The gospel according to Megan says that the most dangerous word to learn in any language is why. Think about the parents whose children have recently learned to say it. Feel sorry for them. Feel happy you don’t have children of your own to patiently describe why we have to look both ways when we cross the road, why we drink something that comes from a cow, why a pencil writes, why…
I can say why in English, Spanish, and French, and now I can use my Thai skills to say it, as well. Poor Thai people!
One of three things will happen when I ask why in another language.
I will ask, “Why?” and I will have no problems understanding the context of the answer. I’m a linguistic and cultural genius! Yay me!
I will ask, “Why?” and I will have no problems understanding the language, but the cultural context is beyond my range of understanding.
When I was in Guatemala, my ex-boyfriend’s wallet was stolen the day before we were flying back home. We made our way over to the tourist police station, where they did not speak English, and asked for a police report.
The captain took notes very seriously, asking many questions and studiously scratching away on a scrap piece of paper with a pencil.
Finally, he looked up and said, “You have to come back tomorrow morning for the police report.”
Our flight was fairly early in the morning and I was worried, so I asked, of course, “Why? Why can’t we have it now?”
The captain looked at my ex like, Women, eh? My ex looked back like, Tell me about it! Then he looked at me like, Sorry! And I looked at him like, Dude, you’re gonna be sorry.
Then the captain said, clearly making this up on the spot, “Uh…I can’t give it to you now because…the printer is out of ink and we have to buy some.”
The printer is out of ink and they had to buy some. I mean, this was about 10 p.m. in Guatemala; a country where you cannot flush your toilet paper, can’t even get a decent bag of chips (I KNOW), and where electricity is a tenuous idea powered mainly by hope and beans. It’s not like anything is open past 7 p.m. or so.
I started to protest, but realized it wasn’t going to do me any good, so we left with a promise to be back early in the morning. On the walk back to the hotel, I pondered, “Where is he going to get ink? The 24-hour ink store in Antigua, Guatemala?!”
Looking back on it now, I see the problem: I could ask why, and I could understood what was going on with the language, but I had no clue about the broader cultural undertones. Did he just not want to do it? Did he want a bribe? Am I really a pushy broad?
Answers: Who knows; who knows; YES, I AM REALLY A PUSHY BROAD. I just didn’t need a police officer in Guatemala to point it out to me. Sheesh.
And you know what, Police Officer? If I were going to make up a lie, I would at least make it believable. So there.
In the end, we got the police record with no problem. There’s a lesson in there for me somewhere, but I can’t be bothered to figure out what it is right now. Let me know if you know.
I ask why, and I have no clue what the person is saying to me at all.
This is especially an issue for me in Thai right now because I have an inflated sense of what I know. Basically, what I know is that I can for sure say…well, I can’t say anything for sure.
I spend time rehearsing what I’m going to say in Thai to people before I speak, and in my head, I am a brilliant Thai speaker. Seriously, it would bring you to tears if you heard how perfectly I can order food in my head. I have entire conversations with people without uttering a single word, and these conversations are with impeccable grammar and excellent vocabulary.
What usually happens after I have formed these conversations in my head is that I go up to the person and then panic and say, “Thank you!” when what I really wanted to say was, “I would like to buy this movie. Does it have English subtitles?”
So, the other day, I went to do my laundry—a.k.a., the bane of my existence (I mean, SERIOUSLY, why is laundry such a pain in the ass in this city?)—because they have a dryer at this particular place. I’d had no problems before, but this time a teenaged girl came up to me and said—and I quote, “ThaiwordThaiwordThaiwordThaiword.”
Huh? I finally realized she was pointing at the dryer and telling me I couldn’t use it. So what did I ask?
I’d already had an unsuccessful start to the conversation, but I decided to forge ahead in an effort to make both of us as uncomfortable as possible. I’m a cultural ambassador, people. Remember that and hire me for something that pays a lot of money!
The girl said—and remember, these are all direct quotes, “ThaiwordIdon’tunderstand, anotherThaiwordIdon’tunderstand, andyetanotherThaiwordIdon’tunderstand.”
So I said, “I can’t use it? I don’t understand. Why?”
Let’s recap my problems:
- Unsuccessful start to conversation.
- Ask a question anyway.
- Get an answer I don’t understand.
- Ask the same question and hope that this time I will understand.
Clearly not the work of a sane person.
Of course I never figured out why I couldn’t use the damn dryer, so I went to another place.
These kinds of conversations are so humbling for me. I often feel that my grasp on Thai is becoming better and better–and it is–but then I totally get the smackdown. It’s like when I look at a Thai-English dictionary; at first I think, HaHA, Thai language! I know you!
Then I open the dictionary and I immediately go from feeling like maybe I know something to realizing the number of words I know in Thai fits on about three pages of that mini dictionary. And then I want to give up because there are so many words in Thai that it seems impossible and I should just quit while I’m ahead because the odds that I’m not going to speak like a toddler for the rest of my life in Thai are slim. Very slim.
Sometimes it’s exhausting being me.
Asking Why: 0 Megan: 0
I don’t think either of us is really winning right now, but neither of is really losing. I’m just going to keep on asking.