Learning Thai: Three weeks in.

I thought, coming here, I was coming for the sun. Or the warmth. Or the immersion into a completely different culture. Or the food. I thought one of these would turn out to be the thing I fell in love with, the real reason I sold everything and took a chance on falling in love with the whole world.

But it’s the language. And learning languages. Unwrapping, word by word, the entire cultures that lay inside them. Being able to unfold people, with the same skills. I didn’t imagine that the part of my day I’d look forward to the most is flipping through flashcards of words. Or that hours - hours would spin by like seconds as I sat with new friends, deciphering and unfolding our languages to each other.

There are layers of words for eating in Thai, depending on the speaker’s relationship to the listener. In English, just ”eat.” Layers of politeners and softeners at the beginning and ends of sentences, depending on need. Finding that we have them in English too. Learning exactly how tonal English (and all the romance languages, for that matter) really is, and having to unlearn that. Here, the words are the nuance, not the tone.

There’s a word in Thai for “farm that does not produce rice.” Cultures, in language, unfolding. But one phrase here unfolds a lot more than the rest - mai bhen rai.

Loosely, it means, “no problem,” and you can use it in situations you’d normally use “no problem”. But it’s much, much bigger than that. It’s a state of mind here, something that dripped out of the tropical air, the centuries of Buddhism, the people, even the land.

Accept the things you can’t do anything about (which, is basically the entire world, when you think about it), and move on without worry. As one writer so brilliantly put it, “My entire house is flooded with two metres of dark, stinky water and crocodiles are raiding my kitchen? Mai bhen raaaaaaaiiiiii, there’s nothing I can do about it, and besides, the crocodiles are hungry.”

And me, here, every day churning through words, then going into the world and finding out half of them don’t work. But somehow, in these interactions, these complete failures of communication, it’s still easy, still relaxed. It’s somehow clear that in that moment, they and I find ourselves in a world where we don’t speak the same language. Mai bhen rai. We’ll figure it out.

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