When I was teaching English in Thailand, I found that I was one of the few teachers who was really into the idea of learning Thai, having Thai friends, and just generally doing anything except playing quarters with all my American friends on the weekend. Although it should be noted that I did play a fair amount of quarters… it was just on the backburner for me.
I would often have people coming to me and saying things like ‘Alex, you are so good at doing Thai things.’ Or ‘Alex is really good at speaking Thai.’ Or ‘Alex you are the smartest, greatest person I have ever known, please teach me your ways.’ Ok, fine, the last one never happened.
Anyway, what I believe people were really saying was more along the lines of 'I wish speaking Thai and getting into the swing of things came naturally to me too.’
Well, guess what, it wasn’t natural. I didn’t have a chip implanted in my brain that taught me Thai while I was sleeping. I had to do things the old fashioned way; you know, actually trying. I know, I know, applying yourself to try to learn something that you are not getting graded on is absolutely ridiculous. I must have been under hypnosis or something.
In order to learn Thai, I first invested in Pimsleur’s Thai, which is cheaper and better – IMO – than Rosetta Stone. It just teaches you the basics, like how to order food in a restaurant or ask for directions, but getting a little bit of basic knowledge provides a great platform for meeting people and striking up conversations, which allows you to branch out and learn much more.
However, you may be surprised to learn that sitting in my room and struggling to learn a language from a tape was not how I got into the culture and made Thai friends. To do that I actually had to go out into the big bad world.
When I first got to Thailand I was in Phuket, a resort destination, for several weeks. I had only listened to 2 of the lessons at this point, and it was really no time at all to sit inside, as there were beaches, bars and babes at every turn. The very first night we went to a bar around the corner from our hotel. After 30+ hours of traveling and attempting to sleep on airport benches, you can imagine how this went. My memory is a haze of playing pool and chatting up the employees.
Lucky for me that after a few drinks, I get along swimmingly with just about anyone under the sun. After several rounds of playing pool with Benjo, the 14 year old son of the bar owner (children in bars are far from a rare occurrence in Thailand – get used to it and save your judgments for elsewhere), I must have endeared myself to the staff. I was laughing and joking around with them, and I remember one in particular making fun of me quite a bit. The next day I walked past the bar, and much to my surprise I heard my name being called.
As it turned out, one of the girls that worked in the bar was from a town near where I taught, and she ended up becoming my closest Thai friend. I visited her on many occasions and she introduced me to all her friends and family. If it wasn’t for that first night I never would have met her and had this opportunity. So the moral of the story is to learn a bit of the language, but more importantly to hit the ground running as soon as you arrive, and realize there’s no reason to be shy. Once they realize that you are just a human, the same as anyone else, you’ll find out there was never anything to be scared of in the first place.