Language barrier

29 Apr

We’d only been away from home a week.  A week into our six month trip.  Our first week had been spent in Hong Kong, with a family who were intensely English in the  way only expats can be.  We’d eaten Marmite on toast, been to a hand bell ringing practise, giggled as we watched Morris Dancers.

We arrived at our next destination after an interminable stop-start taxi trip through the notorious Bangkok traffic.  Hot, queasy, and nervous, two teenagers, turning up at a stranger’s house, all the arrangements made by my mother.  The taxi dropped us in a quiet walled courtyard at the end of a dusty lane off the roaring urban highway.

There were two buildings surrounded by lush tropical planting and shaded by the highrises on the nearby main road.  We stepped over the threshold of the larger house, poking our heads into a blue walled kitchen.  A smiley lady who was chopping herbs started chatting away in Thai and then shouted across the courtyard.  A girl our age came hurrying over from the other house and also started talking to us in Thai.  We did lots of smiling and said the only word we knew “Sawadee”, which according to the huge sign at the airport meant “welcome”.

They were clearly trying to communicate something important to us, but we just smiled and nodded, desperate to shed our heavy backpacks, our pale English faces growing redder and shiner by the minute in the overwhelming heat and humidity.  Eventually, the girl led us inside and through the kitchen to a hallway with beautiful dark, shiny wood floors, our trainers squeaking as she took us upstairs, past a small shrine with golden statues and burnt incense sticks, to a bedroom with a double bed and the blessed relief of air conditioning.

On the bed were a letter and two maps of the city.  The letter, from my mother’s friend, explained that she and her husband were away and would be back in a couple of days.  We would be fed three times a day if we were home, her cook and family would look after us.

Over the next two days we tentatively explored our surroundings.   Bangkok was like nothing I’d ever experienced.  The heat and humidity blanketed us like an incense scented karvol steam inhalation.  Walking down the street required effort worthy of running a marathon.  But we discovered a lake with pedalos, which we steered under the cooling mist of a fountain, a freezing cold temple to shopping and a low wooden school full of smartly dressed navy and white unformed girls who waved and said “hello” every time we walked down the dusty lane.

We’d return to the house for meals.  And what meals.  The food was a world away from the Thai restaurants in London.  Delicate, citrusy, very lightly spiced and fresh, perfect for the sweltering heat.  Big bowls of clear chicken broth with coriander for breakfast, sour green papaya salads, stir fries with herbs and greens.  We got used to not being able to communicate with the lovely people looking after us.  We had nodding and smiling down to a T, said thank you in Thai at every opportunity.  When we weren’t eating, we’d go to our room and pore over the maps, trying to match the places we read about in our Lonely Planet with the bus routes and rivers snaking their way over the crinkly paper sheets.

After two days, our hosts returned and greeted us with smiles and apologies.  “Sorry we weren’t here to welcome you, hope you’ve been enjoying yourselves.  Have the staff been looking after you?  Have you enjoyed the food”  “Oh yes, they’ve been so kind, it’s all delicious.”

They spooned rice onto our plates, looking rather embarrassed “There’s just one thing.  The staff have been trying to tell you, but you didn’t understand.  You see, we never wear shoes inside Thai homes.  Outside shoes are considered very unclean.”

Mortified, I thought back to the many times we’d seen the barefooted staff sweeping and wiping the beatiful floors.  Wiping off our dusty shoe prints.  The dirt we’d carried in from outside.

For all our reading of the Lonely Planet, we’d omitted to look at the local customs chapter.  It’s not a mistake I’ve made twice.

For this week’s Sleep is for the Weak writing workshop, I’ve chosen to interpret the prompt “When did you say the wrong thing, and wish you could have eaten your words” as “When did you do the wrong thing because you didn’t understand what was being said.”


21 Responses to “Language barrier”

  1. Paula 29/04/2010 at 11:12 am #

    What a lovely, evocative post. I never made the most of Thailand when I was there, Bangkok as a lone traveller was enough to make me flee in sheer panic, but it’s somewhere I really want to go back to. There’s only so much that can be gleaned from the guidebooks – I bet you came back full of first hand, unforgettable knowledge. x

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 29/04/2010 at 11:34 am #

      I love Bangkok, it’s one of my favourite cities in the world, but I’ve never been alone. I would definitely like to write more about it.

  2. Laura McIntyre 29/04/2010 at 11:16 am #

    Well it could of been alot worse i guess , it does sound like a lovely place though. And now im hungry lol

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 29/04/2010 at 11:33 am #

      Thai food is amazing, I think I’ll have to write more posts about it.

  3. carolinesweetie 29/04/2010 at 11:18 am #

    A lovely post. No doubt when you travel later this year you’ll be ready for such customs. Oh it makes me wistful for travel.

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 29/04/2010 at 11:36 am #

      Yes, I’m much better these days about trying not to offend people. Blame it on the folly of youth!

  4. kadıköy arçelik servisi 29/04/2010 at 4:26 pm #


  5. Josie @Sleep is for the Weak 29/04/2010 at 11:07 pm #


    And complete too! Flows beautifully and doesn’t end abruptly. As usual you capture atmosphere and location so well.

    The only thing I would have liked is a one sentence description of your response, your feelings, after “Outside shoes are considered very unclean.” to bring it back to you.

    Love it though. As always, I am totally captivated by your writing xx

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 30/04/2010 at 4:58 pm #

      Thank you, you are very kind. But you’re right about the ending, I almost added my response originally then didn’t. I have now x

  6. Suzy 30/04/2010 at 9:09 am #

    I love language barriers for this reason, the great stories that come out of it. Sounds like you had some delicious food!

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 30/04/2010 at 4:59 pm #

      They took their food SO seriously. Every meal was an opportunity to discuss ingredients, cooking methods, how recipes could be improved on. It was completely delicious!

  7. Heather Davis 30/04/2010 at 11:08 am #

    What a great lesson! We don’t think about those kinds of things when we first start travelling. Great descriptions especially of the gorgeous food.

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 30/04/2010 at 5:01 pm #

      We were so naive, had no idea about what we were supposed to be doing. We just turned up in the country without even having read a guide book. Nowadays I do a lot more research!

  8. christinemosler 30/04/2010 at 1:52 pm #

    How lovely to be so looked after! You must have been mortified when you were told of your gaffe…I feel for you!

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 30/04/2010 at 5:02 pm #

      It was VERY nice being so well looked after. But also slightly embarrassing, especially when it turns out you’ve been creating work for people.

  9. Amy @ The Q Family 30/04/2010 at 8:17 pm #

    What a great post! Your writing is so amazing. We are going back to Bangkok this summer. So wish we can meet up but I guess maybe some other time. 🙂

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 01/05/2010 at 6:04 pm #

      Thank you! I’m looking forward to reading all your blog posts from your trip this summer to get ideas!

  10. travellingdad 30/04/2010 at 9:08 pm #

    Great post ! I’m envious, although our adventures in Bangkok with our 3 kids weren’t all too successful – too much choking on the air pollution when riding those tuk tuks !

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 01/05/2010 at 6:05 pm #

      I’ve been very lucky that both times I’ve been to Bangkok so far I’ve stayed with the family I wrote about in this post. With five of us that won’t be possible, so we’ll have to think carefully about where to stay. Coming from London, we’re used to chaotic traffic!

  11. New Mummy 01/05/2010 at 4:54 pm #

    What a great post, I felt that I was there with you x

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 01/05/2010 at 6:06 pm #

      Thank you, when I write, I try to think myself back to the time then just write what I remember. I’ve not been doing this kind of stuff long, but I really enjoy it.

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