It’s funnier when I explain it

The two brothers in-law maintain diametrically opposed resting facial expressions. The father of the toddler grins like there’s a bad practical joke at work – you just have yet to find your toothbrush. The father of the shy six year-old is delightfully deadpan. The former fills out an ocean blue Adidas jersey, with noticeably but not creepily long fingernails and slick curls combed back. The latter almost fills a tomato-red jersey for the ultra-local Khai Bangrachan FC, with a braided string necklace and a tight, clean close cut that he’s let go a while. They would both genuinely like to laugh with, rather than at me – a noble goal if clouded in its optimism.

They turn quick to a comically applicable idiom to describe an amateur skill – “ngu-ngu bplaa-bplaa.” I’d gander that I cook Thai food “ngu-ngu bplaa-bplaa.” I can play Takraw – a national sport echoing volleyball that uses everything but your hands – “ngu-ngu bplaa-bplaa.” The phrase’s comedy owes a lot to the literal translation and a little to the Thai grin and confident delivery which usually accompany it [see Blue-shirted Brother]. Circumstances actually coalesced for Red-shirted Brother to refer to my backyard catfish-catching aptitude as “ngu-ngu bplaa-bplaa.”

When jabbing at their own lack-luster English, Thais throw out the literal translation as a joke: “Suh-nake suh-nake, fitfit.” “Snake-snake fish-fish” is nonsense that mirrors the jumbles that I first shoved across the conversation table everyday in my first tonal language – a language with enough vowels that the grinning Blue-Shirted host brother won’t count them. To get the idiom’s humor, proper emphasis is imperative – “suh-low suh-low quick-quick.” Suh-nake suh-nake, fitfit.

It takes sweating it out at the “suh-nake suh-nake, fitfit” level to inch towards “saak-ga-beua yan reua-rop.” The grinning Blue-shirted Brother, himself a stay-at-home dad, rolls this out when he jokingly self-identifies as a jack of all trades. It literally means “mortars and pestles through aircraft carriers,” implying that one can do it all.

“Sahkah beuah yawn reuah lohp” is an admirable goal in and of itself – proficiency in both pulverizing tasty curry paste and landing fighter jets precisely in small spaces would be an accomplishment. It’s also a whimsical goulash of a mouthful that evinces a multi-tracking brain. Almost a little “woke-wack” – Thai for “distracted” – but on it all none-the-less. Woke-wack with the world. Or at least it veers into some ears like that.

Living fascinated might be possible but squeezing wonder out of each and every and might just let the bar drop out of exhaustion. Some folks’ balance needs more little suh-nake suh-nake fitfit – healthy breaths of idiocy. It’s a conveniently difficult mental gymnastic feat to feel jaded while making a fool of yourself.

The Blue-shirted Brother pounds his aromatic spices and lands his fighter jets out of necessity. He’s Chief Life Manager for an 18-month old person. Cook. Caretaker for the elderly. Farmer.

The Red-shirted Brother holds tight for the more ngu-ngu bplaa-bplaa moments in our Thai exchanges. He speaks in bursts, then assembles the facial expression of a confident golfer assuredly tracking his drive with his eyes. A comprehension birdie at the very least and he adds a noise of endorsement.


* The two Thai men who inspired this are kind to the core and great fathers; I’m lucky to call them good friends of mine.

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