Thais Learning Thai: Kaewmala from Thai Talk: Part 1

Thais Learning Thai Kaewmala from Thai Talk

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Thais Learning Thai…

When I took Stu Jay Raj’s Cracking Thai Fundamentals workshop, also attending were a whole lot of guys and one Thai gal. The Thai lass was born in Thailand, adopted away by Australians, and then raised without knowledge of her birth language. She came into Stu’s class at full western volume, and exited with a Thai whisper.

In A Thai Learning Thai, Lani Cox explains how she grew up in America half Thai half Chinese, but with no knowledge of the Thai language. After trying out Thailand, and then bouncing away to South America for a short stint, she’s now back for more (and you’ll be able to see just how much in a coming post).

Which now brings us to Kaewmala from Thai Woman Talks. As a native Thai-speaker from Northern Thailand, Kaewmala provides us with another twist to an emerging trend.

Part 1: Kaewmala from Thai Talk…

Kaewmala, please tell us a little about your background.

I came from a remote village closer to Burma than Bangkok. Never had a TV for the first 12 years of my life. No need to pity me. I made up for lost time later. Plus I had radio and books to keep me entertained, and dirt and an assortment of interesting domesticated animals. I might have had a higher IQ had my parents not given in to my begging for a TV when I was twelve. But I managed to get into a selective high school and later university in Chiang Mai.

After university I worked with Lao, Hmong, Khmer and Vietnamese refugees helping them prepare for resettlement in the US – as much as a 20-year-old “teacher” who had never been to America could. I pretended to know how things worked in America for two years (for the benefit of my students) before I got a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the US where I discovered TV for real. ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s shows I’ve seen them all (thanks to reruns). … So I watched a lot of American TV in all my 10 years there and became an Internet addict also in the last five years. It’s a wonder I managed to get three graduate degrees and work for some years without getting fired. After I got my doctorate I came back to Thailand – several years ago.

I am a consultant. (Somehow that sounds like a declaration in an AA meeting.) I know consultants are only marginally less evil than lawyers so I must declare my work is not evil at all. I get to help the poor and vulnerable like child laborers, human trafficking victims, poor migrants and jobless people.

Do you find straddling the different cultures in your life difficult?


In my household I speak English with my husband (unfortunately for his Thai learning), Kham Muang or Northern Thai language with my mother, central Thai with my Burmese housekeeper (who speaks 4 languages fluently and some English).

No, straddling different cultures hasn’t been all that difficult. In some ways I think it’s been natural to me. I grew up eating sticky rice and speaking Kham Muang at home and learned standard Thai in school. I’ve had a lot of exposure to people from various cultures. In my childhood the next door neighbors was a Lue family (they spoke different language) and I played with the kids. While studying I was also in cultural exchange programs with Asian and Western youth. My first job was with Southeast Asian refugees. Ten years in the States. Many years of working internationally. I tend to see more positives than negatives when it comes to cultural diversity. Being around people from different cultures makes life more interesting.

Looking at my own cultural-linguistic identities, Northern Thai language is my childhood love. English is the love of my adulthood, indispensable in my intellectual and professional life. Thai language is like a big cousin whom I went to boarding school with, found intriguing, but never really got to know intimately.

What sparked you to venture further into Thai language and culture?

I want to know my Thai cousin better.

You said Thai language is like your “big cousin”. Do you not consider Thai language and culture your own?

No and yes. It’s not cut and dry. Those who grew up in a minority culture would understand. I used to have spirited discussion on this with Thais from the central region, some of whom insisted that Kham Muang and Thai language were the same, and were offended when I said I wasn’t “Khon Thai” but “Khon Muang” – in the Kham Muang sense. Of course, I consider myself Thai. I am a Thai national, a native Thai speaker, i.e. “Khon Thai” – in the central Thai sense. But Northern Thai (Lanna) is my first culture, Kham Muang is my mother tongue, and these are not the same as central Thai culture and language. (Kham Muang is from the same Tai language family but has a different alphabet which looks more like Mon and Burmese alphabets. Thai and Kham Muang vocabularies overlap, but much is distinct from each other. Kham Muang also has more varied tones.) In Kham Muang “Khon Thai” means people who speak central Thai language or come from the central Thai region.

