Friday, March 21, 2008

Gauging by my Thai...

Living in Bangkok for almost 5 years, I'm slowly picking up the language. Most of what I've learned is literally on the street in noodle shops, and in taxis. When I'm in a cab, I usually sit up front to practice my conversational Thai speaking skills. I've learned a lot about the culture and Thai people by chatting with the drivers. And, it's quite rewarding speaking to the cabbies here. They're usually very appreciative (and sometimes very surprised) I can speak any Thai at all. And, they love to compliment foreigners on speaking Thai by telling us, in Thai, that our speaking skills are "Great!", "Really Good", and "So clear!". It's easy to get an overinflated ego and start to believe that you're almost fluent in the language.

Until yesterday. In the morning, I step into a taxi, and when I look up, there's a white plastic gauge with blinking red lights mounted to the front on the dashboard, surrounded by small Buddha figures, and there are three more of these gauges mounted near the driver's door. They appeared to be some type of tachometer. But, why was it necessary to add more of them in the vehicle? Wasn't the standard one that came equipped with the car sufficient? After 5 years of riding in taxis in Bangkok, I thought I had seen everything there is to see in the cabs.

Being in my usual curious frame of mind, I asked the driver in Thai, "What is that and what is it for?" He replied with what sounded like, "Ship Meter". To confirm, I asked, "Ship Meter?". He said no, "SHIP METER", this time with more emphasis, and slightly louder. So, then I asked him in Thai if it were something for a ship. He laughed and said no, again.

Either my question wasn't clear, or it indeed had nothing to do with a ship. In my head, I kept repeating, ship meter, ship meter. What could that mean? And, if they WERE meters for a ship, what were they doing in a taxi? Was he using Thai words that I didn't know, that happened to sound like English?

I was confused. I wanted to ask him to write it down so I could understand. If he wrote it in Thai, I could look it up in a Thai-English dictionary. But, the opportunity never arose. The drive was too short, and he dropped me off in a no parking zone, zooming off for fear of getting a citation from the policeman standing there.

I may never know what those plastic gauges were gauging. I've concluded it doesn't really matter. What this experience did was remind me I need to keep working on learning the language. And, anyway, miscommunication can happen anywhere, in any language. My misunderstanding won't affect my attempt to speak to the taxi drivers. And, I'd rather struggle with the language than have dead silence in a taxi.