I never understood my sister’s fascination with languages. Of course it would be nice to wake up fluent in another language, but the amount of work required to remember all those sounds and rules, I guess it just never seemed worth the effort. I could bash my way around in Spanish. I could always point, or substitute a word, or turn to a family member for help. Really, I knew how to order a burrito and that was enough. Words had never rendered me helpless.
Here’s what I didn’t know: language is magic. It is tiring, casting about in frustration, searching for words that never were in your head. Like trying to order tomato on my salad. To-ma-to. See my hand motions. Tomato. Then I remembered the word for red. I love that moment when someone’s eyes light up. You can see the light bulb. And I got my tomato. Magic. Or at the cafeteria when that girl who I will love forever walked up and asked what I was trying to order. Mung sa vee rat. That’s what I wanted, she said. I rolled it through my head over and over. I have no idea what it means. I know I say it in a crooked way, based on the smile of the cafeteria lady. Still, she gives me the noodle soup that I want, and it feels like magic.
It makes all the difference having to depend on a language. Over and over I’ve wanted to stamp my foot. Why don’t these people get it? I am speaking slowly and loudly. Ice. I want ice for my water. Or I want to go to Chiang Mai University. Or I need directions to the emergency room. I can’t stand the moment when we are both trying so hard. Trying to make sense out of these sounds. Me and the waiter, or me and the taxi driver, or me and the nurse. We stare at each other as if we can get past the words if we look hard enough. Sometimes, we just laugh. Mai pen rai. No worries. Sometimes it turns out like the Mitch Hedburg joke where you turn to your friend and say something frivolous, but they didn’t quite hear you so you have to repeat it until you’re shouting a pointless phrase. “I’d like some salt,” I say to the waiter. He shakes his head slowly, “I…don’t…know.” “Saalllttt.” Still no understanding. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” I say. But it’s not okay to him, and three waitresses later I feel like a bratty princess demanding that my food be cut up into bite size pieces.
Then there are the times when you both know you will never figure it out. It’s little things, but sometimes they feel important. That’s when we shake our heads and turn away. In all of this, I know it’s my job to learn. I am understood so much of the time as it is. I am hugely grateful for that, as it’s a courtesy that I’ve seldom returned. But I know that here, if I’m not understood, it is no one’s fault but my own. Well, and maybe those linguists who promised that we’d all be speaking Esperanto by now.
So, there is magic, and frustration, but also progress. I can order pineapple. I can count to 999. I can bargain with a taxi driver. I can say that something is yellow, red, blue, pink, or purple. I can get won ton crunchy things in my soup (although only because I’ve developed complex sign language with the cafeteria lady, still, language). I can ask for water, or milk, or Thai iced tea, or guava juice. Of course I can say hello and goodbye and thank you. These politeness words are of little practical help, but they make people smile at the small effort I’m making.
I hate to brag, but when I said the Thai word for “sit” yesterday, the teacher said, “Perfect.”