Diplomacy in Thailand Without Thai?

by multilingualmania on May 18, 2011

in Culture, Travel


It’s amusing how some of my Caucasian family members expect Asiatic people, be it Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, to magically communicate among other Asian cultures. The stereotypically slanted eyes lends an assumption of universal communicative ease. Okay, sarcastically amusing.

So this was where I found myself, being the well-worn “Mother Hen” of my family’s flock of five during their first visit to Bangkok, Thailand. Excitement in Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, the city of angels (a rough translation) got the better of them. I deftly donned my ambassadorial hat.

I vainly attempted sheepish graciousness while politely negotiating prices with local vendors for my persistent in-laws. All the while they wearily eyed my North American family additions wearing Gucci sunglasses and Armani shirts.

Fast forward to a photography studio specializing in outfitting tourists in traditional Thai garb. The usual pandemonium ensued, with familial relationships put to the test as they jockeyed among the racks of available costumes. The chaos of preparations provided entertainment for passersby within the mall, and I managed helpless smiles for the duration.

Returning to pick up their portraiture, I braced myself at my family’s perplexed looks of astonishment. The agreed upon glossy 8 by 10’s were somehow replaced by novelty pics. Each photo was coated with a whimsical layer of glitter and childishly colorful stars spread across each. Expectant smiles cascaded into furious frowns – and both parties instantly stared at me for mediation. Right.

Unfortunately, my North American counterparts were quickly degrading into petulant tourists. I had to tactfully communicate with the befuddled photographer to reprint the photos and return the glitter-filled novelties. People of Thailand are known for their tolerance, and it certainly was evident here. But I noted from his expression how that famed trait obviously had a breaking point. And it fell to me to help the gentleman steer away from it – without my family’s help and without speaking Thai.

The awkwardly silenced parties stared at me dumbfounded. On one side stood less-worldly relatives who wrongly assumed Western customer service standards existed globally. On the other, a Thai man with good intentions targeted towards the teenage market segment. No teenagers existed among us.

The most peculiar negotiations took place, and I briefly considered a possible stint at the United Nations. You see, I stood between the sides, at the end of a short and narrow table covered with glass and party photos laying beneath. They never spoke to each other, electing instead to performing an eerie protocol.

My in-laws would look straight at me, pretending the Thai photographer did not exist, and plead their case in fluent, rapid fire English. I would nod, turn to the Thai, and acting as if my family was not there, repeat what they had just said in English.

But this time, with non-threatening body language, open palms, slow pleading gestures, and sans any Thai syllables. It seemed surreal to undergo several rounds in this manner. The Thai man finally relented and placed a phone call while I rediscovered the act of breathing. Mother Hen indeed!


About the Author: Vincent Dersanga endures the reality of composing sentences which require him to be linguistically vigilant. It is his hope there exists the slightest semblance of mercy to grant his writings a sliver of reading time and alms of thoughtful intent.

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