Siam: Getting to Know You

By LaPointe, Leonard L. | Journal of Medical Speech - Language Pathology, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Siam: Getting to Know You

LaPointe, Leonard L., Journal of Medical Speech - Language Pathology

It's a very ancient saying,
But a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher,
By your pupils you'll be taught.
"Getting to Know You," Oscar Hammerstein

In the early 1860s, Anna Leonowens, a widow with two young children, was invited to Siam (now Thailand) by King Mongkut (Rama IV). This was during the era of the horrendous Civil War in the United States when brothers fell at Bull Run and at the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history with about 23,000 casualties on both sides. In France, debates raged in the Societe d'Anthropologie de Paris, and in 1861, Paul Broca made two landmark presentations on the location of "articulated speech" in the brains of two of his patients. Auspicious history. In the kingdom of what is now the enchanting country of Thailand, Rama IV wanted this governess to teach his children and his many wives the English language and introduce them to British customs. Her experiences during the 5 years she spent in the country served as the basis for several memoirs, including The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870); a spate of stage plays; and the memorable movie with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, The King and I (Morgan, 2008). The book, the original stage play in 1952 with Gertrude Lawrence, and the subsequent 1956 movie did a lot to introduce Western audiences to the exoticism of Siam and Thai culture even if Siamese culture was portrayed in stereotypical and somewhat impolite ways.

Readers of these pages know that this writer has admired the virtues of Thailand in previous writings (LaPointe, 2009). This was a snapshot of my first visit to the "Land of Smiles":

I write this from the 17th floor of the Montien Hotel in Thailand. The rising sun is beginning to tint the exotic and beautiful wat or temple that dominates the view as I look down on and across the city. This dazzling complex is starting to hum with, from this height, bee-like monks in saffron and apparently even garnet-colored robes scuffling their sandals around the complex. They have been up, as most have monks at Thailand's 29,000 temples, since 4:00 a.m. At 6:00 a.m. they will have already logged an hour of meditation and an hour of chanting as they wend their way through the neighborhood where the local people will make merit by offering them food. At 8:00 a.m. they will return to the temple, sit together and eat breakfast, and then make a blessing for world peace. So far, this daily blessing has only been partially successful.

On my desk is a complementary wooden bowl with a striking array of four fresh Thai fruits. One of them is red, ovular, and hairy in appearance and reminds me for some reason of my grandfather. It is a rambutan, and when its hirsute skin is squeezed or cut open with a knife the treasure inside is a pale-colored, succulent fruit with a large seed. Complementing the array is an assortment of grape-like sopodillas (lumat), with a sugary but somewhat pungent taste. I recognize small, green-skinned tangerines, but I have never tasted such concentrated syrupy citrus flavor. Finally some tiny kluey (mini-bananas) complete the still life.

Sawatdee, sometimes spelled sawasdee, is a multi-meaning greeting used in Thailand. It is usually accompanied by the wai, which consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. The higher the hands are held in relation to the face and the lower the bow, the more respect or reverence the giver of the wai is showing. The wai is also common to express thanks or to apologize. Interestingly, even some of the McDonald's outlets have a statue of our familiar if slightly creepy friend Ronald McDonald with his hands folded in the traditional wai posture. The word often spoken with the wai as a greeting or farewell is sawatdee. Phonetically, the word is pronounced "sa-wat-dee." Additionally, as a polite additive the word that sounds to these ears like "klop" is added by men and "kah" by women. …

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