I find myself more that half way through my Peace Corps pre-service training (PST) and my language proficiency interview is rapidly approaching. We had a mock interview, a pre-test, a few weeks ago. It was a fifteen minute conversation in Thai. I muddled my way through the questions and the conversation struggling to make sure I had enough words to make complete–or nearly complete–sentences; trying to remember the right order the words are supposed to be in; doing my damnedest to utter the right tone for each word (high, low, rising, falling or flat); and making a valiant attempt to end at least every other sentence with the polite ending “krahp.” It’s a Thai thing. I tried not to lose too much sleep in the days leading up to this.
Thai is not an easy language to learn and I stumble and stammer through the simplest of sentences. Our aa-jaans (teachers) do an incredible job trying to make us understand and be understood. They work late into the night to prepare their lesson plans for us. They repeat and repeat, rephrase and repeat again. Some days their efforts fall on deaf ears though. I’ve stopped listening; the words are no longer absorbed. A friend of a friend, also in the Peace Corps, in a different part of the world, likened these 10 weeks of PST to getting a drink of water from a fire hose. I was full up weeks ago. All that extra water is now just spilling onto the ground. I’m flailing around holding the hose of Thai culture, trying to stay upright and balanced, trying to do no harm to myself and those standing nearby.
The day of the mock interview arrived like any other day here in Thailand this time of year, hot and dusty. 10, twelve minutes flew by and the interviewer said that I now could ask him questions. I knew this part was coming but I froze. I knew the key question words: Why, Who, Where, When, What, but I couldn’t figure out anything to say after those words. I couldn’t come up with one simple question. I couldn’t find the right words to ask my interviewer about what he liked to eat, where his family was from, what time he woke up in the morning, what he liked to do. Nothing. I had nothing left in me after those twelve minutes of chattering. There was nothing I wanted to know about him really. There was nothing I could ask him. I sat there, shook my head and smiled. The interviewer smiled back, this is Thailand after all, the land of smiles. The interview was over. I slunk back to my language training and stewed in silence.
When I was growing up my mother was the one who did all the talking and asked all the questions. At the dinner table she’d natter away about all the people who came into the store she worked at. After she ran out of steam she’s ask us about our day. Dad, buried in the newspaper, would grunt and I quickly followed suit. I wasn’t a curious child. I never took things apart to figure out how they worked. I never asked my parents where babies came from. I took things as they were for the most part and didn’t ask questions. I rarely raised my hand in school; I didn’t want to appear stupid. I never asked friends about their families or what their plans might be for the weekend; I didn’t want to appear nosy and rude. I would observe things, I’d watch what others did or listen to what they said and made assumptions about their lives and such. When I was young I didn’t like when people asked me things about myself. I was always protective of my privacy. I naturally assumed others wanted the same. I carried that lack of overt curiosity with me through my life.
Now I’m in Thailand where questions are expected, questions I would never consider asking someone in America. One of my first weekends here I sat in the back seat of a pick up truck with my host mother and a co-worker of hers, a very attractive woman who quickly asked me how old I was. When I wasn’t quick enough in asking her the same, she told me anyway.
I know what I need to do over the next week and half to prepare myself for my language proficiency interview. But as I sit writing this, I question whether I can actually muster the curiosity and the courage, let alone the words, to ask a stranger what she had for breakfast or how old she is?