Communication did not become a problem until I moved towards the register. The woman behind the counter remained stationary, hands on either side of my donut box, giving me an urgent, confused look and gesturing with an open hand to the donut display before her.
I mimicked the gesture, my hand indicating the register. “Okay kha,” I said, nodding. “Finished.”
She shook her head and gestured once more towards the donut display, then held up two fingers, then indicated the display. “Saawng, okay kha?”
I was utterly flummoxed.
The year was 2003, and I was standing in a Dunkin Donuts on the ground floor of a Pak Kret, Thailand shopping mall. I was fifteen. Just beyond the donut shop door, a full grocery store sprawled in either direction, smelling of fish sauce, ripe fruit, and garlic. Beyond the groceries were fashion boutiques, photography studios, and home goods galore. I’d already finished my shopping trip, all but the donuts my family had requested: one for each of us, specially chosen.
My six donuts were nestled in their box. I was standing by the register with my wallet out. The woman behind the counter would not move.
I do not speak Thai. I spoke my best Thai as a nine-year-old, but once my family moved away to Louisiana, all my Thai was replaced by mandatory French. By the time my family returned to Bangkok in 2002, I retained only the most rudimentary vocabulary—the numbers one through twenty, the word for one hundred, hello, goodbye, thank you, I’m sorry, where is the bathroom, I don’t want. Most of my communication in Bangkok involved what was called Taxi Thai, an organic syntactical compromise between English and Thai that sounds frankly offensive to modern American citizens, but nevertheless represents a gracious synergy, particularly on the part of Thai speakers.
Because Taxi Thai, at least in my experience, is mostly English. Only the pronunciation, sentence structure, and the occasional word are altered. Thai speakers must know more English than English speakers must know Thai. Fortunately for me, as a farang living near Bangkok, most people I encountered spoke enough English for me to get around with using this compromise.
Unfortunately for me, the woman behind the donut counter was not one of these people. She probably knew as much English as I knew Thai—perhaps less.
Never once during this exchange did I blame her for this. I was the foreigner here. I was the guest in her country. She did not owe me proficiency in English.
However, I was making myself perfectly clear, I thought. I had selected the six donuts one-by-one by gesturing at each with my open hand; she had worked patiently with me, smiling and hovering her hand over the ones she thought I meant until I nodded, smiled, and said, “Kha. Neung.” Yes. One. Now I had moved towards the register, which, I would think, was universally recognizable as a move to complete the transaction.
This should have been the easy part.
Yet there she was, unmoving, still beside the display with my donut box beyond my reach. Her expression matched my emotions exactly: helplessness, confusion, a bit of determination.
She wasn’t much older than I was. Maybe eighteen or so. She glanced sideways at another employee behind the counter, who shrugged and said something to her in Thai. Shaking her head at her coworker, the young woman looked back at me and gave me a full sentence in Thai, gesturing towards a small sign posted on the counter—an image of donuts, with two of them prominently surrounded by a clip art starburst. All the text was in Thai.
“I can’t read Thai,” I said, shaking my head, trying to make my face look suitably apologetic. “No speak Thai kha. Khor thot kha.” I’m sorry. I leaned towards the register, trying to make my intentions more obvious.
I wanted to be finished with my errands. This was a simple enough desire, wasn’t it? I wanted to pay for my donuts, head back out into the smoggy humid beyond, return home, and finish my weekend in peace. I could not fathom why this donut attendant wouldn’t ring me up. And I was beginning to be frustrated.
She stayed where she was, and gestured more emphatically towards the small sign, and again towards the donuts, still speaking Thai. I caught hohk (six) and saawng (two). She looked as flustered as I felt.
“Hohk donuts,” I said, nodding and slowing my speech way down. “Hohk. Okay kha. Finished. I pay now, okay kha? Finished.” I held up my wallet with a dramatic flourish.
The woman shook her head determinedly, looking utterly resolute. She said something in Thai, a full sentence I did not understand, slowly, loudly.
“Just—let—me—pay,” I said, drawing the words out, my voice rising to match hers.
Her voice rose still more—not unkind, not a shout, but the sort of tone you’d use with an inattentive child. Again, she said a full sentence, enunciating every syllable, every tone, loudly and clearly, eye contact unwavering.
