The Time I Couldn’t Yell at a Thai Kid Properly

In order to make a living while I work on this book, my work life is a combination of writing-related pursuits (I have a piece being published in The Advocate for the first time later this month!) and random gigs around town (I worked security at Jazz Fest from Thursday through Sunday, which included spending an entire day guarding Aerosmith’s guitars).

My friend of forever (starting when we first met in Junior High and further strengthened when we went to college together) recently asked me to write a quick story for his podcast, My First Gig, (it’s a fun podcast, especially if you’re interested in the gigging life!) and that reminded me this year isn’t my intro experience with weird jobs.  Back in my 20s, I’d take semesters off from grad school and teach marching bands in Asia.

Teaching the Siamyth Drum Corps in Thailand.  Also, I’m terrified of heights, so this is problematic.

It was an amazing, eye-opening time — really my first time traveling, with the exception of a couple of trips to London — and it was humbling as it taught me how important the way we communicate is, especially when it comes to different cultures (which can include different nationalities, but also as local as different neighborhoods).

Celebrating the end of a season with the Tuba section.

It also gave me the chance to meet friends I wouldn’t have met otherwise — that I still think about often, and miss.

In any case, it was fun to remember a quick example of a communication mishap from my time in Thailand, so I figured I’d share it here!

Hey My First Gig!

I love listening to the show and am looking forward to the next episode.

I taught overseas a bit.  Basically, I got a gig with a marching band in Japan, which turned into a gig with one in Thailand, which turned into a gig with one in Singapore.  Thailand was where I spent the most time — two seasons of marching band, probably for a total of about a year there.

I was doing my 100% best to learn the language while also teaching a marching band, but Thai is a pitched language, and — despite me having a BA in Music Performance — this was a challenge for me.

In Thai, words can be said in one of five “pitches.”  Three of them have to do with the register in which you say them.  So one would be high-pitched.  One would be in a middle-register.  And one would be low.  The other two pitch options would be rising from low to high, and falling from high to low.

Learning another language on the fly is hard enough.  Now add this shit to it, and it’s fucking impossible.  Especially since no introductory language course is teaching you marching band vocabulary.  “I don’t care how to buy groceries.  I need to know how to tell Bing to stop being a jackass and get in a straight fucking line.  How do I say THAT?”

So I think — though I can’t be sure because I don’t understand the language in which my students were speaking — they got to the point where they were like, “Ok, when this American oaf says THAT, he really means THIS.”  And, honestly, that was okay with me.  We were getting things done.

But there were still problems from time to time.  One of the shittiest students (I really liked him, but God bless him, he sucked at marching band) was a kid named Mai.  This kid was a dweeb.  Lanky.  Thick glasses.  Always in the wrong spot on the field.

At first it was like, “Dude, you’re on the wrong side of the field.  Like, 60 years from where you’re supposed to be.”  But by the end of the season, after months of practice, it was more like, “Mai, move a few inches to the right.”

But the final show was the next day and Mai had to get this correct, and we did this one part over and over and Mai kept getting it wrong.  I was getting frustrated with him.  I wanted to tell him, “No, you’re wrong!  But the problem is “No” also is the world Mai, just pitched differently.  But I don’t know in what inflection.

Also, the word “right” — as in move to the right — is also Mai, just with a DIFFERENT inflection.

And, also, ALL questions end with the word, Mai.  It’s like a question mark, and, again, it’s pitched differently, but I have no idea in what way it’s different.

My vocabulary was still pretty sparse, so I have to be efficient.  For example, if I wanted water, I didn’t really know how to say, “Can I have water?”  I just hold up an empty water bottle, make a mouth motion like I’m a hamster sucking the silver part of its upside down water bottle and say the Thai word for, “Water?”

So, in all of these thoughts I’m trying to tell Mai, I only know how to say a few of the words, and all of those words happen to be “Mai.”
Ok, so you know when you yell at someone and you want to be like, “John?!  Hello, are you there?  I love you, but are you really this stupid?”
Well, that’s what I wanted to say to Mai, but all I could say was, “Mai?”
So what I was capable of saying in Thai was “Mai?  Wrong!  Move right!”  And that would have gotten the desired outcome.

Except I was foiled, because the way to say that in Thai is, “Mai, mai?!   Mai-mai!!”

And, for some reason I still don’t understand about myself, I always tried to add pitches in, even if they weren’t the right pitches.  So I was kind of just like [high pitch] Mai.  [rising pitch] Mai?!  [low pitch] Mai.  Mai.

And nobody had any idea what I was saying.  They were just looking at me like “Uh oh, we’ve never heard this one before.  He looks mad.  The American might die.”
Realizing words could not bridge this gap in understanding, I just went on the field, lifted him up and moved him to the right myself.
The good news is he got it right at the final show the next night, and the world lived happily ever after.  That’s what we in the biz call “good teaching.”
I wonder what Mai is doing right now.  Probably on a podcast, telling the story about the time an American marching band director yelled unintelligibly a bunch and then lifted him off the ground and placed him back down six inches to the right.
With the full Siamyth Drum and Bugle Corps after a performance in Bangkok.

1 thought on “The Time I Couldn’t Yell at a Thai Kid Properly”

  1. Any mother worth her salt knows about the pitch in calling to her child : high is hysterical, very low is angry, and don.t even ask about the flat even pitch;
    you are in deep trouble XO u


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