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Years ago I was eating at this expensive Indian restaurant in Thailand, and the waitor asked me what I wanted to drink. He looked completely Thai, so I said in Thai, ‘water’. He looked very confused and asked me to repeat, so I did. He then walked away and came back with his Indian looking manager, who asked me what I wanted to drink. I answered in English, ‘water’.
I was convinced that maybe my accent was really bad, or that I somehow forgot to say ‘water’. My American friends that were with me started doubting I could speak Thai. I mean, anyone who has studied Thai for more than a week can say ‘water’ in Thai, no? It took me a year to figure out this confusion . . .
One day I was at a typical street restaurant and the waitress came to take our orders. She seemed to be slow and confused, and we had to repeat ourselves several times. I just assumed my Thai pronunciation was hard to understand! But then my Thai friend leaned over to me and said, ‘she isn’t Thai, I think she is Burmese’. And then the world made sense to me once again.
It never actually occured to me that all these restaurants, like in the US, are filled with illegal immigrants pretending not to be. Burmese and Cambodians can easily pass as Thai by their looks, and there are quite a few of them. Many could even speak at least rudimentary Thai since they were children. They are very often employed at restaurants that serve primarily farang (foreigners), because hey, how would we know when they all look and sound the same? (to the unsuspecting tourist, I mean)
There is this restaurant not far from my apartment that I like to go to often, and it serves mainly Thais. There is this one waiter who doesn’t speak much, usually has a confused look on his face, and often gets my order partially wrong. They usually have him move heavy stuff and wash dishes most of the time. I figured he just wasn’t very bright. Then one day I went to eat there with a Thai friend, and this same waiter mentioned the price of the dish. My friend leaned over to me and said ‘he has a strange accent, I think he is from a hill tribe’. Well, that explains it!
There have been many other times where I go to restaurants and the waiter doesn’t quite look Thai although somewhat, and I get confused which language I should speak. In these cases it’s best to first ask in English if they speak Thai, and half the time they will tell you ‘no’.
There was one day I was at immigration getting my visa extended, and I heard this guy on the phone behind me speaking Thai with a strange accent. Turning around, the guy looked Chinese. I assume he was a Chinese guy that’s been living in Thailand for a long time, only there to update his visa. There were mistakes in his Thai grammar/pronounciation, but he was pretty good at it nontheless. I can easily imagine a non-Thai speaker confusing him for a Thai man.
It all really makes me wonder – how many times over the years have I falsly assumed someone was Thai when they weren’t? ‘Farang’ doesn’t mean ‘white’!