Monday, September 25, 2006

It's the little things.

I am trying hard to follow AUA's "don't speak Thai" rule. They ask students not to speak Thai either in or out of class until they have reached Level 5, which typically represents 800 hours of study. Other than "hello" and "thank you"- which are kind of unavoidable- I do not regularly speak any Thai. With one exception.

There is absolutely no way I am going to let AUA's rule come between me and ordering food. Sure, you can point at things and if you look confused enough, many vendors will offer a reassuring "this chicken" or ask "you want noodle?" I wouldn't starve without speaking Thai, but there just isn't any easy way, either in English or through gestures, to indicate that you want som tom (papaya salad) made only a little spicy and without the small, raw crab that is usually added- and that isn't a complicated order.

At a stir fry stall, Thai is a necessity unless you are going to stick to very basic dishes like noddles with chicken or fried rice with pork. A particular favorite of mine is sen-yai (wide noodles, as opposed to other varieties) pad kee mao (a stir fry with chili and basil as the main spices) talay (mixed seafood, usually shrimp, squid, and whatever else). Try acting that one out. Actually, that isn't even the whole order... I also have to add "pet" (spicy). Pad kee mao is is an inherently spicy dish, but my skin color usually results in very little chili being added unless I say that I want it. Chili is always a condiment at food stalls, so you can add it yourself to the dish after it is served, but it tastes better to me if it is added during cooking.

Anyway, here is what made my night. I went outside my apartment- about 30 feet, to be precise... I love living on Soi 38- to get some cow man gai*. I was really hungry, so I decided to ask if I could pay 40 baht (instead of the usual 30) and be given "a lot" of chicken. My request was met with absolutely no confusion and no asking me to repeat myself... just an enthusiastic "sure!" And more chicken. I am certain my 130 hours at AUA have helped my accent to be intelligible, and although I didn't know the exact gramatical structure for this request, I drew on what I've been hearing at AUA and must have said it correctly, or at least close enough. I was thrilled. Hey, it's the little things.

*Literally, this is just "rice with chicken" but there is more to it than that. The dish is one of my favorites, something I often get when I don't want anything spicy or oily. Steamed white meat chicken is served over a bed of rice that has been cooked in chicken stock and has a very distinct and wonderful taste. A few sliced cucumbers garnish the dish, and a spicy chili peanut sauce is available for those who want to add some heat or complexity to the meal. It is also served with a bowl of chicken broth that may or may not have a bit of chicken or vegetable in it.

For 30 baht, or like 80 cents. Or, in my case, with "chicken a lot" for $1.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Why is coffee brown?
Why is sunbather brown?
Why is cigar brown?
...why is poop brown?

Plurally-challenged introspection found on a Thai t-shirt.

And on an entirely different note...

Don't ask questions. Just watch this.
Attempting to Learn Thai 3

September 24th, 2006
Months in Thailand: 3
Hours at AUA: ~110 (Level 1)
Other study: None since I started at AUA (before that, some minimal self-study and 6 very poor classes at another school)

Other than missing class on Wednesday (I guess since Thailand never has a snow day, it has to have the occasional coup day to make up for it), I noticed some substantial progress last week. I am understanding increasingly more of what is being talked about in class. I had a few moments when I thought to myself, "wow, I understand every word that was said for about 30 seconds," and I would say that I almost always understand the basic gist of what is happening.

It is also very apparent that I am now understanding more than most other Level 1 students. I notice when other students don't understand a question and give a confused answer, and often it is clear that I am following something that others are not. This is actually a very useful and encouraging benchmark for my progress. I should mention that AUA levels are meant to take 200 hours, so this is not terribly surprising as I am now more than halfway through and have more hours in than newer students.

Outside of class I've had a few breakthrough moments as well. At a party last night, I listened while another American spoke in Thai to answer a question that a native Thai speaker had asked him. He replied with 6 or 8 sentences, and when he was done I realized that I had understood each individual word as well as the meaning of the sentences. Now as you might expect, he was speaking very slowly and using easy vocabulary. It was still exciting though. I am also picking up on more random words and phrases that I hear around me, on tv, etc.

Still leaving Thai TV on, and I've been to 3 Thai language movies in the last 2 weeks. They all had English subtitles, though, and when you watch a subtitled movie you tend to tune out the language being spoken. The exposure can't hurt though.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Attempting to Learn Thai 2

September 7th, 2006
Months in Thailand: 2.5
Hours at AUA: ~60
Other study: None since I started at AUA (before that, some minimal self-study and 6 very poor classes at another school)

Progress: Nothing groundbreaking, but I am definitely understanding a substantial amount more in class than when I started. I would say I follow the gist of the conversation/activity/etc. about 75% of the time. I can't reproduce what I hear, and I certainly don't catch every (or even most) words, but I understand what's going on. (Keep in mind that Level 1 covers very simple topics and the teachers encorporate a great deal of drawing on the board, sound effects, and body language.) In the mixed Level 1+2 class (4pm) I understand substantially less, but again noticibly more than when I started.

I'm sure my vocabulary has not improved by very many words, but that isn't the way AUA works. The small pool of words/phrases/ideas that I would say I've permanently acquired via AUA are now automatic... I don't have to think about what they mean when I hear them. I also find myself thinking these words outside of class at times. For example, "puying suay" (beautiful woman) and buchai law (handsome man) are discussed very often in level one. Last week a rather attractive Thai woman was walking my way on Sukhumvit, and the first- and only- thought to enter my mind was "puying suay." No English in my head, just Thai. The same goes with "have/don't have" which occur very very frequently in Thai. I find myself thinking these words, for example, if a store doesn't have something. "Mai mee."

Other: Still leaving Thai TV on probably 1 hour or so per day. Most of the time I'm not "watching" or even listening actively, but I do notice that I understand more little bits and pieces than I used to. Just words, though, really... unlike AUA classes, I don't get the big picture of any conversations on TV yet.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Just a quick post today... better than nothing though right?

I took the following videos while going around the ferris wheel at the Night Bazzar located adjacent to Lumphini Park. Lumphini is the largest park here in Bangkok. Central Park it ain't, but it's big enough to contain a 5km running path, a small lake with boats you can rent, and lots of opportunities to people watch. There are always various sports, classes and activities going on. Unforunately I don't live close enough to it to make running there a realistic possibility... instead I just go up and down the side street outside my apartment. It's boring, and you have to dodge the occasional car or motorcycle (really there isn't much traffic on the soi though)... but it's convenient.

Anyway, enjoy the glimpse of Bankok from the top of the Rouge Paris (I think that was the silly French name of the ferris wheel). Hopefully this will give you some idea of just how expansive the city is. It doesn't quite have a highly centralized "downtown" like NY or Chicago, but it is stays dense and fully urban for miles upon miles in every direction... no suburban sprawl here.

Take 1
Take 2