Point and smile

Point and smile at Thai food market.


I wish I was more eloquent in the Thai language by now. Because I am not. I’ve been in Thailand a little over 2 months. As I used to be quite apt at learning foreign languages, I just assumed picking up basic Thai would come easier than it is. But maybe I’ve reached my limit with four (Western European) languages under my belt or maybe tonal languages are not for me. Luckily, although it is always fun to speak another language, there are other ways to communicate.

Pointing — however impolite — combined with lots of smiling gets you a long way. Especially in the places where they are used to farang. (Even though I did, and still don’t always, realize it). And if you don’t let yourself be thrown off balance by trial and error or paying a bit extra at times, it gets you a long way. In my case: it got me a full(er) stomach every time I tried over the last 10 years. And I lived happily ever after every meal.

No longer, though. Despite the fact that I feel disappointed about my lack of Thai language skills and perseverance, I seem to have crossed that point of no return. That point where I order the same food at the same stalls. My favorite lunch resto — yes, it has the tables with plastic stools under a corrugated iron roof — the chef knows what to make when I smile and say “Same same”: fried veggies, egg, rice. She’s flexible enough to mind my sensitive tongue: after I left 4 half chilies in the bowl the first time, she no longer puts them in large quantities. The stall across the street sells noodle soup. The variety comes in the form of pork balls or grilled fish. Point out the type of noodles, then same for pork or fish and then turn pointing finger upright for “1 meal”. Our second favorite shop has papaya salad and pork salad with sticky rice. She knows what we want. Often we come and go, because after noon, food is mostly gone.

Here in this residential area of Bangkok, with a few farang only, my point and smile works, but I start to feel increasingly uneasy. I am embarrassed that I still point and smile. And that the numbers from 1-100, moo (pork), gai and kai (chicken and egg) and som tam (spicy papaya salad) are my only progress. Not that my neighbors seem to mind. On the contrary. The owners of the small supermarket next door speak deliberately slow when they say the amount and applaud when I get it right.

Tonight, I went to a stall that only opens at night. I’d only been there once before and with a Thai speaker, so on my own I smiled and asked the shop keeper if maybe she spoke English? She froze and shook her head slightly. Hoping to get the tones right, I said: “Som tam?” She nodded. Up with my finger, then down to point at the rice. She shook her head, then walked over to the box that contained the sticky rice. Great: I love sticky rice. It’s the equivalent of bread to me: I can eat it “just as is” and enjoy it. While she made it, I walked across to the lady that sells sausages. Her son, who’d listened in on my earlier ordering, ran over to help. Not that I needed it:  I pointed at the ones that hail from Northern Thailand. I put up 3 fingers and said “ye sip baht?” (20 baht). She smiled and made the affirmative sound (which I have no clue how to write down).

The som tam was spicy. I totally forgot to add ‘nit noy’ (little bit), which everyone seems to understand is to do with the chili. A little over half an hour after finishing dinner, my tongue and lips no longer burn.
I’m planning to take Thai lessons in the new year. I wonder if I will ever get the tones right. And have I crossed the line after which one can no longer learn languages? The thought of having to try makes my stomach twist and turn. More than point-and-smile-food ever has. But I rest easy knowing that one does not need to be fluent in the other language to be able communicate with people across the globe!

One response to “Point and smile”

  1. Andrea376 says :

    I am sure your will learn Thai some day and even if you don’t then I guess you have already learned many. I think communication is not just verbal; it is in smile, silence and also in gestures. Well, communication is to create ‘commonness’ and body language has a lot to do with it. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. I second that 🙂

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