Learning Thai “ah-ha!” moment

I just figured something out. Now before we hark the herald angels sing, I should say, this idea is relatively fresh and new.

But I’m so excited that I have to write about it.

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What does raang mean?

Welcome back happy readers.

It began with nailpolish.

I walked into my Saturday class and was quickly engulfed by the word, “Raang!” from my J or junior students. They were shouting, pointing and generally excited as I expect from my 13-15 year olds. But after a few seconds I understood they were talking about my fingernail color.

The polish that generated so much attention was a bright coral or red color, so I slipped off my shoes to show my class my retro green toenails. Yeah, that’s how I like to roll…I’m a bit of a ham bake.

So during the break I asked one of my co-workers, “What does raang mean?” He chuckled, looked a little excited himself, and wanted to know why, so I explained the incident and showed him my nails.

“It’s good, right?”

“Hmmm. Depends, from your students, I’m sure it was.”

He was having a hard time trying to think about how to explain this word.

Another teacher offered, “Vibrant?”

I watched this infamous playboy who has been living in Thailand for 10 years (?) shift his weight and hem and haw until finally he offered this example, “If you came in wearing a spaghetti strap dress, that came up to here,” he indicated the length, “I would say, Raang! You’re looking raang!!!”

“Okay, okay.” I laughed. Secretly I was more fascinated with the way his eyes looked me up and down and I began to understand a little of the charm this player possessed. He knows how to flatter a woman.

Days later, during coffee with a friend, she made a remark about my nails and so I told her the story of the word, raang. She laughed, “Oh yeah, my students say that all the time.”

Now she’s a Chiang Mai University teacher who has been here for about 3 years. She doesn’t speak Thai but the best way she explained it was, ATTITUDE.

Finally I was able to ask my Thai teacher who is my age and originally from Lamphun. I think this is important because I remember saying the word sut yawt to my landlady (whose social circle was foreigners and professional Thais) and she had no idea that I was saying, “cool” as in coolio, be cool, that’s cool, etc.

“What does raang mean?”

Again, I was greeted by the same “hard to explain” look as I watched him make a face. Then he said, “Hits you”.


“The color of your nails hits me…when something hits you.”

“Strong, fierce, attitude? So it’s about confidence?

“Yeah, yeah, I think so. But it can be negative.”

“How so?”

“If your friend asks, “How many months pregnant are you? And you are not pregnant, you can say, Raang! Her words ‘hit you’…”

I laughed, “Too strong, too much.”

Of course, I didn’t think to take a picture of my awesome nail color otherwise I would load a picture. And I will get a different color when I go again. ..probably something raang.

โชคดี (good luck), What is luck?

Do you believe in luck? Many people do. Many Thais certainly do. After all, it is one of the ways of saying good bye (choke dee). Which I have pointed out to my English classes and during my Thai studies, Westerners would never say unless we were getting ready to take a test or something. Good luck denotes you need it and if I’m getting ready to drive home, board a plane, take a bath, I don’t want to hear that I need luck.

Of course in Thailand, luck is always needed and appreciated.

Other ways to say good bye are: see you later (formal: pope gun mai – Learned that one from a guy on a train who was a cardiologist. He used pantomime, so I don’t think I could ever forget those words even if I tried and why would I? He talked all the way to BKK, had a gold earring dangling in one ear, brought on board his own beer and well, just was one of those fascinating expats who shared his life, his stories about his ex-Thai girlfriend and power of bringing someone back to life (or losing them) back in the US of A).

See you later (informal: juh gun – I heard my mom and friends say this a lot so that kind of stuck. And while we’re sharing and caring, the term farang was thrown about too and in a Thai gossipy way that would make your ears grow wide. Yeah, I wasn’t taught Thai but I was taught Thai, you know what I mean? It was also made very clear to me that Caucasian men were evil, never to be trusted but my mom brought them into the house, often enough, so…juh gun mai).

And then there is: drive carefully (rot/kii dii dii na ka – My friends and I said that a lot. But my proudest moment was when I told my friend Maile, “Drive safe and whatever you do, don’t look behind you.” She had just dropped me off at my house in Hawaii and it was dark, we had probably come back from a movie, so it was late and Hawaii culture is like Thai culture in that we believe in ghosts. She was terrified driving home, her imagination getting the best of her nerves, waiting for some killer to spring up from back seat. Good stuff).

