MIDWEST MONKEY: Learning the Language

Jasmine An shares her notes from the field in her monthly column Midwest Monkey.

I’ve been in Thailand for about three weeks now. After flying into Bangkok in the midst of Songkran (Thai new year) celebrations where people with squirt guns and buckets of water pack the street soaking everyone in sight, my partner and I took the overnight train up north to Chiang Mai. We’ve been settling in, attending Thai language school, and even dog-sitting for a former teacher.

Here I am reminded that every day is filled with countless interactions with language: buying food, reading street signs, menus, getting gas, asking for directions, or even just saying hello or thank you. Even though my partner and I studied Thai and lived in Thailand for six months two years ago during our study abroad program, there are many ways in which we are still wildly incompetent at life and language.

The scooter that we rented got a flat, and standing on the side of the road, we realized that neither of us knew how to say “tire” or “flat” in Thai or how to read a sign that might mean mechanic or auto repair. While writing an order for pineapple fried rice, I forgot how to spell “pineapple” and was too shy to ask the waiter, so I settled for chicken fried rice instead (note to future self: just ask – it will be worth it).

After class, I spend a portion of my afternoon or evening painstakingly writing one-paragraph “essays” about going to the mall or the first time I opened a bank account. I’m constantly forgetting how to spell words like น้องสาว (little sister) or หก (six).

In the last days of April, I was also putting together my first-ever application for a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, one of the larger monetary prizes in the poetry world. It was such a strange juxtaposition to sit at my computer and try to convince myself that I was a writer, a poet, someone who could presumably do intelligent things with language. And that I deserved to give myself a chance at this most probably unattainable award by at least finishing and submitting an application.

But sometimes the smallest things remind me that I can be a competent navigator of language. Some good friends took the time to message me and say that they had read and enjoyed my chapbook. The mango seller at the nearby market gave us an extra mango for a discount, and we understood her instructions that we should eat the last one first because it was riper. I submitted some Sun Wukong poems to a journal and had the entire packet accepted two days later. In search of a late dinner, Manny and I psyched our shy selves up to walk into an unfamiliar restaurant, and after a moment of small panic when the waiter handed us a stack of cards entirely in Thai to mark with our order, we realized we could actually read most of the writing and recognized most of the dishes. I submitted my Ruth Lilly application and aced a spelling test that included the words ธนาคาร (bank) and ขั้นตำ่ (minimum).

When understanding is tenuous, each bit of language that I can grasp becomes that much more exhilarating. Sometimes being okay with existing outside of the stream of understanding is necessary. When the new friends I met at church switch to the Northern dialect, I can only smile and keep on eating my lunch. When Manny answers 70 Baht to the question of what kind of fuel do you want? at the gas station, we laugh at ourselves along with the attendants and then point to the right nozzle. Communication still happens, often without words, and the next time you catch the meaning of a sentence it will be all the sweeter. Living in a state of heightened appreciation for language and communication is wild and challenging and so surprisingly beautiful.

Jasmine An is a queer Chinese-American who hails from the Midwest. A 2015 graduate of Kalamazoo College, she has also lived in New York City and Chiang Mai, Thailand, and she studied poetry, urban development, and blacksmithing. Her chapbook Naming the No-Name Woman was selected as the winner of the Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize. Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in HEArt Online, Stirring, Heavy Feather Review, and Southern Humanities Review. Her soulmate and forever muse is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. As of 2016, she can be found in Chiang Mai continuing her study of the Thai language.

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