I am crap at ordering street food. Bangkok is practically bursting at the seams with food stalls, food carts, and foldout tables laden with 25 Baht banana leaf wrapped goodies, and yet I rarely order anything more than a coconut or iced coffee. This has nothing to do with sanitary worries or being picky about food; it’s all to do with my embarrassment at the language barrier. In every other country I’ve lived in or traveled to I have either known the language or known enough to get by. Thai is a tonal language. Apparently I’m tone deaf. My students try to teach me how to say simple words and phrases, but just like they can’t make a vee sound, I can’t mimic anything they say. This means that to order street food, I can only stand there, smile, and point. I know that that’s an acceptable way to operate, but, after living here for nearly three months, simply pointing and smiling makes me feel ashamed.

Last week, however, my shame-at-not-speaking-your-language meter was finally broken.

It started with a trip to Vientiane, Laos to apply for a visa that would allow me to stay in Thailand for more than thirty days at a time. The trip started on a sour note when I landed in the hospital the first night (#foodallergies). Only the doctor spoke English. The rest of the evening was spent with nurses smiling at me, squeezing my shoulder, pointing at needles, and periodically checking the IV drip. All I wanted to do was return to Bangkok. I spent the next four days wandering the city, staring wistfully at Thailand across the Mekong River. When I finally got the visa I practically ran to the airport: Finally! I can leave Laos!

I returned to Bangkok and brought my passport to my school’s HR office. The next morning a text from the HR manager woke me: Your visa is not stamped.

I responded: What?

When you came through the airport, they did not stamp your visa.

And that means…?

Come to the office now.

I arrived at the school an hour later. The HR manager showed me where the airport Immigration officer had ignored my visa completely and given me another thirty-day tourist visa again.

“So what do I do?” I asked.

“This must be fixed today or else your visa will be invalid.”

I imagined the smiling faces hidden behind surgical masks. Nooooooooooo!

The HR manager suggested I go around the corner to Bumrungrad International Hospital. The hospital has an immigration department for patients who need visa extensions.

I went to the hospital’s business center on the 10th floor. A nurse bowed and took my passport. He flipped to the tourist stamp. He pointed at the expiration date, smiled, and handed it back to me. This doesn’t expire until the end of April, he eyes seemed to say. I flipped to the visa and pointed at the entry date. Then I flipped back and pointed at the tourist stamp. I did this several times until the nurse gasped. He took my passport and showed it to a woman sitting at a computer. Her rose colored skirt suit made me think she was the boss. She walked my visa back over to me. “What room?” she asked.

“I’m not a patient here,” I said. “I work around the corner. My job sent me.”

She nodded and spoke to the nurse and a secretary. They went back and forth in Thai for a bit. Finally she handed my passport back to me. “My staff is going to Immigration in Changwattana at one. They will take you there and bring you back.”

“Really?”

“Wait here.”

I took a seat in the lobby. About five other people sat on surrounding chairs and couches. A guy sitting directly across from me flipped through the pages in his passport. He looked about my age. I tried to read the front of his passport booklet, but his hand covered the gold lettering.

The secretary and the lady in the rose suit came over. Rose Lady held out her hand for my passport. She handed it to the secretary, who dropped it into a Ziploc bag. Rose Lady stepped aside and gestured to the elevator. Followed by the other guy with the passport and about ten other people, we all went down to the ground floor. Rose Lady held her hand towards a couch in the waiting area. In Thailand, it’s rude to point with your finger, so every time she gestured for me to go somewhere or do something she did it with a sweeping open-palm that reminded me of movies where princes ask someone to dance at a ball.  

It was hard to tell who else in the lobby was heading to Immigration. The hospital caters to an international crowd, and it was clear that everyone (except the staff) was an immigrant, mostly from the Middle Eastern. I tried to catch the attention of the other guy with a passport, but he was engrossed in flipping through his booklet.

A white van pulled up. Rose Lady did another “shall we dance?” gesture. The guy with the passport and I climbed into the van. The secretary took a seat next to me and Rose Lady sat in front by the driver.

“Do you do this often?” I asked the secretary.

She smiled at me.

“No?” I said.

She smiled and shook her head, which I took as I don’t understand you rather than an answer to my question.

The drive out to Immigration didn’t take long. When we got there, Rose Lady talked to the secretary and van driver while the other guy and I stood by the van. He smiled at me and gave a little wave. This is normally when a sane person would say hi, I’m so-so, but this was my first time getting a real look at my visa trip buddy. Before I’d only seen his profile and the top of his head as he looked down at his passport. Now we were inches apart and looking right at each other. He. Was. GORGEOUS. He was taller than me and had muscular arms, dark brown hair, and a tan that made me picture him living on a beach somewhere. He looked like a Disney prince. When he smiled I laughed nervously and ran my fingers through my hair, which I do more as a nervous tick rather than any kind of seductive look-at-my-hair move.

The Disney prince and I followed Rose Lady into the building. She took a back entrance and told us to hangout in the crowded waiting room. I made my way to the back of the room and found a column to lean against. Disney Prince followed. He smiled at me as he propped himself against the other side of the column. Suddenly I didn’t care about my visa. Send me back to Laos! I just wanted to talk to the Disney prince.

I tried to think of the best opening line. Something funny and/or clever. I was grateful I’d actually dressed up a bit rather than arriving at my school in jean shorts and a workout tank top. I poked my head around the column. “Are you getting your visa extended?” I asked.

