Remember how when you were a kid your parents always said, “they’re not laughing at you, they’re laughing with you.” As a farang in Thailand I have never found that to be true. The locals are definitely laughing at your silly foreign ways. Luckily it’s friendly laughter. I have become used to being the local jester.
While working on Koh Phi Phi I was a daily source of amusement to the Thai staff. Every day as the dive boat came back to the pier the Thai boat staff shouted quickly to the shore staff, then everybody looked at me and laughed. This happened nearly every day for two years. The other farang staff were amusing too, but the blonde female always merited the most hilarity. I never did learn why I was so entertaining.
Karen, one of the Andaman Discoveries staff has a great view on the situation. “Just think of how happy you’re making all these people!” It’s like a windy and rainy day where your umbrella goes inside out and your skirt flies over your face. You’re humiliated and wet, but just think of how happy you’ve just made all the bystanders!
Everything I say in Thai is hilarious. Often I say the wrong word or use the incorrect tone, so the laughter is understandable. Other times, on the rare occasions when my Thai comes out perfectly, the blond faring speaking Thai is like watching a monkey use a typewriter: intrinsically absurd.
Thai dialects can also change dramatically depending upon the region. Mai pen rai is one of my favorite multipurpose Thai phrases. It can mean “never mind”, “you’re welcome”, “I’m okay”, “no worries”. While living on Koh Phi Phi my Thai co-workers made me speak the super cool southern Thai slang, so mai pen rai become mai prue. Every time I went to Bangkok and said mai prue locals stared, shook their heads, then went “ohh southern Thai”. Kuraburi is only a few hours from Phi Phi, so I though I should use mai prue. Kuraburi locals understand the phrase better than people from Bangkok, but break into hysterical laughter every time I say mai prue. I finally asked what I was doing wrong, and Karen told me mai prue is too casual to be used with anyone other than close friends up here. As a foreigner I get a bit of a free pass on unintentional rudeness.
A few nights ago I was at a restaurant with a mix of Thai and farang. We were practicing both languages. I had the opportunity to laugh at Phed attempting to pronounce “laundry”, and then inspired shock, and some awe, when I showed off more of my Phi Phi vocabulary. Most phrases I uttered received “who taught you that?” “Never say that around strangers.” and yet more helpless laughter. I suppose my Phi Phi jester-status was inspired by my absolutely obscene Thai vocabulary. I have the mouth of a sailor, all learned from the Phi Phi deckhands.