During one of my English classes, there was a little section in the book on luck. So I decided to see what my students thought and learn a little culture culture. I told them to brainstorm all the different Thai lucky charms they could think of, and the white board was covered by the end of it. One of the things mentioned was teeth. And then I remembered my mom gave me and my brother gold chains with her tooth encased in a charm.

mom's-toothShe told me it was like carrying a little of her around, after her usual answer to all my What’s this for? questions re: Buddhism, and good luck. And so I’m a little Thai after all because I carry it with me.

“Why not?” is really the name of this Asian game. I practice feng shui too so maybe all of those monk blessings I received as a child and good lucks being said got under my skin and settled in for a nap because why else would I do all this stuff?

And if you think the tooth thing is weird, I’d like to point out the rabbit’s foot…

Most of my students had lucky charms or amulets or whatever around the house but didn’t seem to put much faith in it. Maybe this is the younger generation’s rebelliousness or disgruntlement, I don’t know. Or maybe they didn’t want to seem foolish in front of me or their peers but I don’t think so, I had already shared what I have and do.

Most likely it was something we simply never think of, like so much of what we practice and believe. I watched a friend untangle and rekindle his Baptist upbringing and it was a painful sight. He felt like he just bought into a pyramid money making scheme and was rebuilding his stock in cash currency. Belief systems are supposed to be unshakable, right?

So what is luck? Is luck timing or being situationally aware – or both? I have great luck with clothes. This sounds silly but honestly people give me clothes all the time. This kind of luck has been with me for as long as I have left the nest. And after you hear enough women whinge about how nothing looks good on them or how they can’t find anything, I think, nope, lucky in that department store.

Then there is what Hemingway said, you make your own luck. Or the equally interesting and elusive, turn your luck around. This makes me think about all the ladies who believe they have bad luck with men. I suppose I could feel this way. But I don’t. It’s damn depressing to talk to some of my friends about this because they no longer believe in the lasting ability of love.

This seems like a very good way to ensure that you will never have it. I guess it is a way to say, I challenge you to prove me wrong, Cupid! But who the hell wants to be right about this one? Look, somebody bought a love potion and it worked. Why else would they have sold so many? I say, have a swig and, choke dii na ka, and good luck.

Many businesses have these bugs for good luck or more bugs = more $$$
Many businesses have these bugs for good luck or more bugs = more $$$

Unlearning Thai

(or the quickening of my inability to retain and use properly the Thai language)

I am reminded of my failings, my total fail as a Thai language learner. Payap Blog wanted me to write about my experiences taking Thai classes at PYU so I did, blah, blah, blah. Which got me thinking, blah, blah, blah, about how I have been steadily unlearning Thai.

You see, my Holy Ghosts, I’m an English teacher, and as an English teacher I am expected to speak English. I know, I know, you’re like wait a Chi Gong minute. But I can’t engage with my students in Thai as much as I would LOVE to and I don’t think it is legal (in my mind) to ask one of my 13-16 year olds to say – grab a coffee after class.

Of course this is just excuse Number One.

Blah, blah, blah. No! I am not going mental. It’s just I barely have the time to write (my Passion of the Christ) either! Between socializing, listening to Dyer’s Excuses Begone, midday naps and the daydreams about sexy boys (Can I go old school here? I want to jump their bones), who the heck has the time?

Since I’m moving this week to a far better local, I got to pack up my Thai notes, handouts and books that have joyously collected dander these past few months (?). Another Hallmark reminder of my NEGLECT. It’s pathetic really. Baw, to the Bai, to the Mai. Pathetic.

I shall run down the sois of Chiang Mai drenched in exhaust and dust and my saccharine sweat screaming, “WHY CAN’T I LEARN THAI? WHY CAN’T I LEARN THAI? WHAT CAN’T I LEARN THAI?!” The dogs will howl in concerto and the cats will make their horrible heated noise to go along with my lack of shame.

But between you and me and the frying eggs, (*whisper*) I think everyone thinks I’m stupid.

That’s me! I should be better by now. Stupid, stupid, stupid. (Let’s not use the word Lazy, shall we? A far more stinging insult, don’t you think?) Lord Krisha help me if I end up on the Cat Woman’s Women Learning Thai’s Barely Getting By With Thai. I want to be on the Successful Thai Language Learner side!

There was a lovely lady who was in my reading and writing class who had been in Thailand for 7 years who had not learned to read and write yet and I withheld my filthy judgment because I could totally see how that could happen. It’s happening to me.

