04 March, 2015

Words as Keys

M. Sioned Curoe hails from Bernard, Iowa. She graduated from Coe College with a double degree in Asian Studies and Creative Writing. Currently, she works as an English Teaching Assistant at Ban Phai Pittayakom in Ban Phai, Thailand. She hopes to enter graduate school for Creative Writing, or to work in the publishing industry after her Fulbright grant ends. Read her poetry and occasional travelogues here. (thailandwithlove.tumblr.com)

“Whether the vessel is a legal document or a rap song, language is often chosen to exclude. To use a scholarly phrase, "discourse communities" are often gated, so it's the good writer's job to offer readers a set of keys.” ― Roy Peter Clark

The Keyring

If there is a sentiment agreed on by writers, world leaders, and public figures across time, it is that words have power. They can be used to help and heal, hurt or inspire. But for words to have impact the listener needs to understand them at a basic level, and one can’t do that if the language spoken is not shared. This problem is one I have run up against many times in my four months in Thailand, from both ends of the English-Thai spectrum.

You can never know isolation until you’re in a room full of people who can’t speak your language, or people who only speak it on a basic level but not enough to translate what is being said. Conversation flows fast – suddenly the whole room is laughing, with you as the odd one out, totally clueless. I’ve been in this situation many times, and often I become aware of doing this to others in Thailand, speaking with the few fluent English speakers at my school in front of other Thais who have simple English vocabulary. But what is to be done? I want to include people as often as possible to establish connections, to educate others about U.S. culture, and to learn about Thailand.


Even though my profession (for at least this year) is teaching, first and foremost I consider myself a writer. It is a lifestyle that necessitates reaching out to others with words, and doing so requires attention to detail, especially word choice. The hours I have spent agonizing over this or that word in a short story lends itself well to real life situations when I am trying to explain to a fellow teacher why it is acceptable to say that someone is “tasteful” but not that they’re “tasty”. I have to remember to keep words and sentence structure simple – so no whipping out the handy-dandy mental thesaurus unless they ask the meaning of a word I used.

To be honest, I screw up a lot.

The most memorable occasion happened quite recently, when a fellow teacher showed me a charm she kept attached to her keys. 

Like this, but attached to a key chain.
Her English isn’t great, but from the Chinese I could read on the back and a combination of Thai and English on her side, I understood it was supposed to attract good luck. She called it a kerungrang, which of course I could not understand, so she typed it into Google translate. The only result was “fetish”. I immediately felt my cheeks grow hot.

“Um, are you sure that’s right? Chai mai?” I asked, trying not to let on how embarrassed I felt.

“Yeah, yeah,” she nodded. “Fet-ish.”

I got up, walking around the desk to look more closely at the webpage. There, under the main translation, was: เครื่องราง – fetish, mascot, talisman, charm.

“Oh. Oh!” Distant memory flooded back to me. “Fetish” is a particularly old word for something kept as an idol or used as a focus of power in pagan cultures. “Okay, I understand now.”

“What you think?” she asked. Of course she noticed the blush.

“Well, in American – uh – slang, fetish means something sexy that people like.” It wasn’t the first time I talked about particularly adult slang with my coworkers, the word “screw” leaping to mind immediately. But this was still weird. Nonetheless, she wanted an answer. “Like foot fetish. Someone who has a foot fetish thinks that feet are very sexy.” I illustrated my point by tapping my temple and then pointing at her feet. The room went silent for a moment, then she burst out laughing.

The whole incident was more funny than frustrating, but misunderstandings like this pervade life in a foreign culture. Trying and failing to find words to explain something to my coworkers often ends in us looking at each other in awkward silence. Sometimes it feels like failure on my part. Was there another way I could have phrased it? If I had studied just a few more words of Thai this week, would I be able to make myself clear?

Me, definitely not studying.
Gifting the Keys

But for all the awkward moments, I find great comfort in the settings where I can give insight into my world – both as a person and as an American.

My students are a mixed bunch. Some are focused, intent on every lesson, while other students are loud, bursting with too much energy to sit for the thirty to forty minutes it takes for me to impart a lesson before a game. The challenge comes down to structuring each lesson so that it’s interesting enough to keep student’s attention, and informative enough that they actually learn something. As much as my students would love it, I can’t just play games with them all the time.

Instead, I’ve had to reassess my priorities, focusing on two things: what are the most useful things to know, and what words or grammar are Thai teachers least likely to address? I want to give them the words to express themselves – the keys into a larger world, if you will. Lessons are made more difficult by my refusal to speak Thai, at least in the classroom, because I want to give students an immersive experience. This can lead to some funny scenarios – when spoken language can’t bridge a gap, body language is the best option.

Practice teaching with Tram Q.
I’m afraid of… I wrote on the board, and directed my students to speak it. “What is ‘afraid’?” No answers were forthcoming, as expected. “I feel afraid,” I said, and proceeded to do my best visual impression of Munch’s The Scream painting. Understanding lit their faces, and some of the more talkative kids shouted the word’s meaning in Thai.

I pulled a sheet of paper out of a folder, showing students the picture I drew an hour before. “I’m afraid of…” I prompted.

!” several students shouted.

“In English, please.”

“Ghost,” one student answered, quietly. Many of my students are shy about speaking in English, an issue I’ve tried to rectify.

“Good! Ghosts. I’m afraid of ghosts.” I had the class spell it for me, writing the correct letters on the board. Then I pulled out another sheet of paper. “I’m afraid of?”



“Spiders, not Spider-man. Good job guys. I,” I pointed to myself, “am afraid of big spiders. I see one and-” I pointed at the floor, pretended to scream, and stomped on the invisible spider. The whole class doubled over laughing so hard it took me several minutes to get them to calm down so we could continue. However, the next week I noticed greater retention of vocabulary including “afraid” and especially “spider”.

Maybe next class I will teach them knock-knock jokes.

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