Showing posts with label Thailand. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Thailand. Show all posts

Troubles in Thailand

You may have heard about the protests going on in Thailand right now. Basically one group (the "red shirts") wants the prime minister to dissolve parliament, step down, and call for new elections. He's not, obviously, and a few days ago the protests turned violent. Twenty people were killed, hundreds hurt.

Most of the trouble's in Bangkok, so we're largely unaffected. But I did read one story saying protesters had gotten a hold of Chiang Mai Provincial Hall. If so, that's kind of a trip because we just went there to announce Anica's birth. You can learn more about it here or from the video:

It's the same mess that started years ago when the military took the government from Thaksin. Very little has changed except who's in power.

Not to make light of it, but one really eerie thing is that I wrote a scene just like these protests about a day or two before they happened. I really hope I don't have that power. If so, I'm done writing modern-day fantasy right now.

Being Foreign Without Sounding Like a Dork

Foreign languages are hard to use in fiction. Probably because most of us don't use them in real life (really, we don't). So here I present some tips for helping the reader get that foreignness is happening, without feeling hit over the head by it.

USE LANGUAGE TO BE UNDERSTOOD. First and foremost, the purpose of speaking is to communicate ideas. If a character is fluent in both English and Thai, but her listeners understand only English, she will not toss in a Thai word here and there. If someone did that in real life, we'd think they were just showing off their knowledge. And here's a big surprise: that's how it comes off to the reader too -- like the author is showing off some language they picked up on their trip around the world.

THINK LIKE THE CHARACTER. What if the character ISN'T fluent in English? In that case, there will be words for which the Thai (or other language) comes to her mind first. Speaking fast, she may correct herself, which not only sounds natural, but gives you a natural way to translate what she says:

"Come on! We have to hurry to catch the rotfai. The train."

If her listeners are also bilingual, even only a little, she may not correct herself at all. In this case, you'll have to provide the translation some other way, either through direct telling or (better yet) through context. (Assuming you need the translation at all. Sometimes it just doesn't matter.)

She clapped her hands. "Children, our guests will be here soon. Gep your toys. Reoreo!"

DON'T MAKE THE READER READ UNINTELLIGIBLE GIBBERISH. I once read a novel in which the villains occasionally spoke in Vietnamese. It was cool except when the author strung together a long sentence of Vietnamese phonetics. It was pronounceable I guess, but pointless; I don't understand Vietnamese nor did any of the other characters. It felt like the author was just showing off how much Vietnamese they knew. Take a look at these two examples (with Thai, of course):

The door flew open with a bang. Four masked men ran in, guns pointed at Bernice and her family. "Lukkheun!" one of them shouted. "Lukkheun diawnii!" She didn't know what they were saying, just put her hands on her head and sobbed. "Tah mai lukkheun diaw ja ying kah man. Ow mai! OW MAI!"

This isn't bad, but by that last sentence probably most of you aren't actually reading it anymore. Even if you did read it, you might wonder why since you gained no meaning from it (unless you speak Thai of course, in which case I kindly refer you to this post). But we can change it so it still conveys foreignness and Bernice's terror, without forcing the reader to slog through a bunch of meaningless phonetics:

The door flew open with a bang. Four masked men ran in, guns pointed at Bernice and her family. "Lukkheun!" One put a gun barrel to her mouth, shouting in a language she didn't understand. She didn't know what to do. She put her hands on her head and sobbed, but it only made him scream louder. What did he want from her?

PUT FOREIGN WORDS IN ITALICS. This goes along with not making the reader work. Italics signal the reader that these are words they don't necessarily have to know (also that they're not typos). This even goes for words that you think everybody should know.* A good rule of thumb is if it's not in the English dictionary, italicize it. For example:

"You're hungry? No problema, I'll pick up some burritos."

* I've noticed this problem especially with Californians (like me) who assume everyone took Spanish in high school (like me). Also with British authors and French. I'm American, I don't speak French!

USE FOREIGN ACCENTS SPARINGLY. If English is someone's second language, they may have an accent. You've probably read stories where a character's accent was annoying or really hard to read. It's hard to do right, but the general rule is: be subtle. Imply the accent rather than hit the reader over the head with it.

