What I Learned From My Crash-Course Thai Instructor

Chabli Bravo
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"Suay, suay, suay, and suay," my Thai instructor said.

My forehead wrinkled in absolute bewilderment. The faces around me scrunched. "Could you repeat that?" someone asked.

"Yes, yes,” my instructor said. “Suay, suay, suay, and suay. You see they different, yes? You must use care because suay mean beautiful, suay mean unlucky, suay mean tax, suay mean bribe. Yes?"

Our crash-course Thai instructor applied a teaching policy closely resembling that of Thai bus drivers—breakneck speeds, no complete stops, and no mercy for stragglers. She glanced at our dumbfounded expressions, her smile relentless, clearly certain that we understood.

"So, suay means beautiful?" I tried to clarify.


"And suay means unlucky?"


Thai pronunciation borders on singing at times because of its use of tones. While the subtle tonal differences baffle most foreigners and stop many language students in their tracks, Thais are quick to point out that the slightest slip of the tongue in English can turn “beach,” “can't,” “whole,” and “sit” into unintentional profanity.

"Now, you need understand rules in Thailand,” my instructor continued. “No say anything about King. Thai people love King. Sometime we have problem with Prime Minister but not King. Yes?"

I nodded. I had been warned never to drop money in Thailand because every coin and bill has a picture of the King. Things are not put on the floor casually in Thailand—it’s a degrading act to put anything so low.

"And no go to protestors. You see yellow shirts, you no go. Questions?"

Over the course of the next month, I learned that a group called the PAD, People's Alliance for Democracy, had been protesting the government. They believed that the prime minister was acting as a puppet for the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin's name seemed on the edge of everyone's lips my first few weeks in Thailand. I once mentioned the name in one of my more informal English lessons and I felt the room go rigid. I heard a couple in the back whispering, and noted the word "corrupt." A few gave me pleading glares in the hope that I might change the subject—maybe even begin a lesson on relative clauses.

I learned that Thaksin was notorious for his corruption, that through bribery and strong ties with military leaders, he managed to consolidate his power and amass extraordinary wealth.

During his tenure as prime minister, he was often accused of restricting freedom of press—in fact, in 2005, he announced his refusal to grant press interviews until the following year because of an unlucky alignment of planets and stars. After he was overthrown in 2006 by a bloodless coup, his wife was convicted for tax evasion and he was convicted on corruption charges.

Suay, I remembered. Bribe. Tax. Unlucky. 

Suay, suay, suay, and suay. I stuffed the vocabulary sheets I had been reviewing into my bag, and exited the bus, waiting to be buried in a sea of oncoming tourists, tuk-tuks, and street vendors. Despite the semblance of Bangkok normalcy, I could sense a horrible tension trickling through the crowd as I drifted toward the BTS SkyTrain. Clusters of people were gesturing toward the other side of the street.

A single voice exploded from a megaphone along with a deafening rattle of hand clappers followed by a steady stream of yellow shirts that engulfed the street. Scattered through the crowd, protestors were twirling signs with black and white pictures of men I didn't recognize. Each was labeled in blood red letters - Murderer's SPOKESPERSON, Murderer's RIGHT-HAND MAN, and finally MURDERER - WANTED FOR CRIMES AGAINST THE CITIZENS OF THAILAND. I scrambled onto the staircase with others who were snapping photographs with phones, disposable cameras, anything they could get their hands on.

A more enthusiastic surge of protestors floated past my perch as a camera crew strolled into the mob. The air was thick with the smell of exhaust. I saw protestors throw their signs to the ground so onlookers could stamp on the faces. Another sign whirled into view: STOP LYING. I wondered for a moment why the signs were in both English and Thai, but the answer was all around. The tourists, the photographers, and the camera crews were all proof that the world was watching.

Realizing that the protestors were carrying booklets, I asked for one and flipped through it, my morbid curiosity turning to violent nausea—yellow shirts bathed in blood, protestors missing limbs, people sobbing and screaming, a truck enveloped in flames, and those same hand clappers abandoned on the pavement. Shock became disgust and the expression spread from one person to the next as the pamphlets changed hands. I dashed toward the train, weaving and ducking, shoving people in my desperation to escape.

Once safely on the train, the scene disappeared as the windows became a blur of concrete, glass, and advertisements with smiling Thai teens. A little girl in front of me turned her eyes to the window and pressed her hands onto the glass as Bangkok’s futuristic skyline unfolded before us.

Even amidst the unending concrete and teeming people, Bangkok managed a certain serenity. It was beautiful, in its way. I was still reeling in shock—during my time here, I had never before seen such anger, such violence, such mayhem. I thought about the photos of the yellow shirts bathed in blood. It seemed that here, one missed street could turn beauty into bad luck.

Suay. Then again, I thought, one slip of the tongue could turn bad luck back into beauty.


Posted on 10/07/2009 by

William Starner

William Starner

Chabli, this was definitely a significant experience for you. I thought your story was well-crafted, and full of a depth lacking in many stories of this nature. Your choice of suay linked with politics was very clever. I'm wondering, why have you not written any other pieces?

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