Lost in Translation

Trip Start Oct 20, 2009
Trip End Nov 29, 2009

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Flag of Thailand  , Khon Kaen,
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I love Thailand more and more each day, especially because the language issues keep me constantly on my toes and I'm always learning something new.

This morning I went with O and Fei-Li to the Immigration Office so that Fei-Li could get a multiple-entry visa to Thailand so that she could go with us to Lao. We rode in one of the Faculty of Nursing official ambulances. (I love riding in the ambulances because they aren't ambulances inside at all - they're like regular conversion vans in drag). The process at Immigration only took about 5 minutes because inexplicably, the immigration officer said Fei-Li doesn't need more than her existing single-entry visit. This was perplexing - she entered Thailand once when she came here - doesn't that use up the single entry she's allowed under her current visa? The immigration officer said no - a single-entry visa lets you enter the country twice. Huh?  Fei-Li is a wee bit concerned she'll get to Lao with us and then won't be re-allowed to enter Thailand when we come back but the immigration officer's supervisor confirmed that a single-entry visa can be used for two entries. Very confusing.....

Next stop: We headed to the Lao Consulate to get a visa (or "make visa" as folks say here in Thailand) to go to Lao PDR this weekend. The whole process took 5 minutes and cost me 1600 baht (around $48). It's much more expensive than at the Lao border (where it would have cost me $31) but several faculty members advised me to avoid getting a visa-on-entry for Lao because I might end up spending hours at the border waiting. I'm not a big fan of border crossings anyway - all those men with rifles freak me out - so I was more than willing to pay an extra $17 to expedite the process and ensure a smooth entry into Lao PDR.

When we got back to campus, Fei-Li and I met for about an hour to discuss her thesis topic. Pak was in the office as well and I could tell she was getting a kick out of listening to me try to teach Fei-Li about research design and methods.  The meeting with Fei-Li was challenging because she is incredibly bright and ambitious and she wants to research everything under the sun. Getting her to narrow her focus (and pick a reasonable sampling strategy - i.e. knocking on every door in one region of China to find people over the age of 65 is not a reasonable strategy) is an ongoing challenge. She's a wonderful student, though, and I'm enjoying working with her. When she left my office, Pak said she kept waiting for me to lose my patience with Fei-Li and just tell her what to do instead of trying to teach her how to do it. Pak complimented me on my teaching skills and it put a big smile on my face. (I know, it's silly that I care about getting positive feedback from people but every once it a while, it's really nice to hear).

I spent about an hour editing articles. I have a total of 20 article and abstracts I'm working on while I'm here - I'm drowning under a pile of editing on topics including sibling violence, smoking cessation, trauma management, and depression, among others. (Sadly, despite the fact I'm having to re-write many of them, I won't be a co-author. But I am including a list of all the authors and article titles in my final report to KKU and Fulbright when I leave).

Around 1pm, I went to teach my afternoon class - a class focused on giving presentation tips, feedback and guidance to masters students regarding their thesis presentations. Each student came prepared with a beautifully written copy of their thesis draft (written in English good enough to rival anything you'd read in a journal in the U.S.), along with a Powerpoint presentation.  But when I began to speak with them, it became apparent that they speak almost no English whatsoever. O was brought in to translate for me and she conveyed to them that for their presentations, they can hold their notes in their hands but I'd like them to try to describe their study without reading word for word from their paper. The students told O - who in turn told me - that they cannot do that because they don't speak English. Hmmm....this presents a bit of a dilemma, as will become apparent when I explain what happened when the presentations were underway.

I won't describe each of the presentations - just one of them that is representative of the entire group. A student went to the front of the room and sat down at the computer with the microphone in front of her. (This is how the professors teach here, and this is how the students were taught to present). Slide after slide of findings were presented but it wasn't clear what the findings were. My favorite slide of the day: a slide showing the results of what the student labeled "multiples regression," with variables in the X axis labeled X1, X 2, X3, X4, and so on and variables in the Y axis labeled Y1, Y2, Y3, Y4, and so on. The student read aloud, "As you can see, there is significant correlation between X3 and Y1." When I asked her what variables were represented by X3 and Y1, she said she didn't know. When the question was translated for her in Thai, she conveyed in Thai that she had no idea. She said in English, "findings," and kept pointing to the screen. I smiled and tried not to have a heart attack on the spot.  I gently tried to throw her a softball - "what was your research question?" - but got another "I don't know" in both Thai and English. This happened over and over again, with each of the 5 students who presented. I gave each student detailed feedback (sandwich style - good+bad+good) and tried to help them with their presentation skills, but unfortunately they didn't understand much of what I was saying because O left during part of the time I was talking with the students. I think I may have done too good a job hiding how dismayed I was with the presentations because at the end of the class, two of the students told me through O that I made them feel "empowered" in terms of their ability to learn how to give a presentation. A professor from the Faculty of Public Health came to observe my lecture today and she said she learned a lot from me about presentation skills, especially because I am so "innovative." (The fact that I am seen as innovative in Thailand tickles me - just by the mere act of getting up out of my chair to teach, people here see me as an "innovator.")

