When I was at Northwestern University, I took a Russian language course. One of the things I remember from that class was a piece of advice the professor gave. He said that when learning a foreign language, there were three phrases that should always be learned before any others:
“Kiss me strongly”, and
“I love you”
Now that I think about, that’s really bad advice. Forget I mentioned it.
When the family and I moved to Bangkok, one of the first lessons we learned about Thai was “Taxi Thai”, also known as the simple commands foreigners can give to taxi drivers to get them to their destinations. We learned how to say “turn left”, “turn right”, “straight ahead”, and “U-turn” in Thai.
What would have been oodles more helpful was if I had learned how to ask where the bathroom is.
This is my story of how I learned that simple phrase.
In Thailand, the last day of the year is a holiday. That explains why the family and I were able to skip school and work and travel out to one of the premier landmarks in Bangkok, the Grand Palace.
This post will contain no pictures of this majestic structure because we never made it to this grand structure in the heart of Thailand’s capital city.
We had planned to take a river ferry from our neck of the woods north of Bangkok to the Grand Palace. We had maps from Google. We had directions from neighbors. It was all for naught as we could never find the right off-ramp from the main road that would take us to correct ferry.
While making our fourth crossing over the Chao Phraya River to find the elusive water taxi, we spotted a pier and boats that looked suspiciously akin to ferries. One craft even had a green flag flying from its mast. Since we were looking for something called the “Green Flag Line”, we thought we had finally found our watery Shangri-La.
We parked by the pier and that is when the call of nature rang me up.
No problem, I thought to myself. There surely must be a public restroom in this public location as there was a ferry stop, some eateries, a temple, and even a 7-Eleven.
Here’s a fun fact about Thailand gleaned from three years of living in the Land of Smiles: Visible public restrooms are nowhere to be found.
With pressure building (my apologies for being blunt), I went for broke and entered the 7-Eleven. I saw no sign for the toilet, but I was hoping that there would be an employee facility that I could use. I was, in the words of Blanche DuBois, relying on the kindness of strangers.
Now I knew from talking to others that the word for “bathroom” in Thai literally translates to “water house”. I also happened to know the word for “water”, which is “nahm” (a tip of the hat to my daughter for this word). Sadly, I did not know the word for “house” so I could not put 1 plus 1 together to make #2.
With my linguistic deficiency, I approached the cashier and asked for “nahm”. He helpfully took me over to the shelves housing bottled water. This was not the location I was hoping to be at, but then again, he had taken me to exactly where I had asked.
With pressure now building even more, I dropped ninety percent of my pride and (Disclaimer: it becomes even more blunt here so you have been warned) thrust my hips out while making a hissing sound.
There was absolutely no reaction or hint of recognition from the cashier.
Dropping the remaining ten percent of my pride, my next gambit at charades was…well, I’ll let you use your imagination because anything you can dream up will be infinitely funnier than what I actually did (plus, it keeps me from utterly embarrassing myself by telling you how I did manage to convey what my immediate needs were).
His eyes lit up with the scent of understanding and he said, “Hoag nahm”. He directed me through a door and up some stairs where the employee washroom was.
I vowed, among the cool white tile and dripping faucet, never to forget that “Hoag nahm” is the Thai word for “water house” aka “bathroom”.
To complete this tale, it turned out we were at the wrong ferry and we never saw the Grand Palace, but I learned something far more important.
My lasting lesson was not what the Thai word for “bathroom” is.
Instead I learned how far I’ll go when I have to go.
That’s my story.
Also, I still only remember how to say “I love you” in Russian.
P.S. If you want to hear a funny story about what happened when we actually did make it to the Grand Palace…well, that’s a tale for another day.