And Sometimes I Still Feel So Wrong-footed

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If class differences weren’t enough to make things tricky with a maid, try adding in cultural and language differences.

I’ve always done my own house-cleaning, but when we moved to Thailand, we got a much bigger home. More space = more cleaning. I kept up with it fine when it was just me and Toby and we’re used to keeping pretty tidy, especially since we had been living in a shoebox apartment where even one book out of place felt like clutter. But then came the year we hosted over 40 people for anywhere from a few days to several months each. It became difficult to keep up with all the bedsheet & towel washing and guest bathroom cleaning in between visits. When I have guests visiting from overseas, I’ll do all I can to clean before they arrive, but I feel ridiculous cleaning around them while they’re here, especially since I’d rather spend that time showing them the exotic Thai sights. Hosting and sight-seeing would be worked in on top of our regular jobs, so I became quite willing to spend the money to have someone come in once a week to just help clean the bathrooms, floors, and kitchen so that I could hold on to that extra fraction of sanity.

But this year is different. We don’t have nearly so many visitors, and since becoming pregnant, I’ve reduced my trips to Chiang Rai and focused more on work I can do from home. I still kept the maid on because there was no point in her losing her job (where she makes in 2-3 hours more than a full-day’s worth of minimum wage) just because I didn’t need her so much anymore and I figured when my parents return to live with us and the baby comes, I’ll be grateful for the help again. She doesn’t do a perfectly great job, but for $10 a week, I’m glad to not have to do it myself.

And here’s where the language and cultural difficulties start to play a role. I speak Thai well enough now to get on in most conversations and, even if I don’t know all the words, I can generally figure out from context what is being said. My grammar and vocabulary might not be perfect, but I can usually make myself understood. With Thai people. However, in Thailand there are large groups of ethic minorities, some documented, some not, and they all speak different languages. If I were to get along like a rockstar over here and speak all I needed to, I would learn not only Thai, but also northern Thai (which is very different), Akha, and Shan (a.k.a Tai Yai). Most of the people I interact with are Thai. But the underclasses, the ethnic minorities who make up the fleet of maids and gardeners, primarily speak northern Thai or Shan.

If I could speak Shan with my maid, I would explain our situation to her, so she could stop giving me weird side-glances when I’m sitting in front of my laptop while she mops my floors. We can communicate well enough that I tell her I work with an organization that helps disadvantaged children in Chiang Rai, but she never actually sees me work because she comes on Sundays, when I’m not in Chiang Rai. And how do you explain to someone who might, at best, have a 9th grade education (many minorities are highly discriminated against and wouldn’t be accepted in public schools and couldn’t afford secondary education even if they did get in) and does hard, sweaty work, that you who can afford a large house and a maid, do most of your work sitting on your butt at a computer in your own home? (And believe me, she does ask if we work–as has the gardener, who knows we’re home mid-week–and when I explain that we do our work online, I get the same blank look from them that I must give them when they speak Shan to me.)

If I were in the States, speaking my native language, I could also explain very politely, in ways that still make staff feel appreciated, when I need them to do a better job. Here, I know how to say quite literally “I need you to clean this better,” but I don’t know the best way to say it delicately. In the States, if they did a great job, I’d occasionally buy them lunch or share other small things with them, but here, I’m not sure the best way to do so because when I do try to give them extras it seems to make them feel profoundly uncomfortable.

And if I could speak Shan with my maid, I’d know what the proper response was when she’d ask me for favors. So far, she’s only asked for small things like can she have my used water bottles to recycle for extra money and can she have the fruit growing on my tree. (Answers thus far: Yes and yes.) She seems to understand my Thai well enough, but all I hear from her are long strings of unfamiliar sounds interspersed with “water” and “go” and “jackfruit” and “cut down” and “ripe” so that I can only barely pretend to know what she is saying, and even though I really don’t speak perfectly well, she seems completely oblivious to the fact that I usually can’t understand her.

