September 27, 2012


An aquaintence on Facebook recently made a post about how annoyed they were that this Mexican guy couldn't understand English and he even used the "if your in our country learn our damn language" or something else equally as harsh. This really stuck with me, as I haven't thought about that aspect of American culture in a long time and I have been soul searching about it ever since. I lived in Arizona, a southern state (with terrible immigration laws) and I remember feeling like this sometimes when I couldn't communicate with a coworker or something, I was annoyed they didn't learn English when they lived in MY country, an ENGLISH speaking country.

Well, shit do I feel like the biggest asshole for ever having thought that now.  

Enter my day to day life not speaking the language of the country I am living in - complete and udder confusion at every turn.
This is Mandarin but it's all incomprehensible to me...

I moved to Asia, like many other foreigners, looking for adventure, opportunity and a better life, without even knowing how to say hello. Expat is the nice word but really... I am an immigrant. I have to go to the immigration office and deal with the ridiculous rules and paperwork every 3 months. I get discriminated against because of my skin. I don't have the same rights as a Thai national and fear of the government and deportation. Sound familiar? It is a difficult way to live but I am so thankful I have put myself in this situation so I can truly empathize and realize how naive and cruel my old attitudes were.

Granted, my situation is not quite the same as the plight of Spanish speaking people in America. I am here because there is a demand and because Thai people want to learn English. I also actually get paid a much higher wage than my Thai equivalents, because of where I was born and my native language. But I do now have a taste of what it feels like to be an immigrant in America and fully understand what a terrible feeling it is to feel out of place just trying to make a better life for yourself.

I am now walking in a different pair of shoes and boy is it eye opening. I really don't understand all the hate coming from many (of course not all) American's, but whose families were all immigrants themselves in the past, and who believe in the "American Dream" ideals. While most Thai people are more interested in me than hateful, it is a different kind of racism that is not any better. And both are caused by ignorance.

I do speak what I have heard referred to as "taxi Thai" where I speak just enough of the language to get myself around the city and not get ripped off (for the most part.) I can say all the numbers, some directions, some basic formalities (How are you? Where are you from? Where is the toilet?) and a little food based language. I have lived here for a year and that is all I have learned. It is pretty sad and pathetic considering all the free time I have after school but instead of studying Thai, I download crap American TV and only speak Thai when ordering my fried noodles. It's shameful but we native English speakers don't realize how difficult it is to learn another language and how lucky we are that English is spoken around the world. Most Americans only speak English and even then many can barely communicate in their first language. It takes a lot of dedication and I have tremendous respect for people that try and do.

With the presidential election coming up, I really hope to see this attitude change in America, a place I always thought was so tolerant and forward thinking (and it is in many ways and not in many others.) A place that was built by immigrants and accepted everyone no matter what they looked liked or believed. A model that many countries now copy, trying to build their nation to be as "strong" as ours. If we want to keep up in this quickly changing world, we have to open our hearts and our minds to thinking differently, every country does really, because in reality, the world is changing whether we like it or not. I think I am going to try a little harder to learn more Thai, one person can't change the world but I can change my disposition (and try to change yours :)


  1. I am continually impressed with my students; they can communicate in Thai AND English. That's so amazing. Learning Thai is HARD, man. I have a new appreciation for the effort it takes to learn a second language, especially one that's so so different from your first. But my goodness it would make life SO different.

    People keep messaging me on Couchsurfing wanting to see the "real" Bangkok. But the thing is, if you're a foreigner and you don't speak Thai you're never going to see the "real" Bangkok (if that's even something that exists) because of the language barrier and the way foreigners are put on pedestals. (Arguably a phenomenon with both good and bad implications for us)

  2. Yeah I totally agree, "real" Thailand is impossible to see unless you can fluently communicate. I hate that term though because everything in Thailand is really Thailand right? Meh..

    Sorry to hear your sick hope you feel better soon my dear, Lets get together for dinner soon!

  3. Yeah I totally agree!

    Due to my Malaysian heritage, I am fortunate enough to be able to write and read 3 different languages - Chinese, Malay and English... but that still turned me upside down when I arrived in Korea and had totally no grasp of the language... and was discriminated (sometimes directly and indirectly) by people over there including my professor, my labmates, and countless ajummas and ajossis who couldnt understand "WHY ARE THESE WAE GUK GIN DOING HERE IN OUR LOVELY COUNTRY?"

    Haha... it was really eye-opening

  4. i feel like such a stupid American because I only know English, kitchen Spanish, and taxi Thai. I meet other travelers who switch between languages so easily and seamlessly, and I fumble with basic numbers. It was interesting to go to China where the attitude is similar to that in the states. I can't blame the waitresses for getting frustrated with me, because I've been that frustrated waitress, but how nice it is to communicate!

  5. wow, so impressive that you can speak 3 languages! we live in such a global world and i think you are such a good example of how our generation is embracing that!

  6. yeah we Amercicans are terribly lazy when it comes to language, students in Asia start learning languages when they are barely walking! I am always amazed and jealous of travelers or expats that pick up the language so quickly, I am so bad at it! I was also a waitress and feel guilty when they have no idea what i am trying to order!


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