“Khop khun kha” I said shyly to the flight attendant as she handed me my entry documents. What was I even doing saying that? Clearly, she spoke English.
“Sawatdee kha” I mumbled at half-past midnight to the incredibly over it hotel employee, holding a sign with my name on it, at the arrivals gate in Bangkok. He speaks to hundreds of foreigners a day, what did it matter how I spoke to him?
“Sabaidee, mai kha?” I said tiredly, confused, but a little more confidently to the van driver. “SABAIDEE KHAP!” He responded enthusiastically. “Poot Thai, dai mai khap?!” “You speak my language?!” He asked me. Only a little and not well, I responded. “Dai nit noi kha, dewah poot mai gang.” We talked the rest of the way to the hotel as my jetlagged brain was forging through my cloudy mind, only to be slow to understand and even slower to respond. “Poot Thai gang, Poot Thai gang!” "She speaks Thai well, she speaks Thai well!", he informed the hotel employees upon arrival. I’d found my voice and however feeble and clumsy it may have been, I knew a piece of me was home.
It’s funny how one’s mouth can miss a language. I didn’t even realize it had been thirsting for it until I took a sip. The sip turned into a fountain bubbling from my sloppy tones, tired brain, and fumbling words.
They say when someone learns a language, he or she develops almost an alternative identity, one that fits into the culture and language one’s speaking. How fascinating, right? When I learn a language, I develop a more socially appropriate version of myself to fit in. I’d like to think the version of Laura speaking Thai ends up bowing a lot more, speaks slightly softer, and my total spaz of a person does my best to “jai yen yen”, cool my heart.
Learning a language gives an inside look into people’s lives and cultures, however small it may be. My favorite place in town is Wararot Market, where one can buy anything from Tribal Hmong textiles, frogs and turtles in large buckets, colorful flowers, temple offerings, to Northern Thai goods and food. I was buying shoes with a friend on my last day when we decided to sit down on the small wood stools and talk with the shop owner. Her seventy year-old mom walked in, sat next to me and began rambling on about her life, as all good grandmas do, regardless of how much I actually understood.
I learned she had studied abroad in America while in college in Minnesota. I asked her “Chob pratet America, mai kha?” Do you like America? To which she replied with a heartfelt, enthusiastic, and drawn out “CHOOOOB!” YES! But she made sure to clarify she likes Thailand more because American is expensive and goi teaw, noodle soup, is only 40 baht in Thailand and 400 baht in America.
Learning a language takes out the aspect of “the other.” It removes the fear of the unknown. It makes me put my trust in the people around me. I get to relate to people on their level, which is what we all desire, I think.
People are immediately familiar. I’m no longer a stranger.