Disney Prince smiled and leaned closer. He cupped his ear.

“Are you getting your visa extended?” I asked again.

He pinched his eyebrows together. He shrugged.

“Ah. No English?”

He shrugged again. He didn’t understand either of my questions.

I pointed at my mouth. “Language?”

“No?”

I waved my hand. “It’s okay. I’ll stop.”

We leaned on the column for another few minutes. Disney Prince tapped my shoulder and pointed to two empty seats. We sat down. I’d recently discovered a translation app on my phone: you speak into the phone in one language and it translates it to another language. It’s sort of like Google Translate, but more instantaneous and with more inflection. I tossed my phone back and forth. How do you use the translation app without a) looking like a complete nerd and b) not even knowing what language the other person speaks. His passport had been royal blue. What country had a royal blue passport?

Rose Lady appeared beside us. She handed her cell phone to Disney Prince. “Translator,” she said. Disney Prince listened for a few minutes and handed the phone back.

It hadn’t occurred to me that Disney Prince didn’t speak Thai. He didn’t look Thai, but I’d somehow assumed he knew the language. When Rose Lady handed him her phone, I realized Disney Prince probably knew even less Thai than I did, which is a real feat. Speaking Thai would make my life easier (and make me feel less rude), but I can get by in Bangkok with just English. I can get by in a lot of countries with just English. But if you can’t speak English or Thai…what do you do? Disney Prince was an actual client of the hospital. Was he sick? Was someone in his family sick? I hadn’t been too worried about miscommunication at the hospital in Laos because the owner of my guesthouse, a Laotian woman who was fluent in English, had driven me there and stayed with me. What would I have done if I only spoke French? Or Portuguese? What do you do if you don’t know a word of the local language or a global language? How do you communicate with the hospital staff? How do you ask anyone for anything? And most importantly, how was I supposed to ask this guy out for drinks if we didn’t know a single word of each other’s language?

Disney Prince’s phone rang. I leaned in, hoping to hear how he said ‘hi’ and thus figure out what country he was from.

“Hallo?”

Even his baritone voice made me want to giggle like a grade schooler, but it didn’t help place his country.

We sat in the waiting area for two hours. Every now and then we’d brush arms or legs, smile, and then turn back to staring at our phones, the floor, or, in my case, being a creep and looking over the shoulders of the people in the row in front of us: one guy was reading a mystery novel, whose title I couldn’t catch, another was reading a Wikipedia article about the bombing of Laos, and another was creating a flyer for a big football match happening outside of Beijing. When our numbers were called, we got up and made our way to the front. It was nearing four p.m. and the crowd was getting restless. A tall man pushed past me, making me stumble into some chairs. Disney Prince moved some people aside and cleared a path for me. We weren’t able to talk to each other, but I was pretty sure we were falling in love.

Disney Prince spoke to the Immigration officers first. He sat in a chair while the officer and Rose Lady talked back and forth. Then I went in and, again, flipped between my visa and the tourist stamp. The officer looked annoyed. I didn’t know if it was at me or the airport dope who didn’t bother to look at my visa page. She stamped the page, wrote something in the passport, and handed everything to Rose Lady. I returned to the waiting area. I stood near the tall man who had pushed me. Disney Prince sidled up beside me and gave me a thumbs up.

Thirty minutes later we each had our passports back. As we followed Rose Lady back outside, I held up my passport. Before I could ask, “Where are you from?” Disney Prince held up his. “Kuwait,” he said.

“Ah! Kuwait!” I proclaimed, a bit too exuberantly. Disney Prince laughed.

The ride back to Bangkok took over an hour. About fifteen minutes into the ride I turned to Disney Prince.

“Vacation?” I asked.

He leaned forward.

“Vacation in Bangkok?”

He cocked his head.

I put my arms out like a plane and swayed back and forth. I pointed at the skyline. Disney Prince looked at the skyline and then back at me. Shockingly, my charade had not conveyed my question: are you vacationing in Bangkok or are you living here? Because you’re gorgeous and I think we should go get a drink. 

When we arrived back at the hospital, Disney Prince stuck his hand out to shake mine. “Nice to meet you,” I said. He waved his passport at me.

As I walked back, I realized six hours had passed and I’d used only a handful of English words. In fact, after leaving my school I’d been relatively silent throughout the whole ordeal. Even Rose Lady hadn’t been that proficient at English and the Immigration officer hadn’t said a word. For two months I’d been terrified of situations where I could only communicate using hand gestures. Not to get too cliche, but words are my life and not being able to use them is frustrating. Yet somehow this trepidation had disappeared for the past six hours. I joke that Disney Prince and I were in love, but we had formed a real partnership throughout the afternoon: staying next to each other and always making sure neither of us was left behind. We were able to form some sort of connection and the only word we’d both understood was “Kuwait.”

When I returned to my neighborhood, I walked through my usual row of street vendors. I thought back on the day and how I’d accomplished so much without having to speak. Maybe it was because the hospital staff was so nice. Maybe it was because Disney Prince had such an enchanting smile. Or maybe it was because I’d had no other choice than to fumble through the day in order to validate my bloody visa. Whatever it was, I finally walked up to a street stall and ordered food. Then I walked up to another and another. By the time I got home, I had enough food to last a week.

2 Comments on “Your Visa’s Not Valid: A Trip Through Language Barriers

  1. Pingback: A Quick Catch-Up: New Job, New Places, New Trips – The Wandering Writer

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