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Friday, January 25, 2008

Thailand 到了!

For those playing along at home: Thailand dao le! I've arrived in Thailand! Welcome to the Land of Smiles.

Last night I realized how a few weeks away from language study can retard your progress. It's only been about ten days since I arrived in Singapore, maybe three weeks since the crush of finals, grades, and end-of-semester goings-on (like trips to Harbin) took over my schedule, and so it's been a while since I've practiced my Chinese, and I feel my tenuous grip on the language slipping. I tried to use it in Malaysia when I could, enough Chinese and Mandarin speakers there, but they use a whole different body of words, asking questions using different verbs and tweaked grammar, and I just felt helpless. But then I just took control of the conversation, telling them about me fast enough that they had no time for questions, and that left them mutely awed.

I just hopped the border into Hat Yai, Thailand. Know what they say about first impressions? I gott admit, at first, it was pretty daunting, really. Singapore, Malaysia, they've all been using roman alphabets, and if not just outright English, so even if I can't understand the word on the sign or above the shop, I can read the word and recognize patterns. ("Kedia," for example, is store, which I learned because every damn shop had "kedai" in it's name; "salemat datang" is welcome.)

Thailand is like walking into a warped China, in that there is no English ANYWHERE, everything is in the strange squizzle-loop Thai characters, and even on road signs I look down and see a tiny few roman letters and think "that pinyin is all wrong!" and of course it's wrong because pinyin is China and this is Thailand and hey, let's get lingua-fied and crazy and have 5 tones and gender-specific words (I'm not kidding, men and women have different ways to say the same things ... that's a language first for me, and takes Spanish's genders to a whole new level). But there's just something about studying all that Chinese and learning all those characters, only to come here and see a whole other language's worth of pictograms and symbols that for the life of me I can't read ... it's all very disorienting at first.

But I have my Thai phrasebook, which is good. And to my not-so-big surprise, the people at the bank, the hostel, and the little restuarant where I just ate a plate of fried rice, all spoke enough English for me to get by. Guess they get enough foreigners here, which is good, but strange. Met a couple going more north than I am at the moment, two of the only other Americans I have seen here in SE Asia, and they told me they've been through Thailand once before, and can't speak a lick of Thai, and have had no trouble, because everyone more or less speaks English or understands you're just a poor foreign backpacker trying to get somewhere, probably a beach.

Yes, so: Thailand. It was almost surreal, crossing the border: on one side of the gate was a clean, empty blacktop, the Malaysian side, and right across that imaginary line, the pavement cracked, the people multiplied, steam and foodsmells and noise thumping into the van ... Thailand. I can't wait to explore.

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