Wednesday, August 24, 2011

20 Days Left & Learning Thai

It's less than 3 weeks to d-day. There's still much to do, sorting and packing, planning, shutting things off, my satellite TV and ACS Internet, auto insurance, etc.  I'll have the last laugh on ACS, my goddamned ISP, when I tell them to shut it off for good and stop charging me the $90 a month for its precious DSL line. It used to cost me $30 a month even when I wasn't here! Not any more. Next time I sign up for Internet in Homer I'll do it though a wireless provider.

It's coming down hard again after a small break in what's turned out to be a week-long inundation. Somehow the rain motivated me to wash my dishes. They've been piling up for about a week now. It will be nice to get back to having running water again. Not having it encourages my lazy side. Let them go, I tell myself. You're the only one here. But then before I go to sleep I'll think, now why didn't I wash those dishes?
Okay, dishes done.
Now for those clothes in the closet. Which of those shirts have I worn lately? What should I take to Thailand, to Oregon? I've still got some tools to sell or give away - or maybe I'll just stick them in storage But it all has to get done. And I'm in the middle of the U.S. hard-court tennis season. I pre-record the matches on my DVR and then watch them without commercials later on. I watch almost all of them, dammit, because I can't stand to miss a good match. I'm also playing tennis or working on my game almost every day now that the season is winding down and I'm getting ready to leave. I'm getting short.

What I'm doing tonight is memorizing the Thai alphabet. The Thais have a certain way they teach and recite their alphabet. At first, I thought their method was a bit strange. Then later somewhere on the Internet I read about someone who compared it to the way Americans say alphabetic letters when we want to be sure the listener has no doubt about which letter we're referring to. We merely add a common word after the letter's name to help clinch its identity. That's just what they're doing in their method. Many Thai characters sound the same and some even look the same so this "pairing" of the two sounds is a memory aid that really helps a person to learn the 44 Thai consonants. Thus a Thai child will begin to learn the alphabet by reciting it like so:
gaw gai      (gaw is the sound of the character and gai means chicken)
kaw kai      (kaw is the sound, kai=egg)
kaw kwaai (kwaii=water buffalo)
all the way down to,
haw nok hook (nok hook=owl).
In similar fashion here in the states we might say during a telephone conversation, Alpha, Tango, Zulu, to unequivocally indicate the three characters ATZ -- it's exactly the same idea. Once I got that straight, it no longer seemed such a strange system. You just have to memorize those 44 sounds and names-of-words in the correct order. Here's a link to a YouTube video I've watched over and over. The Thai Alphabet.

The other task connected to this is learning to associate each sound and its name with the beautiful but totally unfamiliar representation of that consonant in Thai script. Some of the characters are simple, gaw gai for example. It looks a bit like a chicken: and usually sounds like a "g" while kaw kwaai is this one: . It usually sounds like our "k". You also have some like this: taw poo-tao (elder person). Its symbol is (it sounds like "t"). A complex but beautiful character I think. Most of the curves and shapes of the Thai characters are quite pleasing. Good thing. Because I'll be looking at them and drawing them a lot in weeks to come.
One of my favorites is law ling (monkey): . Maybe it's because when Nut and I are kidding around I call her Ling (ลิง) which means monkey). But no, I like law ling on its own too. By the way, the little "hat" over the law ling character defines the vowel sound "ee" while ngaw gnoo (snake) adds the ng sound. Note however that the "ng" sound, which in English only appears at the end of words like sing and hang, can appear in the beginning of a Thai word. Try saying gnoo a couple of times, in one syllable. But I digress....

 For your continued enjoyment, I offer for consideration two characters that look alike but are not. We've seen one already.
It's kaw kwaai . The other is daw dek . (child). 

Notice in daw dek that the "head" points inside, "under it's mother's arms", so to speak, while in kaw kwaii the "head" points out. Simple, huh? And then there are these little gems: paw peung (bee) ผ, paw paan (tray) พ, faw faa (lid) ฝ , and faw fan (tooth) ฟ. You did note where their "heads" were pointing, right?

Let me make those guys a bit larger so you can see them better: ผ, พ, ฝ,
Then let's just throw in this last one, law ju-laa (kite) ฬ, which has an "l" sound,
to create a recipe for total confusion. 

In case I forgot to tell you: there are no spaces between words in a Thai sentence. Or in a Thai paragraph. Here's a sample sentence followed by its translation:
นพรัตน์ขอบคุณสำหรับจดหมายและรูปถ่าย รูปถ่ายน่ารักจังเลย!ค่ะ 
I thank you for the letter and photograph. The photo is so cute!

I think now you can see where I'm at (taking baby steps) and what I'm doing (struggling) during my last days up here. But I'm happily whittling away at it.

I'll sign off with my name in Thai. Incidentally, my name David cannot be spelled or correctly pronounced in Thai because no Thai word can end with a "d" sound. Here's the best approximation Nut can come up with.

