“Khao, khao,” my 18-year-old half-Thai cousin chanted over dinner, beckoning me to follow her lead. The first word spoken in a rising tone followed by a falling tone.
Quivering and hitting all corners of my mouth, my raw tongue twisted and writhed in rebellion; it clearly did not like this laborious workout.
“Okay, pii [a term used to address a slightly older relative or friend], now say it without moving your eyebrows,” her younger sister chimed in after several more rounds of awkward enunciations.
A thin layer of sweat started to form around my lips. They were taking it easy on me today. This short exercise didn’t include the soft and hard sounds yet.
“Cow,” I mumbled in frustration.
From a distance, I looked every bit like a local but my non-Thai tongue was still as stiff as the day they picked me up at the airport several months back.
Phrasebooks and dictionaries often offered little help in learning the language. The Thai alphabet consisted of over 60 letters. Plus there were the tones.
Getting the tone right was the most challenging part of learning Thai. There are five tones and the meaning of a single word could change depending on the tone used. A short but high-pitched kao meant ‘to enter’ while saying gao in a falling tone meant ‘nine’.
Use the wrong tone and you could find yourself in jail, the older one once reminded me in jest. Grinning and with her arm slung over my shoulder, I stared at her and wondered if it was wise learning the language from someone who has visualized seeing me in an orange jumpsuit.
I was determined to find some way to learn the language. Watching horror movies and listening to songs made the endeavor less daunting but nothing could beat testing one’s skills on the streets of Bangkok.
On a hot and dry Saturday in January, my cousins and I set out for the National Theater to watch a khon. The khon is a local stage performance that features characters wearing elaborate masks and costumes.
With hours to kill before the show started, we decided to stop by the National Museum next door to see the open exhibits.
Exploring the temperature-controlled rooms followed by extended stints of walking under the scorching summer sun took its toll on us all. By midday, the youngest of our traveling trio exhibited more than just signs of fatigue. Her steps got shorter; her breathing more strained. We made a dash towards the cafeterias at the nearby Thammasat University to escape the stifling heat and grab some food to eat.
Consuming heaping bowls of steamed chicken and egg noodle soup did little to bring back my cousin’s feisty demeanor. Over lunch, her pii and I pondered on what to do next but the younger one was having none of it.
“We already made reservations,” she argued.
The theater was just next door. She didn’t see a point going home now. We just hoped drinking some cold tablets could help stifle the symptoms, at least for a few more hours until we got home.
Neither of them brought any medications so I volunteered to search the vicinity outside the school for a pharmacy. According to some of the school staff we spoke to, there was one just past the state university’s gates. Armed with nothing more than my cousin’s scribbled notes on a tattered piece of paper, I headed towards the school’s rear exit.
I tried to remember my lessons as I briskly walked past the school’s buildings.
Chuai duai meant ‘help me.’ It wasn’t choary doary as the phrase books often stated. This staple phrase for travelers would come in handy if I ever needed assistance.
Nobody mentioned there was a context to using this phrase.
An array of cars, motorbikes and tuk tuks welcomed me at the border separating the university from the rest of the city. Offbeat shops selling all sorts of curios dotted the narrow streets while a continuous stream of tourists in sweat-stained t-shirts browsed through the laid out wares. Seeping through the smog-filled air were traces of camphor, menthol, pepper and eucalyptus. The smell of dried herbs and spices intensified as I approached a shop selling yaa-dom nasal inhalers and massage oils. Surely they must have some medicines or perhaps somebody here could give me directions.
“Chu-way du-way kah,” I sheepishly muttered, handing the note to the nearest available clerk. Everything my cousins taught me about proper pronunciation and tones went out the window the moment those words were in the air.
The clerk smiled, took a passing glance at the sheet then motioned to another person at the back of the shop. Hushed whispers and a quick wave of the hand told me this wasn’t the type of shop that sold flu tablets.
Talking to the next several clerks yielded the same results. Perhaps it would have been easier to just let my cousin talk to them but pride wouldn’t let me take out the mobile phone stashed deep inside my backpack.
It took a trip to 7-Eleven and getting lost in a river of amulet shops before I managed to find my way to the pharmacy. The bare glass display and half-empty wooden shelves made the shop all the more difficult to spot from the outside. Facing the store, I made a quick glance towards my left; about a hundred meters away was the school gate.
Several months would pass before we talked about the incident. Based on how my lessons at home went, my cousins were doubtful I would ever speak in Thai in public and survive. The look of shock turned to horror as I relayed the details of my search for the lost pharmacy.
“Pii, chuai duai is only used during emergencies, like when you are about to die,” the younger one explained in disbelief.
They couldn’t imagine their monotonous poker-faced cousin declaring chuai duai in public. It was a good thing none of the clerks scanned my body for injuries or decided to call the emergency hotline.
“I guess that counted as an emergency,” she muttered, unsure of what to make of the story.
I never told them I used chuai duai in other even less critical circumstances.
Most Thais don’t speak English and with a tongue as rigid as mine, all subsequent attempts to communicate in either Thai or English still end up sounding like an exercise in melodic chanting. Getting my cousins to write notes for me does work in some cases but it has its own drawbacks.
As I stared at a menu inside a local food court, I am faced with one challenge that continues to hound me to this day.
Now, how do I say white rice again?