time. The ride was over an hour long, and to my surprise I found that I was able to converse and communicate with my driver for nearly the entire time. An activity that had once given me anxiety had become the most accurate measure of my linguistic progress.

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