It’s the end of March 2011, people.

Am I so engrained in my own Culture that I can’t learn Thai? Do I have to get a Thai boyfriend? (Not that there is anything wrong with that.) Do I have to hang out in the bars and learn Issan? (Not that there is anything wrong with that.) Is Tinglish my destiny?

In my defense? I have none. I am at the mercy of my own stupidity. I’ve upgraded motorbikes and coming soon, will be upgrading homes. I can only hope that I’ll be upgrading my Thai in the 2011 future.

Blah, blah, blah.

What getting sick means to me

I pride myself on being a healthy person. I mean I’m not like obsessed about it but I know what I need to do to take care of myself and I do it because it feels good. And because I want to live a long life. And life is awesome so why not extend that awesomeness? But lately it seems I have been playing in Milton Bradley’s game Candy Land.
When I was working at a stressful private school (that I jokingly refer to as Trembling Trees in my other blog) I started smoking cigarettes again. Some teachers go home and have a class of wine. Or two. But I was the kind who raced home and lit that fag. I never smoked in public because the idea of one of my first or second graders seeing me was enough to send me to Jewish Catholic hell.
So what have I started to do again? Smoke. I was working weekdays, Saturdays AND Sundays with Thai classes sandwiched between slices of my seven grain sanity. I felt the time to do things I needed to do like exercise, read and write were being consistently pushed off the plate for bigger portions of study and work. In the new year I quit smoking and Sunday classes. In the new year I started smoking again again. Yes, I realize it is still January.
Barely keeping up with life is no way to live.
Originally I wanted to take Thai classes in the afternoon but since none were available I decided to give mornings a try. Essentially I was at AUA all day. I was running a split shift and “thankful” that I lived close enough to work so I could run home to do my very Thai two showers a day and maybe a quick email check.
I could use the holidays as an excuse (okay!) but it really just marked the time when I started to eat excessively. Classic, eh? I was stress eating and I didn’t even know it. I mean I knew I was eating like 9 years of famine were upon us but still I kept enjoying the pleasure of the gorge, glut and gobble.
The body is an amazing thing though and finally my body had enough. She said, “Okay girl. You want to keep doin this? Well, guess what. It’s goin to get U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi.” And so I got sick and not a lot or a little sick, just sick enough for it to be inconvenient. Sick enough to throw up wretchedly and feel the ill effects of eating poorly and excessively days after. (I don’t know when I’ll be able to eat an omelet again.)
I’m also not one of those busy types. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just some folks thrive on busyness and I don’t. It’s fun for maybe a few days and then I want everyone to go away. I need alone time, time alone. You know how some people get grouchy if they haven’t eaten in awhile, well I get the grumps when I’m around all y’all all the time. Vampires aren’t the only one with fangs.
You know, I didn’t come to Thailand to teach. I didn’t come to Thailand to work, work, work. I didn’t come to Thailand so I could have the same lifestyle that many North Americans enjoy. My friend reminded me to focus on my goals. This is the same friend who told me that I am entirely too impatient about learning Thai. He said I seem to want to know Thai right now. (Oh yeah, I quit Thai classes too. I got what is commonly known as TLLB or Thai Language Learning Burnout.)
So what are my goals in Thailand? The same that they would be anywhere else. My goals are to savor the sweet salt of food, to remember that noise is simply sound, and to see beyond my limited scope. To meditate, to pause, to write, write, write and then write some more. To read, stretch and curl up like a kitten.
I teach because it is a career that pays me to challenge my capacity to grow and learn. I’m in Thailand because, well, it’s fun and the zombies can’t catch me here. And once I realized I was motorbiking too carelessly through MY life, I had to shift gears. After all, I pride myself on being a happy person.
*Incidentally the folks at Bangkok Podcast talked about people’s misconceptions of working abroad.

Learning Thai is making me a better English teacher

In my Thai 1 (or Book 1) class I was able to skate by on the Thai that I had acquired from my previous year. But when I started Thai 2 I knew on the first day I would not be able to do so. My classmates were stronger, further along and my teacher was tough.

So just after two days I began to contemplate whether or not I should stick with it. A colleague of mine told me that I should, after all, she was repeating Thai 2 and teaching as well. I began to rethink my daily routine and started to weave in studying Thai. I had always planned on studying before class but it became easy to let the time slip and slide out of my grasp.

