There isn’t much in the Thai language that sounds even remotely familiar to me in English or anything, which makes it even harder to learn. In Spanish, it seemed half the words were just English with an O at the end of them. Mucho! Carro! Impresivo! Then Italian was just sort of Spanish-like but pronounced a little more emphatically and with more waving of the arms. Ciao! Che bello! Fetuccine! Turkish was a little wacked, thanks to crazy syntax: everything came backwards and with suffixes: Benim arkadaşlarımla pazara cuma günü gittim. Friends-my-with market-to Friday day went-I. But I could get over that. Every letter was pronounced one specific way. Spelling was easy as pie and I could read the alphabet (thanks to a language revolution by President Atatürk in the 1920s which changed it all from the Arabic script!)
But Thai? Hopeless. The alphabet looks pretty cool but makes me cock my head to one side, puzzled in that sort of way your pet is when you say things to them such as “sally forth and retrieve” or “incorporating Method acting as understood by Lee Strasberg, give us the impression that you are deceased.” And don’t get me started on the tones. There are five. That means that kon, kon, kon, kon, and kon mean five different things, depending on if you use a low, middle, high, rising or falling tone. And don’t bother asking the average Thai (language instructors excepted) what tone they happened to use. I asked a Thai friend once and the response was some eyebrow knitting that looked physically painful for her, a long Ummmmmm and, “I think it’s sort of a rising…” Ah, ok, rising tone. “…and falling tone, sort of together.” Say what? I know enough to know that this conversation was not going to advance my Thai language abilities.
There are, however, a few — just a few — vaguely familiar-sounding words. And they just so happen to sound like curse words.
The first example came to me recently, bringing the total to two. Finally enough for a blog post I figured. Back story: I happen to be allergic to Thai mangoes. Half a mango and my palms itch, my eyes swell nearly shut, and get an itching going in the back of my throat that makes me wonder if pharmacies in Bangkok carry EpiPens. One of the most delicious things on earth is mango and sticky rice… and I can’t eat it. I’ve had it three times, enough to make me crave it, and each time my reaction was a little bit worse. (It was only the third time that we were able to pin down that it was the mangoes; I’m not masochistic.) So anyway, Peung introduced me to a peculiar little plum called Mayong Chid. It’s yellow, vaguely mango-shaped, and totally mango-flavored! So perhaps I win after all. Screw you, Mother Nature! But that’s not the only fun of this fruit. Because Thais pronounce the ‘ch’ a bit softly more like ‘sh’, and because there’s a fine line between their d’s and t’s, I feel like I am saying shit every time. Insert my fourth-grader’s giggle here. It’s the little things in life.
That’s one example, but the next one gets better. It’s a vegetable that sounds a bit similar to another foul-mouthed expression. It’s close enough that my mother-in-law won’t even say it in my presence but actually chuckles a bit and waves me away when I kiddingly ask her what it is. It’s a green gourd — fuk kiew. Seriously. Perhaps there are a whole slew of Thais out there who have been perplexed when angry foreigners have shouted about green gourds at them. I know I made some vegetable chit chat the time a group of teenagers smashed up our rental car.