Innumerable times I’ve been asked ‘Yoo thee nai’. Literally, this means ‘Where are you?’ Sometimes, when I feel like joking, I pretend that it does, and answer with aplomb, ‘Yoo prathet thai si’ (I live in Thailand, of course) which is always worth a guffaw – of amusement or embarrassment depending on who asks.
In fact, the expression means ‘What’s your nationality?’
The answer is, ‘Keut farangseit khrap’ (I’m French, sir/madam).
This reminds me of a particular instance in the late nineties, a dreadful period when I had the dubious honour of being promoted ‘linguistic adviser’ in one Government House department for the sake of the renewal of the yearly visa. (That was the one and only time I went to Immigration with one single A4 letter in hand and came out less than one hour later with a full-year extension! When redshirts decry double standards, they don’t know the half of it.)
As part of the arduous task of helping supervise over a full year the creation of a prestigious publication of mostly blank pages, one day three of us had to visit another department. That meant a different Government House gate from the one we used. When we arrived in early morning, one of the guards asked, ‘Ma jark naikan’ (Where do you come from?). I answered loud and clear, ‘Jark barn khrap’ (From home, sir). Everybody laughed. That’s when I learned the expression rather meant, ‘Which department do you come from?’
During the monthly meetings of that august taskforce, I was asked at one point whether I had photocopied some documents (thai eikasarn). I answered that I had, that very morning (thai muea chao nee eng khrap), triggering a round of promptly suppressed smiles. Thai, pronounced with a long low tone and a hard T, is a dangerous word: used on its own, in common language it means ‘to relieve oneself’. Suffice it to say that I knew that.