Until next time....

Friday, August 12, 2011

Learning Thai

I'm writing this instead of studying Thai but I want to get back to  that soon because I'm enjoying it more than I thought I would. It's a challenge to apply myself to a new field of study. It's been a long time since I've tried to learn anything new. I once quite liked working with computers and software but the thrill in that has long gone. Now, I'm like almost everyone else out there -- I just want to use my computer as a tool. Now that I've said it, I guess I'll be held to task if for some reason I cannot learn this difficult language. I'm going to give it an honest try though. Luckily there are a ton of language resources in the Internet to help me. Many of those resources include sound files to help with the pronunciation. Several knowledgeable people I've asked suggested that the best way to learn the language is to learn to read it first. Wow, that's huge!

I've spent about 8 months in Thailand since I first went there in February of last year, enough time to suggest that I would really benefit from learning to speak at least a bit of Thai. Their  spoken language is especially baffling to the novice because unlike European languages it uses tones to determine the meaning of words. The example I always use to demonstrate this is the short, simple word which we can spell phonetically as maa. Said straight out with a flat tone of voice it means "come" (to reach, arrive). However if you say it with a rising tone, which sounds like you're asking a question, it means dog. Said with a falling tone it means horse. These rising and falling tones are what give the Thai language it's sing-song effect. There are countless words like this one. Another example, and one that could get you in trouble, is taken from a blog entry written by an American I've been emailing with lately, Stephen Cleary, who teaches Thai in my neighborhood in Bangkok. He uses the example of a farang who asks a Bangkok cabbie to take him to a shop where he can buy a ticket for some event or for transport. The Thai word for "ticket" is tua and is pronounced with a rising tone. If however, he were to incorrectly use a falling tone, then tua means body. The cabbie might end up taking you to a shop where you can buy "body", perhaps to a certain kind of massage parlor.

To make matters worse Thai characters are like nothing I've ever seen before and the Thai alphabet contains 44 consonants and 11 vowels. Returning to my example above, the word maa is written like this in Thai script:  มา, while horse is written ม้า. The little "hook" over the "m" is important but at my level, I haven't reached the place in my studies where I've yet seen it in use. The first character in both words sounds like our letter "m" while the second is a vowel that essentially adds a long "aa" to the base sound. Incidentally, the Thai character for "n" is . And there are 42 others to become familiar with (moan).

Stephen suggested I start by learning to read what is essentially a Thai nursery rhyme. After all, I'm really much like a baby when it comes to this new language. Might as well start off like one. The story is called Manee and Friends and is more or less a Thai version of the Dick and Jane stories I read as a small child in first grade, that is, a story composed of simple short sentences made up of very easy, common words. You can see the first chapter if you follow this link: Manee Chapter One or just look at a screen shot of a small portion of Lesson 3 below:

I also bought a Talking Thai-English dictionary that runs on a computer, one that pronounces Thai words correctly. I already own the paperback version of this dictionary but this one with it's well integrated sound files is much more useful. Here's a screen shot of the entry for "come". I also pulled up the Font Samples entry for this word so you can get an idea of the various ways the word might appear in handwriting, newspapers or signs. The dictionary is available as a 275 Mb download for about $30 from Paiboon Publishing and Word-in-the-Hand! Its authors are the well known Benjawan Poomsan Becker as well as Chris Pirazzi,and the website is here: Word in the Hand. Of course, when I'm in Bangkok Nut will be a huge help as I slowly progress in my studies.

So far in about 12 hours at my desk I've only covered four lessons in the Manee book. But in addition to my reading I've made flash cards, alphabet cards, looked up many words in the Talking Dictionary, done a ton of reading about the Thai language online, and made tentative arrangements to study with Stephen when I get to Bangkok next month. To get only the briefest glimpse of what's available online in the area of learning Thai, check out this very helpful site: Women Learning Thai...

Leaving aside my Thai studies for a while, today I gave away my Lazyboy recliner. I have spent countless hours in this chair, both reading and napping, in the years I've owned it. I bought it at a yard sale back in the mid 90s and the fact that I'm giving it to a friend has some significance. I'm really not sure at this point if I'll come back to Alaska next summer. No, I'm not ready to move to Thailand but I do want to spend the spring in Europe and part of the summer with friends and relatives in the "lower 48".  If I end up buying that nice van I want, there won't be room for most of this "stuff" I've been hanging onto for all these years. I've been, as I said before, giving away, selling, and otherwise compressing my belongings all summer. Having lived quite well out of two suitcases for 9 months last year I had to ask myself why I find it so necessary to keep all this stuff in my life. So, the chair must go. And the lamps, the extra clothing and all those books I've been moving around for years. I've read them once and will not read them again so why the hell keep them? So it goes. It will be weird staying here on that last day before my flight. This cabin must be totally empty by September 10th. I leave Alaska on the 11th.

