I lived in Thailand as a young Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 1980s. To learn Thai, I would go into small local restaurants where I would sit at a table. As a lone single foreigner, my presence raised curiosity of the people working at the restaurants, or other patrons. Oftentimes is was a 30 or 40 year old woman who owned the stall, and made their living selling bowls of noodle soup. Quite there were teenage girls in their late teens, or early twenties also working there, i.e. my age at the time. I learned much of my Thai in such situations, often in the context of a conversation that went something like this:
Me: Could I please have a bowl of noodle soup?
Them: You mean you even speak Thai!!!
Me: (modestly) Yes, yes, a little bit.
Them: You speak Thai really really well! Where are you from?
Me: I’m from America.
Them: Ooh that’s interesting. We see American movies. Did you know you look just like a movie star???? (accompanied with teenage tittering).
Me (modestly): Well, yes, I’ve heard that before (i.e. the previous time I sat down at a restaurant like this).
Them: You have golden colored hair, just like Robert Redford!!! (more teenage tittering).
Me (with more humility): Well yes, I guess so….
Some form of this conversation took place probably a couple hundred times during my three years in Thailand in the early 1980s. In fact, it took place with most of the Peace Corps guys who had long noses, and hair that wasn’t’ black, including the bald ones. It was the starter for a great deal of conversation, fun, and flirtatiousness. Not to mention, it was the context for much of the Thai language we eventually learned.
Anyway, I returned to Thailand in June 2011 with hopes of reliving the glory of thirty years ago. I even brought along my wife of 24 years to show it how it was done—and how lucky she is to have married a guy who looks just like Robert Redford.
Me: Could I have a bowl of noodle soup?
Them: Sure. Do you want something to drink with that?
Me: Yes….water maybe?
Them: It seems you speak a little Thai!
Me (hopefully): Yes, yes….
Them: Where did you learn Thai?
Me: In the Peace Corps, over thirty years ago.
Them: Why were you so stupid to leave Thailand? Couldn’t you see that this is the nicest country in the world???
Me: Um yeah. Do you remember Robert Redford?
Them: No, who’s that?
The real sad part is that it was no longer the tittering teenagers and twenty-somethings asking me these questions. They still sit conspiculously in front of the noodle, but seem focused on others, and no longer strike up conversations with me. Rather it is 50 year old ladies who smile as much the teenagers used to (wait a minute—I guess they were those teenagers), but the tittering is gone. For that matter, so is the flirtatiousness. I guess that the good news is that the noodle soup still tastes great
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.