Thursday, February 3, 2011

What's Thai for "Will you marry me?"

This week's Round Up is hosted by Sara at Wife-Mommy-Woman. The topic is your most embarrassing expat moment. I am thankful that nothing immediately comes to mind; that's not to say there aren't good stories to be told, but I can't think of anything super embarrassing off the top of my head. So that brings me to one of my favorite stories.

In college, I spent my junior year abroad - a semester in Khon Kaen, Thailand and then a semester in Cape Town, South Africa. On my first day in Cape Town, our orientation included a trip up Table Mountain at sunset. Our group consisted of about fifty students from around the US. We were all meeting each other for the first time. For those of you who have never been to Cape Town, Table Mountain is the striking feature in the middle of the city - aptly named and featured on all iconic pictures of the city. You can hike up or take the cable car up, which was our method that day. At the top, we walked all around the plateau and took in the views of the landscape below. It truly is gorgeous views, particularly at sunset.

As the sun started to set over the Atlantic Ocean, I noticed that the two men standing near where I was sitting with some fellow students were speaking Thai. Having just returned from six months in Thailand, including six months of intensive language, I decided to strike up a conversation. The men were selling balloon animals. My limited Thai skills didn't extend too far beyond basic conversation (or buying fruits and vegetables), but I gleaned that they had only been in South Africa a few months and were trying to make a living with their balloon creatures.

I went back to my group after a few minutes and noticed that there was a small wedding going on nearby. I was engrossed in watching the ceremony when one of the Thai men came up to me with a bouquet of balloon flowers. He was saying things I didn't understand, but I did hear the word wedding. I replied yes, that's a wedding. Then, the man grabs my hand and starts to lead me towards the wedding. At this point I had no idea what was going on. My Resident Director and several peers were looking on with curiosity and amusement. As we make our way closer to the bride and groom I start thinking I've maybe agreed to marry this man. Maybe I didn't say "yes, that's a wedding" so much as "yes I want a wedding. now. with you."

Against my better judgment I let the man and his balloon flowers lead me straight to the happy couple. The officiant stopped speaking as we approached. And just as every frightening accidental marriage scenario played through my head, the Thai man hands the bewildered bride the bouquet of balloon flowers and looks at me saying something to the effect of "wedding. flowers. for her." and that's when I realized he didn't want to marry me. He wanted me to translate while he presented a gift to the couple. So I apologized for interrupting their ceremony but that this man wanted to give them flowers on the happy occasion. They took it in stride, laughing and graciously accepting the balloons.

The Thai man thanked me, and he and his companion headed towards the next group of tourists. I walked back towards my new friends, completely stunned by what had just (almost) happened. The few who had realized what was going on were laughing. We finished up our tour of the mountain and headed back down. Incidentally, several of us went out for Thai food that night. I did not even attempt to speak to anyone in Thai. Lesson learned.

The incident, looking back, was quite funny. And in many ways it helped bridge the experience between two very different countries and cultures. It was not, however, an ego boost for my Thai language skills.