Then today, just before she left, she came to me asking for help with her cell phone, which appeared to be broken. I had no idea what she was saying, but I gathered from the way she was trying to get the screen to scroll, and that it wouldn’t, that somewhere in there lay the crux of the biscuit. She seemed to be asking me how to fix it.

Me: I don’t know. Maybe you need to take it to a technician and have them fix it. Maybe take it to where you bought it.

Her: adfe ajiehfi anedn fmeaknjf eaf janekjfnka do you think it’s the phone itself anjdah hweknk?

Me: Umm…it could be the phone, or maybe just the battery or SIM card needs to be replaced. Did you buy it new or used?

Her: (proudly) I bought this one new. Do you think it broke because I keep it in my pocket while I work?

Me: I don’t think that would break the scrolling function. Maybe if it got in water or you dropped it? How long have you had it?

Her: I’ve never dropped it. hewajk eanjnekd at the store by aneknnd najdndnjd. I’ve had it for less than hetieshlhieht. I got it for $45 thiea nalmk dmf.

Me: (wondering how best to explain, delicately, that maybe the problem is that it’s a $45 cell phone) You can try taking it back, but I’m not sure if they can fix it. I haven’t bought a phone from a small shop before so I’m not sure what they’ll say. (again, intensely feeling class differences because I can afford to get my phone from a place that gives you things like receipts and warranties and clearly she doesn’t have that option)

And here’s where things began to get really perplexing. She seemed to be asking me to take her to the shop to get it fixed and I was totally confused because she has her own motorbike so why would she need me to take her? I tried to ask her where she wanted to go, and she just pointed vaguely in the direction past my dining room. I tried to tell her I didn’t really know where she wanted me to take her, and I really have no idea what she said in response.

It was only after several more fruitless efforts and after she seemed to have given up that it occurred to me that maybe she wanted me to go with her because I could speak Thai (and have money and education and whiter skin–i.e., am not Shan) and she hoped I might have better luck getting help. Except I have no idea how I could help her when I can barely communicate with her.

Maybe I should have gone anyway? Say yes, and ask questions later? If they couldn’t fix it and she had to buy a new phone, would she then be expecting me to buy it for her?

All I know is I ended that exchange feeling like there had been a test of some sort, and I had totally failed. I probably would have had no problem taking her, if only I knew what it was she wanted, but I didn’t even know how to explain that to her.

It’s all so very confusing.

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3 thoughts on “And Sometimes I Still Feel So Wrong-footed

  1. That is so frustrating – to not be able to communicate with people and understand what they're after. I'm sure it will get better though and hopefully you both will be able to reach some type of understanding, if even nonverbal. I feel for you both though Jade

  2. While I have a very high level of verbal acuity, I still have a great deal of difficulty understanding words in English or any foreign language I have learned that are mis-pronounced. Since communicating with my Thai is my primary objective, I will often mimic tinglish to make sure I am understood. While I can pronounce “house” easily and repetitively, my Thai still says “how”. I end up saying “how” to mean house. There is a certain amount of charm in Thais speaking English as they come up with some wonderful word combinations. “I understand 100%” is one of my favorites. An expression I now use. Yes my Aussie son-in-law thinks I speak funny, but when he left a message on my answering machine in the States the first time, I thought “goodonya” was a Russian word. Lets not even get into English as spoken in England, or Scotland, or Ireland, or India. If your better half wants to learn English or you want them to, send them off to English school and spend your time with them “communicating”, in any way that makes you undestood. An occasional correction goes down well. I have found that “negative practice” works best. Thus when I say “Shut the lights”, I am corrected, likewise with “vegentable”.

    • It's interesting; I took a reading & writing course in Thai, and once I learned the rules about how to pronounce certain letter combinations, all the funny/odd ways Thais pronounce English words suddenly made SO MUCH sense because when they transliterate the letters literally from English to Thai it creates letter combinations that would be pronounced a certain way in Thai. For example, the letter that normally makes an "L" sound, when used at the end of a syllable, would actually have an "N" sound in Thai. That's why Thai people say "app-UN" instead of "apple."