Summer is rapidly winding down up here on Diamond Ridge although it's a perfect morning right now. It looks as though I'll get down to the courts to hit balls with my machine later today. Last Saturday, however, was brutal with windy, rainy, cold weather. Many of my friends went to an outdoor concert in Ninilchik that weekend but I was happy to stay in my cabin watching the cold rain slash the trees in the meadow. A few entries back I included a shot of the sky at midnight. Here is a shot of the same skyline a month later and an hour and a half earlier in the evening. Clearly, the long days of summer are inexorably morphing into the short days of winter.

Sunset Aug 9, 2011 - 10:30 pm

I hope all of you are doing well. And thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Musings on a dreary day

I've been watching the rain falling steadily outside this little cabin all day. It's been a good day to stay indoors. At 55 degrees it's not been particularly cold but I've been wearing a wool sweater to keep the chill at bay. Now, after baking a squash and cooking some panang curry with rockfish for dinner, the cabin has reached a more comfortable temperature and I'm enjoying a cold beer. I've just finished watching the News Hour on PBS and am dismayed about how those cut-throat Republicans in Congress have managed to once again force Obama to back down and cave on raising taxes for the rich to help offset the nation's huge deficit. Hell, it ain't even a tax hike I'm after -- just a return to the days before that devil Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. Gee, the Repubs want fiscal responsibility? They have such short memories. They can't seem to remember it was their man who's responsible for our economic calamities.

And what happened to the strong person I helped elect to the presidency? The one that brought tears to my eyes when he was inaugurated, the first black man ever to occupy the Oval Office? Ah, Washington tonight is an ugly place indeed. Full of shameless opportunists where anything can be had for enough money. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

There's no point in continuing that rant. It's apparently reasoning that few in power would agree with. Fox News will set everything straight for us I'm sure. Turn on the TV and watch those infomercials masquerading as news, yep, that's right.

I've spent a good portion of this rainy day studying the Thai language online. I know that I must learn to speak at least a little bit of Thai if I want to enjoy and enhance my time in Thailand. Nut has been running interference for me and while that's certainly handy, it has not helped me learn very much. There are tons of learning resources on the Internet and I've been reading reviews of various language schools in Bangkok trying to find one that might be a good fit. I came across this one that sounds both novel and interesting. It's called the AUA Language Center. They use a method they say is modeled after the way a baby acquires language. It's a total immersion course but one without tests or homework or vocabulary assignments. Students sit in a classroom with two teachers who speak Thai with plenty of pantomime to help flesh out the dialog you are watching and listening to. The teachers are for all practical purposes actors who seem to enjoy what they're doing. The idea is that eventually you will "acquire" the language and become a fluent native speaker just a a baby does. They've been in business for quite a while so their system must work, at least for some people. The cool thing is, you can watch a ton of AUA's videos on You Tube and assess whether it might be a good approach or not. I figure I may as well begin the task I've set out for myself -- to learn conversational Thai by the time I leave there next spring. Maybe this is a way to start.

The other thing I've been doing today is reading a fascinating blog I stumbled upon recently. It's written by a guy who calls himself Village Farang. He's an American expat married to a Thai woman who's lived in Thailand for 35 years. As the blog begins they're in the process of  building a nice home near a small town, his wife's home town in northern Thailand near Chiangrai, after having lived in Bangkok for 30 years. Not all of what he has to say pertains to my life but quite a bit of it does. In one entry he asks, "why do I write this blog?" I've asked myself the same question.

It is somewhat narcissistic endeavor surely -- and perhaps merely mental masturbation. But I reckon most importantly writing is one of the things I do that I really like doing. I'm a lazy person at heart but I do write with some degree of dedication. I have no hope of ever becoming a real writer but I enjoy myself when I am writing. In the back of my mind is the hope that someday my kids will read this blog because I'm pretty sure none of them are reading it regularly now. Village Farang got me thinking about this when he expressed a similar sentiment about his family members. Anyway, his musings are often insightful and I think quite well written. His success in Thailand has a lot to do with his long residency there, a solid long-term relationship with a wonderful Thai woman, and I'm sure no small amount of will power. I'm not sure I have enough of that in me should I ever decide to try my own hand at living in the Land of Smiles but he's managed to pull it off quite well. His blog is called My Thai Village Life. It's pretty cool.

Will this rain ever stop? I wonder as I check the weather report on the Internet. (Oops, by the looks of things not right away. My regular tennis day is tomorrow -- that probably isn't going to happen.) It's dark now mostly because of the heavy clouds just overhead yet only a few weeks ago the light in the sky at midnight was bright enough to allow me to walk down the path to my cabin without a flashlight. I'm glad I'll be missing the long darkness that will engulf Alaska before long.