I opened my mouth to reply. It didn’t matter how slowly or loudly she pronounced the words, I thought, annoyed. I didn’t speak Thai. She could speak with all the profound clarity of the gods, and I still wouldn’t understand if she was speaking Thai. She knew I didn’t speak Thai; I’d made it obvious enough that I didn’t speak Thai—why did she think enunciating was going to help anything?
“I—want—” I began, holding my wallet up—and then I stopped, my mouth still hanging open, ready for the next word.
I was enunciating just the same as she was. She didn’t speak English. I could speak with all the profound clarity of the gods, and she still wouldn’t understand if I was speaking English. Why did I think enunciating was going to help anything?
For several seconds, we stared at each other, silent. Her expression told me she was frustratedly wondering the same things I was. And then realizing the same things I was. And then realizing that I was realizing the same things she was.
At the same instant, the two of us burst out laughing. This was the very best kind of laughter: full-bellied, rich, openhearted laughter at the absurdity of the situation and at our own selves for struggling so much. We watched each other laugh across the counter, nodding and grinning at each other, shrugging helplessly, for a good thirty seconds or more. No language barrier could combat this moment. This was the sort of laughter that makes for friendship, even if that friendship only lasts for a few minutes of tangible, real life connection.
The laughter settled, and I stepped towards her place near the donut displays. She took a deep breath, looked at the donuts, and then laughed softly again, shaking her head. I grinned.
“Hohk donuts, kha,” I said, starting her off.
“Hohk,” she agreed. Six. “Neung, saawng, saam, see, haa, hohk.” One, two, three, four, five, six. She held her hand over my box of donuts.
“Kha.” Yes, I’m following.
The donut attendant’s face brightened, an exaggerated mask of excitement. She held up two fingers on her other hand. “Neung, saawng!” she said, grinning, and brought the two fingers over to the box of six. She said something else in Thai, and gestured again to the small sign with the clip art starburst.
I looked more closely at the sign. A box of assorted donuts made up the background. In front of the box, two more donuts were highlighted as though there was something special about them.
“Hohk,” she said again, pointing at my box. “Saawng,” she added, pointing at the sign.
The box pictured on the sign contained six donuts.
Buy six, get two free.
She started laughing again before I could say anything in response. She must’ve seen comprehension cross my features. I grinned at her over the counter.
Each donut was supposed to cost 15 baht. Just to be sure, I held up one finger. “Neung. Sip-haa baht.” One. Fifteen baht. She nodded, smiling. I held up a second finger. “Sip-haa baht. Sip-haa baht. Sip-haa baht, sip-haa baht, sip-haa baht.”
“Kha.” Right so far.
I looked at my six fingers, made an excited face, held up two fingers and said, “Saawng—no baht?” I’d forgotten the word for zero, so held my hand in a rough O.
She nodded delightedly, laughing again.
“Oh!” I said, bouncing a little and clapping my hands. I pressed my palms together and thanked her in Thai as she laughed, gesturing again at my options. She glanced at her coworker, who seemed amusedly impressed that she’d gotten the stubborn farang to understand the promotion.
I continued to thank her profusely until I’d walked away with my eight donuts, and I spent rest of the day grateful. Because—I now understood—she hadn’t needed to work so hard to make sure I benefitted from the donut promotion. I didn’t know it existed, and never would have realized I’d missed out. We’d both been driven a little bit bonkers by the exchange, and she could easily have thrown up her hands and let me leave the shop with only the six donuts I’d come for. No one would have been hurt. It would have been simple.
But instead, she’d gone out of her way to help me. Even with the language barrier, even with the cultural differences, she had done everything she could to make my headstrong English-speaking self understand that I had two free donuts coming to me.
This exchange took on profound meaning for me, about connection, humanity, empathy, and grace. I learned I was susceptible to the “talk louder and slower” logical flaw, and I learned first-hand just why it was a flaw. I learned that laughter and goodwill can cut through communication barriers. I learned that patience yields great rewards.
That’s not to say such barriers no longer existed. But they were contextualized, given nuance, wrapped round with generosity. The experience enhanced my worldview where people are concerned—became a critical cornerstone of my conception of humanity.
And all I’d wanted heading into Dunkin Donuts that day was—well—donuts.
Have you ever had to figure out how to overcome a language barrier? What was it like? Were you successful? Tell us about it in the comments! And for another of my culture-and-language stories, check out “Uno Inherits the Earth“.