Hey you, Farang! Accuse me | Bangkok Post: learning

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Hey you, Farang! Accuse me

Hackles get raised through the roof when locals struggle with the English language

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'Hey you. You." The voice comes from behind, and I turn around to see a young man leaning lackadaisically against his taxi. "Where you go? I take you!" he adds, and he now breaks into a grin, revealing an even shade of yellow on his nicotine-stained teeth. 

PHOTO: PORNPROM SATRABHAYA, RETOUCHING: NATTAYA SRISAWANG

He's a skinny young man, though a few too many bottles of Leo on a daily basis are starting to show around his paunch. He seems affable enough and this is why he doesn't incur my wrath for employing the dreaded Thai greeting that to this day still raises my hackles.

Hey you. You'd have thought I'd have gotten used to it by now. It's the very last of a great swag of words and phrases used by Thais that used to drive me up the wall. The others have fallen by the wayside. Besides, aren't there more important things to worry about, such as the red shirts threatening to regroup or the fact we'll get 3G just in time for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics?

Yet even today, when a Thai wants to draw my attention and shouts the dreaded Hey you, I can't help but get flustered despite all my deep breathing techniques and books like Reiki For Dummies by my bed.

My 20-year stay in Thailand has been a progression of what I call "phrase phases".

It all started with the "f word", which despite my liberalist views upset me no end in my first year here. I'm not diametrically opposed to bad language, but the overuse of the "f word" turned otherwise attractive Thais ugly every time they opened their mouths.

I'm talking about the word farang, the all-encompassing term for blue-eyed blonde-haired westerners which, coincidentally, happens to be the same word they use for "guava". (When a hungry Thai wants to eat a guava, the Thai sentence for that throws up interpretations you'll never find in your Easy Thai For Tourists CD).

Farang. It was the first Thai word I became accustomed to because I heard it so often. I thought it meant "hello" at first, since wherever I went I'd be greeted by that great Thai smile then that single word from their lips. I felt obliged to say "farang" back at them, though a slightly more bitter and twisted Andrew would, a year or two later, answer with khon Thai (Thai person) as a somewhat pathetic means of revolt against the word. It didn't do any good.

If I once thought farang was bad, how did I feel when I learned about the special derogatory term for a backpacker? Farang khee nok translated literally means "a westerner who resembles bird poo", but before you fumble for your Wiltshire Stay-Sharps and take to the Silom streets, I must hasten to add that's a literal translation. It's actually a type of guava, but thanks to a play on words it can be used to describe a wandering backpacker who has seen neither homeland nor deodorant for many a month.

Knowing the language a little deeper these days, I realise there isn't anything very derogatory about farang (though call me a farang khee nok and I'll club you with my Mennen Speed Stick). No sooner had I gotten over the "F word" that I fell deeply into a new "phrase phase" which took my hackles to heights never before attained.

Same same.

What was it about those two words that almost made me want to burn down shopping centers if one more Thai dared to use same same in an English sentence?

"I take you everywhere," the taxi driver says to me. "I same same guide for you."

What he said would have upset me 15 years ago. I would have had to have stopped him right there and explained that despite what 62 million people residing around the Gulf of Siam may think, there is no such word in the English language, and not only that it sounds a little silly, so would you please ditch it and try something a little more civilised like "the same as".

Thank goodness I got over that phase; it was as pedantic as that last paragraph. But I did try my hardest in my capacity as benevolent English teacher to erase it. I wrote columns in Thai about alternatives to same same. I made TV shows, instructional videos and even stood on stages trying to explain why the phrase is so very, very wrong.

I may as well have just danced the hokey-pokey. I was like the vegetarian dressed in a chicken suit holding placards outside KFC; cute, but ultimately futile. In the end the Thais will always turn to "same same" the same way I always turn to a Chicky Burger when I'm hung over.

There have been other "phrase phases". Some of them I wonder why on earth I bothered - like when I used to care about "Where you go?" It's hard to believe I bought Corey Hart's Sunglasses At Night in 1984; in a similar vein, it's hard to imagine why "Where you go?" could jettison my hackles through the roof of my Samut Prakan home, but it did, dear reader. It did.

"Where you go?" and "same same" and "hey you" are so ubiquitous it's almost as if somebody is officially teaching them to young Thais. Is there a set of primary school English textbooks divided into chapters about greetings ("Hey you!"), questions ("Where you go") and adjectives ("same same")?

I suspect it is more word of mouth. A long time ago I caught a packed train from Korat to Bangkok; the man wedged in next to me was holding his son of no more than a year old. As soon as he saw me he smiled.

"Look," he said to his son in Thai. "A foreigner! And do you know what you say when you see a foreigner? You say: Hey you! Say it after me: Hey you! Hey you! Hey you!"

It was bad enough standing like sardines in the oppressive heat of a crowded train carriage.

"Hey you! Hey you! Come on. Say it. Say it."

But to have a barrage of hey you's slapping me in the face every second was icing on the Neurotic Cake. My hackles were hovering up around the Thaicom satellite by this stage. I almost jumped out of the carriage, rolling down the embankment and ending up next to a bewildered buffalo chewing on Saraburi grass, just to escape.

The thing about "Hey you" is - what's the alternative? "Excuse me?" That phrase is one of the most difficult to say if you've been brought up on a language that eschews the "s" sound, as Thai does. Thais end up saying something like "Accuse me!" ("Okay! You did it! Are you happy now?") or "A-Kiss me!" ("With those nicotine-stained lips? Ya gotta be kidding.") or even "A-Kill me!" ("One more 'same same' and your wish may come true!").

I hope that soon I will move out of this long, long "Hey you" phrase phase and come to terms with the fact it is here to stay. After 20 years I've learned that it's easier to change myself than 62 million Thais who grapple daily with English.

Hey, at least they are grappling. And I am always happy to help them out, even if it means keeping a firm rein on my hackles, wherever and, come to think of it, whatever they may be.

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