Also, think like the character. If the character's first language does not have definite articles, they may drop them when speaking English. A common Thai mistake is to get 'he' and 'she' mixed up (although that could be confusing for the reader -- it is for us). When I'm playing a game with my daughter, she sometimes says, "You're going to win me," because that's how the word for 'win' is used in Thai (they have no separate word for 'beat').

It helps to know an ESL speaker, or to know a foreign language so you can work out how the character might process English. If you're not sure though, then don't do it. The character can just use simple words and sentences, with the occasional foreign word tossed in where appropriate.

So to sum up. If you're using foreign languages in your fiction:

  1. Don't do it just to show off.
  2. Be intentional; think like the character.
  3. Be subtle.

Got any other tips? Annoyances with how some authors handle it? Tell us about it in the comments.

On Priorities

(Fair warning: Posts may be short or non-existent the next couple of weeks. Just saying.)

If you think this means I won't be careful with my Thai, you should know that 6 of those 8 people are my wife and in-laws.

Also, this is not to scale (unless you're a prospective agent/publisher, in which case this is totally to scale).

That Thing Where I Draw: Tee and Heart

I took a break this week (not entirely intentionally), so here's an older drawing from my sketchbook. I couldn't find any dates, but near as I can figure this sketch is from about 4.5 years ago. I drew this during naptime at an orphanage called Im Jai House. That's Tee on the left and Heart on the right.

Cindy and I started working with Im Jai House almost immediately after we moved here. At first we just went in the evenings, but soon we were there all day (minus time we left for language school). It was actually really hard for me. I mean, I loved the kids, but I never felt like an authority or role model. I didn't really know how I fit in their lives.

I don't know what impact I had on them, but they impacted me a lot. Not only did we learn Thai at an insane speed, but I realized that I wanted to have a place in their lives -- not just as the volunteer who sometimes plays/sometimes disciplines. I wanted to be the dad.

Tee, in particular, really got to me. We were there the day he first arrived at Im Jai. He was 6, with no friends, and scared. He hung around me a lot. I don't know why since I could hardly talk to him.

I remember one day I was playing soccer with him. Some older kids joined and soon after -- mostly because I was tired -- I left them to their game. Tee came to me in tears. I tried, in my broken Thai, to ask him what was wrong. Between heaving sobs I understood the words, "I wanted... to play... with you."

It was the first meaningful conversation I remember having in this language, with Tee or anyone.

Later, Cindy and I realized that we couldn't do what we wanted to do at an orphanage with over 50 kids. We gradually lessened our commitments until we had foster kids of our own to take care of, and we left Im Jai House. Tee is 10 now, and living with a family who does what we do just down the road. I see him sometimes, though I don't think he remembers that scene like I do. I doubt he even thinks of me at all other than "that farang I used to play with at Im Jai," but I'll never forget him.

Dang. And here I thought I was just going to say, "These are a couple of kids at an orphanage we used to work at." Well there you go. Merry Christmas.

In Search of the Perfect Utensil

For some, the perfect eating utensil is the most elegant, the most practical, or simply whatever they're used to. But me? I want a utensil that allows me to eat the most amount of food with the least amount of trouble. Let's begin.

(Also, this has absolutely nothing to do with writing. Don't worry. There's an Air Pirates sketch coming on Friday).

Like most Westerners, I grew up with the knife and fork. It's the perfect combination for a culture that eats primarily meat (although I'll never understand the common manners that dictate you switch hands for slicing and eating). Ideally suited for steak, the fork/knife can handle a wide variety of other foods. So it's good, but not the best. Let's look at some other options.

The chopsticks are the choice of the East. They are an elegant utensil, and you're super-cool if you can use them (in the West anyway). But cool as they are, they just don't make any sense for countries whose primary dish is rice. I mean, seriously guys, how am I supposed to eat this?

Next up is the spork. The scooping action makes it an ideal choice for rice and small pastas, and the tongs give it the versatility to spear larger chunks of food. The spork is almost perfect, but used alone, it is difficult to shove reluctant peas onto the shovel or to slice foods too big for one bite.

Enter Thailand. In Thailand, chopsticks are only used for noodle dishes (sometimes not even then). The preferred combination is a fork and spoon, but you'll have to throw out your Western mindset, and put the fork in your left hand. The spoon is your primary utensil.

