Challenge: Asking WHY

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.

Yeah, tourist police. Very helpful!*


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.

Guatemala is a really beautiful country, but they are not so good with having the things for the shopping times.

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.

Probably the lesson learned is that this is simultaneously the most awesome and the worst form of transport ever.

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.

I'm a freakin' Thai SUPERSTAR in my head.

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.

Neither is this. I had to bake each of the 10 layers individually when I made this Smith Island Cake last spring. Obviously, I need to be committed.

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.

Final Score

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.



Filed under Daily Challenge, Living Abroad, Thai, Thailand

17 responses to “Challenge: Asking WHY

  1. Hi Megan, my son is currently going through a stage of saying ‘why not?’ to everything I say. I can definitely sympathise with your Thai language problems. I have a relatively large Thai vocabulary after nine years, but I can still end up just blundering and mumbling; although I’ve learnt not to ask ‘why’ so much :-)

  2. Jay

    Why ask why? Try Bud Dry. But seriously, I ask ‘why’ a lot but like Paul, not as much as before. Many Thais were absent the day they handed out ‘logic’ and very rarely do my rants and raves ever result in a truly satisfying answer.
    Paul – we met the day you recorded your podcast and by chance happened to win a copy of your book from Bangkokpodcast which I will give it to Megan after I finish reading it (still haven’t received it from Tony yet). Looking forward to having a read. Cheers – Jay

  3. don’t forget the joys of the screaming into the sky rhetorical WHY?!

    you will be a Thai language master! it’s just a matter of time. think of the thrill when you ask “why” in some random situation and suddenly it’s not “thaiwordthaiword” but “I don’t know why”! that, my friend, will be a glorious day. ;)

  4. Jess

    I remember that wallet story!

    I hope that you know that all of us who have never studied more than the languages we were forced to take in high school and college you admire you for what you’re doing, and for the fact that you’re learning a language to better yourself. Not because it will allow you to get out of a college entry course.

    • Better myself or survival? I’m going to go with the choice that makes me look better.

      You’re right, Jess, I’m totally doing this to better myself…

  5. Pingback: And the Award for Slowest Ever Thai Language Learner Goes To… |

  6. As a mum of two girls I can sympathise with Paul’s current situation…eventually you just have to say, ‘because I said so’.

    ThaiwordThaiwordThaiwordThaiword…we must be living in the same area, I hear this phrase a lot!

    Like you, I’m also fluent in my limited phrases, in my head, until I open my mouth. Learning can be quite frustrating, but also quite funny at times. Yesterday my husband asked for more dog when ordering lunch…he meant vegetables!

  7. I know people who speak fluent Thai and still know better to ask why. Even if you could understand the language the answer you get will only prompt you to search the dictionary for WTF?!

    A better word is chai, then go about your business and get used to being perpetually confused.

  8. Hilarious. And I agree (how could I not?)

    But any introduction of a phrase or word in a language you don’t understand is in danger of receiving the same. And that is why I usually learn one key sentence first: I don’t understand.

    It’s usually muttered in quick succession. One looking straight at the person, one while I’m shaking my head, and one from the side of my mouth as I give up and quickly make my exit.

    Related, but only by a looooooooooooooong stretch (in that we are talking about the Thai language). The AUA books dissuade this sort of behaviour from their students. The, you know, asking questions bit.

    Quoting from book one:

    Don’t ask questions. Student’s questions are the main enemy or the focus-practice approach. Ninety percent of them don’t have answers, and it takes time for the teacher to politely dodge meaningless questions. And it is not only the time of the asking and dodging that is wasted, for completely unrelated questions often result as well. Remember that language is one of the things that is better learned by practice than by explanation. If less than ninety percent of class time is spent on practice, something is wrong.

    AUA – 0
    Cat – 1

    • Oh my god, that is crazy! I can’t imagine going to a school that actively promotes keeping quiet and not asking any questions. How could you possibly learn? Wow.

  9. Megan, that quote came from their original course books. AUA Chiangmai still starts out with those books. But AUA in Bangkok doesn’t want you to talk at all for the first many many many (too lazy to look it up) hours.

    And while it seems odd when first coming across the ALG Method, it works well for a great deal of people. And it sure sounds easier than beating your head against your Thai studies…

    Andrej (featured in my latest post) talks about the ALG Method. His recent post compares just that (Thai studies, or no studies at all). David Long (AUA) also has a grand post (also recent) on the subject.

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