Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Speaking Thai at a Urinal

We were in a Thai tourist bar overlooking the Mekong river two nights ago, listening to a Thai band play western and Thai cover songs and watching Thai tourists from the south getting drunk as though it was a team sport, when suddenly I had to pee. I didn't exactly find this condition alarming -- it's a normal reaction of my bladder to either beer or cover bands, I can't quite figure out which -- but I knew from past experience that it would be best if I did something about it.

I walked to the men's room and found a long row of urinals, each of which were specially designed to receive and dispose of a man's urine. There was only one person using these technological wonders, and when he noticed my presence, he tensed up and looked down, apparently concentrating intensely on the task at hand.

I pulled up to a spot two urinals down from him, commenced peeing, and I started thinking about something friendly I could say to my pissing partner to set him at ease. As I've said previously on this weblog, I've been learning Thai, but my pronunciation is very imperfect and my vocabulary limited, so I'm not exactly able to throw off stupid urinal jokes like I can in English, such as "so, this is where all the dicks hang out."

Looking up at the night sky through the open window of the well-ventilated men's room, I decided I wanted to say something like "nice night." I don't know how to say, "nice", but I can say "beautiful", which I thought would work well enough, and I do know the word for "night". I began formulating this two-word sentence when I realized I might have a problem.

The grammar in Thai is super easy. For example, you don't need to put a "to be" verb in between a noun and an adjective. You just need to say the noun and say the adjective, like "night beautiful". The hard part of Thai for westerners is the pronunciation. The language has 5 tones, each of which can change the meaning of a word. The word "suay" (pronounced more or less like "sway") said with a rising tone means beautiful, but if you mess up the tone and say it flat, or mid-toned, it means "bad luck". I was pretty confident I could pull off the tone, though, so I wasn't worried about accidentally saying that the night was bad luck.

The other difficulty with pronouncing Thai is the vowels. The Thai alphabet has 32 vowels, many of which are only subtly different from one another. Our Thai teacher has a system of writing these vowels in our alphabet, doubling up letters to make a longer vowel sound, or by using upsidedown e's to indicate that they should sound like you're throwing up, and not like a normal e.

The word for night is spelled by our Thai teacher "kuun", except that he crosses both u's with horizontal lines about halfway up, to indicate that they are a different vowel from the normal u sound. I can't explain the difference between this u and a normal u, and I can only approximate the sound when I try to say it. Usually I rely on context and not accurate pronunciation to get me through linguistic ambiguities.

The real difficulty of my situation was that the word "kun", with one u, uncrossed, means "you"; talking about the night being beautiful would put me into a linguistic minefield from which the context of a men's room unoccupied by any other men couldn't save me. The very best misunderstanding I could hope for is that I'd botch both the vowel on the first word and the tone on the second word, and he'd think that I was calling him unlucky, possibly because of something I'd caught a glimpse of while he was urinating. Given my present ability in speaking Thai, however, it was much more likely that I'd nail that tone on "suay" and I'd totally botch the subtlety of the vowel on "kuun" (crossed u's) and he'd think I was saying "kun suay": "you're beautiful".

I decided not to say anything at all. Let him be uncomfortable about my presence while he pisses; it's better than him thinking that I think him either beautiful or unluckily endowed.

Sometimes when you travel you can have grand adventures without anything happening outside of your own head.

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