At the end of class, Puangpaka Kongvatthananon, an Assistant Professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok, came into the classroom to meet with me. She was hoping to get some feedback and editing for her dissertation abstract, "Lived Experiences of Thai Women with Hysterectomy." I told her I would be more than happy to help her - GW has a relationship with Thammasat so in a way, we are colleagues from sister universities. When she realized I was here from GW she was so excited. I asked her to please convey to her Dean greetings and well-wishes from my Dean and Department Chair and she assured me that she will. We traded email addresses, then set about working on her abstract together. Fortunately, Puangpaka speaks good English so the re-writes weren't extensive. We spent about 20 minutes working on the abstract together and she seemed really happy with the outcome. Her study was fascinating - I can't wait to read about it in a journal someday soon.

After I was done meeting with Puangpaka, the professor from the Faculty of Public Health (Dr. Niramon Muangson) came to my office so that I could review my re-writes of her article with her. Her article, "Community mobilization to improve compliance with the 1992 tobacco laws in rural areas of Northeastern Thailand," was so much fun to work on because the research was interesting, the article was structured well, and the author had made efforts to spell out the research design clearly. It took me about 6 hours to re-write but the end result is really good. We met for about 30 minutes, then I worked on her article for another 30 minutes to polish a few last sections. I headed back to the dorm around 6:15 pm - fortunately, the building staff let me stay a little past normal closing time so I could finish up. I came back to the dorm and got take-out from the outdoor food vendor next to the door. (Check out the funny sign - I uploaded a pic for your enjoyment).

A few highlights from my day:

Awkward Moment of the Day: I had to explain to a PhD student with minimal English proficiency why I accidentally burst out laughing when she smiled at me and said "I peed" by way of introduction. Her name is Peed - spelled exactly that way. I felt horrible for laughing but the laughter flew out of my mouth before I had a chance to stop it. Fortunately once I explained to her why I laughed, she thought it was hilarious and she couldn't stop laughing. Once we both stopped laughing, she asked me to help her figure out a better way to introduce herself. 

No, thank you (the "no" is silent): Before I came to Thailand, I read in many, many travel guides that it is very difficult for Thai people to say "no" to a guest so I would likely have difficulty understanding when people in Thailand are trying to tell me "no." A Fulbrighter who had worked in Thailand told me the same thing. Ironically, I haven't run into this problem because it turns out I'm pretty good at reading non-verbal communication and I can spot a "no" quickly by watching people's eyes when we're discussing something where there might be disagreement. The problem I've run into is that people don't seem to understand me when I'm trying to tell them "no." People offer me things (food, fish, trips to meet their brother the monk, cookies, cake, etc) and when I politely say "no thank you" the person gets even more insistent about pushing me to accept whatever they are offering. I've finally solved the mystery: "no thank you" is not a phrase that they're used to in Thailand so all they are hearing is the "thank you" part.  I checked this theory with several people (some of whom tend to be the people who don't seem to hear me when I say "no thank you") and they all confirmed that they thought "no thank you" was a polite way of saying yes in America. Talking about this missed translation was pretty funny - we all had a laugh about how fat I'm going to get from eating all those cookies and cakes that have been foisted on me for the past month despite my polite (and apparently silent) protests.

The Vietnam (Name) Conflict: Also funny from today: trying to explain to O why I'm not loving the Thai name she's given me - Nam. It is extremely difficult to explain to someone that, while I appreciate being given such a beautiful name (it means "water"), "Nam" sounds exactly like "Nam" - as in the war/conflict - and my Dad fought in Vietnam so can I please have a different Thai name? O insists that the name is said with a different tone (the Thai language has 5 tones) and that no one would ever associate "Nam" with "'Nam" because they sound nothing alike. But to a westerner, the two words sound exactly alike. Needless to say, I won't be using my Thai name once I leave Thailand. 

'Til tomorrow....
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