The Queen of Enthusiastic Floundering
Thailand must be one of the most fabulously infectious countries in the world. I now help in a tailor shop, (English, computer literacy, consolidating ethical approaches to selling, healing post traumatic stress responses etc.) , supporting refugees and helping them rebuild their lives after the tsunami. I am a classic ‘jill of all trades’ and my learning curve has been ridiculously steep as, by now, i am immersed in every aspect of their lives here in interminably fascinating Phuket. Naturally i receive no money because they don’t have any to speak of…. but the learning and the experience of their gratitude more than makes up for the lack of financial recompense. Essentially i live, Thai style and on the ‘smell of an oil rag.’
Almost every customer who comes to the shop says: “aren’t they lovely? Aren’t they just the most lovely people?” Yes right, many are, truly but of course life is more complicated than simply and always ‘lovely’, but it is the most common comment. I came 3 times a year for 4 years, staying a month each time keeping my promise to ‘help’ , figuring out what that meant , and recognizing that significant help really doesn’t happen in three months or a fat cheque. Back then of course i had no idea when i made the promise what that actually would mean. In the past year and a half, following the death of both parents, as my mother predicted 2 wks before her death, I have come to live here. I am always more happy here and i endeavour to figure out the formula. On a daily basis i am immersed in Thai, Burmese and Nepalese and occasionally Hindi. English falls in the barely consequential 4th place. I am relatively fluent in French and Italian but that proved of little assistance, apart from translating in the tailor shop or shopping at Carrefour. I erroneously thought that i could apply a similar learning formula, with discipline, make expanded effort and progress would be mine. Ohhhhhhh what a tricky bit of thinking that was! It just doesn’t work the same way. I couldn’t force it either. That just made inner tension and the whole journey became unpleasant. So i began by listening. Alas, The Meditation of Listening when you understand none of the content. And then to stay listening, inventing things to listen for… tracking for a word i knew, discerning a tonal pattern. At the beginning, I was chronically intrigued, trying to figure out which language was in operation ,as all people in my network shift their linguistic worlds in an apparently seamless fashion. They are without Ego in all their linguistic mastery. I was an active witness, a participant observer. My sense of progress was relatively dismal although i had a lot of fun with people.
Wanting to learn Thai was inevitable. Given my independent nature i tried to teach myself. I am a bit of a compulsive ‘interactor’ so trying to communicate with all these people came second nature whether i was shopping, on a bus, in the bank, buying fruit. I tried to communicate with people everywhere. I can now see i could hardly get a word right, the tones fell below my radar, word order was well askew. If the picture consisted of 20 pixels i maybe got 4 right. I promise you it must be Mother Nature’s Prozac. I have never met so many receptive and forgiving people in my whole life. I just kept trying to express my ‘whatever’ in the moment, gripping my phrasebook or dictionary and people generally where so generous in spirit in response to my symphony of errors. I don’t think you can ever ‘feel intelligent’ when you are learning Thai irrespective of whatever privileges you may have been blessed with. Whatever the educational background or work history learning Thai totally levels the playing field. The Thais, my conversational collaborators, even at that ‘folie-filled’ error- riddled stage, so often said things like: “ ohhhhhh Khun Poot Thai keng”. This translates as: “ohhhhh you speak Thai so well”. This always filled me with a colourful desire to do better, to try harder. Of course deep in my waters I was undeluded and i knew nothing could be further from the truth. Notwithstanding, it was such sweet tonic for the process. I got phrase books, dictionaries, CD’s. I was the Queen of Enthusiastic Floundering. My memory was and still is like swiss cheese, full of natural and uncontrollable holes. Repetition, a necessary currency. Usually if i asked Thais questions about language they would smile, speak in a way so i still understood nothing. My brother Bru, watched all this on a visit to Phuket. He vicariously enjoyed my obviously flawed attempts at Thai. He tried his own version of the equivalent. At the end of his holiday here he told me, bluntly, “go to school”. I resisted although i am not sure why. Maybe I was prideful or loving my freedom….or maybe more a question of fearing the consequences of inevitable censure.
He found me my school. I am surprised that he didn’t take me by hand as he did once when we were young. I can honestly say it is one of the best, transformative and fun things i have done in my entire life. I have never looked back and i can honestly say : “I get better and better and better.” Well three cheers for our team. Stay tuned.