Now that we are into a new week I feel more confident and I’m diligently studying. On Monday a classmate asked how I was doing and I confessed that I felt like I was the lowest in the class. He reassured me that I was not and shared that he, like my friend, was repeating Book 2. It was like an impromptu mini pep talk.

Of course I realize I could go back to feeling like the low gal on the totem pole by the end of the week but I feel better hanging with it and making the effort to study and learn Thai. I know if I dropped the class that I would never learn on my own.

It certainly helped that we started Monday by playing a game. In the ESL world we call it Hot Seat. I had never done it with my Thai students before but after laughing and struggling with the game in Thai, I finally tried it with my English junior class and it was great.

The game is very simple. Someone sits in a chair in front of the class with their back to the whiteboard. The teacher writes a word down and the rest of the class has to make the student in the Hot Seat say that word.

For example, our teacher wrote: hông náam or bathroom. We had to use our Thai without saying any of the words on the board. Someone asked, Kuhn bpai kii yuu têe năi? or Where do you go to take a shit? I laughed so hard it was almost embarrassing. It was great to see how creative and thoughtful everyone could be and we all struggled with the game but in a fun way.

We also worked with conversation cards. Just slips of card stock with questions and answers. In small groups we took turns reading and responding appropriately. This was difficult for me because there was new vocabulary but the nice thing about working in a group is my peers could help me along.

As a student learning another language I am able to experience what it feels like to squirm and squeeze my way through the hours. I can watch myself. I noticed that when I do not understand what the teacher is saying, I react by waiting to see how the other students respond. Usually by the time I have to talk I do understand what is being said. Or if I still don’t understand I just repeat what someone else has said. And if I am doing this then I think it’s fair to say my English learners are too.

I also know that when I’m corrected repeatedly my confidence drops. So I make sure to not correct my students too much. You have to let some things go for the sake of moving the class along and keeping the students talking. Otherwise, like a bad date, it will be far too easy to hold your breath and wait for the time to be over.

And as I learn more about Thai culture and why Thais choose particular phrases or words I am able to bring those similar comparisons to English class too. For example, in English we prefer the phrase pass away over the word dead. Knowing that Thais use language that is softer sounding I can explain that in English passed away sounds less harsh than dead.

While our cultures may seem vastly different they have things in common too. I want to use as many tools at my classroom experience disposal to make connections because I know that it is the connections that will help build the bridge between the two languages.

Differences I feel are highlighted and pointed out enough and while these are important, second language learners all share the same stumbling struggles that teachers should pay attention to.

(That’s right, I ended the sentence with a preposition.)

The long way around

Another crack at Spanish means a lot of things, including another crack at my self-confidence. I’ve started another Spanish class this week and so far it has been great. I’m surprised by what I do know and what I have remembered from my own studies. I also made the commitment to have fun.

The stress of moving to another country is greatly under-appreciated. Starting over feels like building your own house. A daunting task but doable. The raw materials and blueprints are at your disposal but damn it, it’s a lot of hard work. And if you’ve been reading my blog then you know how much friends can help shoulder/lift/ease the burden. At least you know how very much I appreciate my friends.

I think we forget that we are not alone. It can feel lonely especially when you compare yourself to others, when you feel as though everyone is building their house faster with seemingly less effort. Sometimes I pace back and forth in my mind over these things but then I remember that comparing myself to others does me a great disservice because I am pretending to know how things are with other people.

I know this but then I forget and then life feels like the process of remembering the dance steps again. Because when I do remember I feel like dancing. I am moving at my own pace.

I’ve noticed that I’ve been listening to the Dixie Chick’s The Long Way Around almost every day this week. I think I’ve been remembering not only how much I like this song but how much it relates to me. I used to think that the Allman Brother’s Ramblin’ Man was my theme song but there is something in the Dixie Chick’s lyrics that resonates within me too. No, I could not follow. Wouldn’t kiss all the asses they told me too. I’ve always found my way some how, by takin’ the long way around. . .

Which reminds me of what one of my favorite artists Hunderwasser said, Something grows; then it can’t fail. Only quick things fail. You feel that they do not have that patina, the mark of evolution, the mark of age. Slow-growing trees are better than fast-growing, the wood is better, they look better.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m slow. And sometimes impatient. Especially when it comes to me. But I think with Spanish I will try to remember to have fun, keep it light because I’m starting to understand my tendencies; and if my path is one over the cobblestones then I better enjoy the bumps and bruises as much as I can. I’m not a natural language learner but I’m naturally persistent.