The spoon allows you to carry much more food. The fork, meanwhile, provides the means to fill the spoon to overflowing with a minimum of effort. You can also use the fork and spoon in conjunction to cut almost anything except a tough steak. But then why are you eating tough steak anyway?

The fork-and-spoon is the best combination I've found yet, to the point where I often ask for a spoon when I visit the States. But there is one eating utensil that tops even these.

The tortilla! The tortilla is amazing in that it doubles as a plate, but you can eat it! Pile it with food, roll it up, and shove as much into your mouth as you can handle. The best part is, when you're done, there's nothing left to wash but your hands.

Geez, I could go for some Mexican food right now.

How about you? What do you like to eat with?

Land of Smiles

To continue Positive Waves Week, I bring you pictures from Thailand, the land of smiles. (If one of these doesn't make you smile, we may need a whole Positive Waves Month until you get better).

I posted this first one a long time ago, back before most of you knew I was here. This ad was in the window of the local Toyota dealership. No, I don't get it either. While it didn't make me want to buy a Toyota, it did make me want to go pirating.

This snack reminded me of a scene from a certain favorite movie. They served it at church. I kept expecting one of the youth to flip out and kill everyone.

E-books have finally come to Thailand! Oh, wait. No. No, they haven't.

Thailand might be behind the curve, but my boys aren't. Here's Nathan and Isaac sporting the latest in steampunk fashion.

You can't see it, but Isaac's shirt says "The animal to pirate". Again, I'm not sure what that means, but I know that boy's going to be swinging from the monkey bars some day with a wooden sword and an eye patch. *snif* I'm so proud!

(If you'd like to continue Positive Waves Week on your own blog, feel free to drop a link in the comments. I'll follow every one.)

Language Problems

(For WAG #6: Overheard, in which the goal is to eavesdrop and notice how people really talk. I had some problems, as you'll see, and so shattered the rules into tiny, glittering pieces on the floor. Wear shoes.)

I can't understand you. I've lived here 4 years, even went to school to learn your language, but I can't understand you. You're not speaking your language.

I realize they didn't teach me about languages in the US. Oh, they teach the big ones - Spanish, French, maybe Chinese - but nobody is expected to actually use them. When someone, or some country, doesn't speak English, the typical American sentiment is, "Why don't they just learn English?"

I didn't want to be like that, so when I came here I determined to learn Thai the best I could. For you. I've done that, am still doing that, but though Thai is the national language, it's hardly the language everyone speaks.

Even in my own house, Thai is everyone's second language. My wife and I speak English. My oldest daughter grew up speaking Karen. My youngest daughter speaks Lisu with her mom, Kham Mueang with her school friends, and English with me; she only uses Thai with her teachers.

By your rhythms and sounds, I know you're speaking Kham Mueang. I recognize it, even know a word or two, but I don't understand you. In northern Thailand, everyone speaks Kham Mueang. Everyone but me. In the market, if my face didn't already mark me as an outsider, my use of the so-called "national language" would.

It's not really fair, you know? Why can't you all just learn English?


Other participants in WAG #6:

How to Join the Writing Adventure Group

Cora Zane

Christine Kirchoff

Nancy J Parra

Mickey Hoffman

Sharon Donovan

Iain Martin



Jon Strother



Night Sky in Chiang Mai

(For Nixy Valentine's Writing Adventure Group)

Of course I understand the physics of it - suffusion of light, a terrestrial observation point, and all that. Even so, I am dumbfounded at how a handful of heated wires and gases can reduce billions of celestial furnaces into a countable collection of hazy dots in a not-quite-black sky.

MORE INFORMATION (added 3/9): The assignment was to describe the sky. This was observational, so writers were encouraged to use descriptive words more than metaphors or emotive words. Follow the links below to see how other people took the exercise:

Cora Zane - Stars Will Cry

Sharon Donovan

Adam Heine - Authors Echo

Nancy Parra - This Writer’s Life

Criss - Criss Writes

Carol - DMWCarol

Nixy Valentine

Marsha Moore - Write On!

Jesse Blair - SexFoodPlay

Jackie Doss - The Pegasus Journals


JM Strother - Mad Utopia