The Art of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion

Vi­jay Vergh­ese con­sid­ers the per­ils of lan­guage and what those po­lice whis­tles are re­ally try­ing to say

Hong Kong Tatler - - View From The Back -

One of the best places to prac­tise your Thai lan­guage skills is, of course, Thai­land. When in Rome… But this does pose con­sid­er­able risk in a coun­try where di­a­bol­i­cally op­posed words that sound the same can pro­duce bizarre re­sults. My early re­quests for a dozen ba­nanas—the clas­sic open­ing gam­bit—had fruit sell­ers guf­faw­ing and slap­ping their thighs. They of­fered free ba­nanas and in­structed me to re­turn daily for their mer­ri­ment. Blush­ing is­sues with male anatomy apart, there were other gap­ing canyons of in­dis­cre­tion that I fell into with mo­not­o­nous reg­u­lar­ity.

With­out fur­ther ado then, I picked up a mod­ern Thai phrase book and strode pur­pose­fully into Bangkok. I hailed a taxi, opened the book and said, flu­ently, “We’re not French and John has never been to Chi­ang Mai.” This was not a great suc­cess. Per­haps I should have tried: “How many rainy sea­sons have you been a monk?” It’s a pretty stan­dard opener in Bangkok. Thank heav­ens for phrase books.

In Seoul, a tall lady who caught my ap­pre­cia­tive eye breezily in­formed me she was “1.8km tall.” I de­cided to get ac­quainted with her knees. And af­ter sev­eral and it was a plea­sure to slip into flu­ent Ta­ga­log in the Philip­pines where “Hello” and “Hey you” seemed to get the job done equally well.

Back in Bangkok my phrase book of­fered an­other nifty line. “I can lift this ve­hi­cle.” Just make sure you’re stand­ing next to a bi­cy­cle and not the Sky Train when you make this boast. In Thai­land, and in­deed any­where in Asia, I de­light in telling peo­ple, “I am not French.” This is a cru­cial bit of in­for­ma­tion that es­pe­cially pleases im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials.

Or try a po­lice whis­tle. This is a handy and very ver­sa­tile item for any Bangkok or Manila first-timer. Po­lice whis­tles can cause traf­fic jams, cre­ate con­tra­pun­tal mu­sic and even cure con­sti­pa­tion. This is an al­ter­na­tive form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and a great stress re­liever. A po­lice­man who leans through your car win­dow, tweet­ing shrilly, is prob­a­bly just in­quir­ing, “What did you think of Phantom of the Opera?” Of course, if what he was re­ally try­ing to say was, “Fork out 500 baht for my vol­un­tary prov­i­dent fund,” then things could get sticky.

In Hong Kong there is a fine al­ter­na­tive to phrase-book gob­blede­gook. The Can­tonese gau cho ah can mean ev­ery­thing from “Wow!” to “Hey, an alien space­ship just landed on my mother-in-law.” This can be used any­where at any time in any con­text and is pos­si­bly the world’s most nim­ble ex­pres­sion.

I learned an­other neat phrase in Hong Kong, at Mcdon­ald’s, where counter staff point at you and bark, “Mepchu.” Don’t be alarmed. This is just the rote fast-for­ward ver­sion of “May I help you?” Never let peo­ple mepch you, es­pe­cially if you’re not French. Now go ahead and lift that ve­hi­cle.

VI­JAY VERGH­ESE IS THE EDI­TOR OF SMART TRAVEL ASIA, SMARTTRAV­ELASIA.COM

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