I guess Isan or Thai-Malay-Muslim people may have had similar experience. Because of the way Thai history has been taught and Thai national identity and cultural identity have been tightly packed together, many Thais believe the two are one and the same. Only in the past decade or so more Northern Thais and Isan people became more appreciative of their own culture. Many of my Northern Thai friends write Kham Muang on Facebook using standard Thai alphabet. That shouldn’t be a bad thing. Unlike in romantic love, there’s no such thing as adultery in cultural love, is there?

With your researching and writing about the culture and language of Thailand, have you had personal eye-openers?

Not drastic eye-openers but a long and incremental eye-opening process. I began learning seriously about Thai history and politics during my graduate studies in the States and after I got back I’ve ventured more into language and culture. As a Thai much of what I have learned wasn’t so shocking to me, although some of the learning beyond Thai textbooks surprised and altered my perspective. It’s the little surprises that accumulate over time to form a new picture. In digging deeper into Thai culture and language the experience has been fascinating. I have no background in linguistics so I discover little new things all the time and that’s fun. But sometimes it can feel like peeling onions; lean too close, you might cry. As far as Thai politics and history are concerned it feels rather like eating garlic or chopping up chili peppers; eat too much, your breath stinks. Or if you’re not careful, stick a finger in your eyes, it’ll sting like hell. ☺

Has your reading, writing, twittering and conversations about Thai ways changed how you view Thailand?

Inevitably. Perspectives change – the question is to what degree. For me reading, twittering and talking to people expand the mind, while writing distills the learning and deepens the thoughts. My twitter following list is diverse, including both Thais and foreigners from various backgrounds. I do enjoy learning how different people see things. If you keep an open mind, listen and reflect on others’ ideas, you can’t help seeing things from new perspectives.

With modern technology throwing the conversation wide open, is Thailand teetering on the edge of political change?

Societies are always teetering on the edge of something as they are in perpetual transition. A society that doesn’t teeter is one that is dead. Certainly, digital, nano or quantum technology speeds up today’s teetering exponentially. In this way Thailand’s experience is not unique. The little people everywhere are relishing the new means of self-expression and previously unimaginable connection with the like-minded. Through blog, facebook and twitter the voices of little people can now be heard. It’s hopeful, liberating – and addictive. We the little people love it! But it’s scary for the big people who resist change, at least change that’s not to their benefit. They don’t like unfamiliar, uncontrolled movement or noise.

The current chasm in Thailand is by and large due to the big people unable or unwilling to recognize the fact that they must teeter along and that noise will be the new order of the day. I think if they resolved to teeter along and bore with the noise a bit, they might be able to retain some control. Changes can be chaotic. But Thailand is a society obsessed with political order and long spoiled by near-complete subservience; the big people haven’t yet come to terms with the impending change which is going to be anything but orderly. So they try to block the noise and the force of change, failing to see that the more they block it, the stronger it becomes. So, if the big people continue on the current course of obstruction against the increasingly forceful velocity, Thai society will be littered with broken pieces. And that’s unsettling. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Coming next will be part 2 of Thais Learning Thai: Kaewmala from Thai Talk.

Sex Talk, Thai Woman Talks, Thai Talk, Thai Idioms and Lanna talk…

Kaewmala (pseudonym) is the author of Sex Talk: In Search of Love and Romance (Bangkok: HLP, 2009).

Blog: Thai Woman Talks – Language, Politics & Love

Twitter: @Thai_Talk (on Thai language, culture & politics);
@thai_idioms (Thai idiom a day);
@lanna_talk (Northern Thai vocabulary)

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