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