Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Tone Deaf

Me in Thai Class
It is no secret that I am NOT a singer, and in the past I have been accused of being tone deaf. This label has never really bothered me but my recent endeavor to learn the Thai language has left me wishing I were a bit more musical.

Just as music relies upon tones, the Thai language is tonal. This means that the meanings of words are often tied to the tone you use when saying them. For example:

Khaw means rice when said with a falling tone.
Khaw means him or her when said with a middle tone.
Khaw means white when said with a rising tone.

Confused yet?? You.Have.No.Idea. My time with my Thai teacher goes something like this:

Teacher: Khaw (with a falling tone)
Me: Khaw (With what I think is a falling tone)
Teacher: Khaw (With the exact same tone as I just said)
Me: Khaw (once again, I repeat exactly what she has just said)
Teacher: Khaw (with a very deliberate falling tone)
Me: Khaw (For the third time, I repeat a word that sounds exactly like what the teacher has said but now I say it really slow and loud because that’s what you do in the south when you are trying to make someone understand what you are saying)
Teacher: (Finally giving up) Okay, you just need to keep practicing

The problem is…I can’t hear the difference! Obviously, what my teacher is hearing is NOT what I am hearing.  I really am tone deaf! Yes, I get frustrated but I will not give up! 

The one thing I know I need to do is practice, so I have committed to use Thai as much as I can. This has caused me a bit of trouble. Like one day when our landlord brought over two workers to harvest the bananas that are growing in our yard. My Southern hospitality kicked in and I wanted to offer them something to drink. I walked out on to our carport and said to one of the workers, “Hang Nam?” He stopped in his tracks and looked at me a bit confused. I thought he must not have heard me so I repeated, “Hang Nam?” The look he gave me in return went beyond confusion to awkwardly uncomfortable. That look triggered the realization that all though I thought I was saying, “Thirsty?” I was really saying, “Bathroom?”  Yes, I wish I could blame it on tone, but I was saying the wrong word entirely. I can’t image what the poor guy thought, “Who is this crazy white lady who is encouraging me to go to the bathroom??” 

My attempts to use Thai leave many scratching their heads. Even when I say the correct word it is often accompanied by the hand signals we use in class to help us remember. There I was standing at a counter trying to explain that I couldn’t find the card the sales person was asking for. I was saying, “Mi haa.” Which means, “I can’t find.” I kept repeating the right words but all the while I am using my hands as if I am digging in the dirt. Again, the salesperson is looking at me as if I have lost my mind! Maybe, I have!

I will keep trying and I am sure I will have many more stories of embarrassing encounters. I will continue to be the strange white lady who says inappropriate things and acts like a crazy person, but one day by the grace of God I will be able to communicate. Until then I will be careful not to call my repairman (chang) an elephant (chang), and maybe, just maybe, I will be able to offer someone a drink without having a potty mouth!