I met an American ex-pat visiting from Thailand this summer. He offhandedly offered his slant that Thailand is referred to as the Land of Smiles not so much because of the friendliness of the people, but rather because of their language. He went on to explain that the smiles were more from the contortions one’s mouth needs to make while forming and pronouncing the sounds and words of this ancient language. My initial reaction, unstated of course, was that he was just an ungrateful, cynical American, and likely wrong.
A few months passed and I started thinking that maybe I should get a little jump on learning some basic Thai before I headed out with the Peace Corps in January. I looked at the alphabet, its 44 consonants, shook my head at the squiggles and went back to polishing off a British thriller and a history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition instead. Another month elapsed and I got up the fortitude to buckle down and listen to the language tapes I had downloaded onto my phone back in May. After that first high hurdle, I made it a habit that whenever I was taking a walk in the woods, I’d put on my earphones and repeatedly hit play, pause, rewind until I could mimic a half dozen easy sentences. I figured I was exercising my body, my mind, my soul, and particularly my thumb in hitting the stop button. Each lesson runs a half hour long and it took me over a week to finish the first lesson. A month later and I’m finally nearing the end of lesson 5.
Somewhere around week four of my self-led tutorial through these lessons, I walked humbly into a local Thai restaurant and mustered the courage to mumble Hello in Thai. Sa-wat-dee khrap, I said under my breath. No one heard me. I sat alone at a table facing the door, looked at the menu and repeated the words over and over to myself until I became more comfortable with Sa-wat-dee khrap, Hello. When the waitress came back to take my order my confidence evaporated and I simply told her I would try the Pad Thai. I felt I had even wimped out on my dinner order, ordering the most basic of Thai-American cuisine. I kicked myself for not being more adventurous, more daring in my choice off the menu. So I sulked and while I waited for my meal to arrive, I repeated the Thai words for Thank-you, Kaap khoon khrap. Kaap khoon khrap.
Thai is a tonal language, words can rise, fall, rise and fall, fall and then rise, or simply be said in a flat tone. One little word can have five different tones and five different meanings. Then there are the vowels, short ones and long ones, extended sounds where the vowel is held for two beats and the mouth follows suit. It’s when these different tones are juxtaposed in a short sentence that the facial contortions are most noticeable. With the simple phrase for Hello/Good morning, Sa-wat-deeeee, the mouth automatically forms a smile around the deeeeee. The window of opportunity for saying Hello had now been closed and it was time for me to gather the courage to say Thank you. I was trying to remember the tones used by the speakers in my lessons. Did my utterance of the first word fall in tone? Did the second word have a moderate/flat tone? Did the last word rise? I repeated the words softly aloud. Thank you, kaap khoon khrap, kaap khoon khrap. Before I knew it the waitress was at my shoulder placing the dish on the table in front of me. I looked up, she spun around and was back to the kitchen before I had a chance to finish the first k-aa-aa-p.
I stared at my Pad Thai and considered my next steps. With my right hand I picked up my fork, stabbed the rice noodles and twirled, Italian-style. I practiced my kaap khoon khrap in rhythm with the twirling. After I finished my meal, the leftovers were bagged up and the check was deposited in the usual black folder. I stood up and walked a few feet to the counter to pay. I handed the waitress the bill and the money telling her to keep the change. Before I turned to leave, I stood shock still and slowly, cautiously uttered: kaap khoon khrap, loud enough so I could be heard. The waitress smiled a beautiful, natural smile and responded in turn: kaap khoon ka. I turned and floated out of the restaurant onto the busy city sidewalk, smiling from pure joy and not from the contortions of the words I had just spoken, my first public Thai.