Bangkok, Thailand

April 3, 2016

My First Word

Sitting streetside at my favorite restaurant in Bangkok, I was absentmindedly staring at the menu while I scarfed down a heaping helping of pad pak buung.

Suddenly, it hit me.

I knew the names to all the dishes on the menu. Not the translated ones like “fried chicken with basil and rice”, but how to say them in Thai, pad ka pao gai. And right there, written on the menu next to every dish, was its name, in Thai.

I instantly realized I had a puzzle in front of me, and a solvable one at that. I started comparing, to see if I could see a pattern - and there it was.

Kow pad gai and Pad ka pao both shared the same two characters: “ผัด“. Those must mean “pad”.

I looked at Kow pad gai again - ข้าว ผัด ไก่

If “Pad” was those two in the middle, that meant the three to the left were “kow”, and the two to the right were “gai”. Without planning to, I’d just learned seven letters of Thai.

I finished up my meal, and looked up - I was the last one left after the lunch rush. I walked over to the wall, and asked the cook’s husband - nee, this one, I asked, kow?

He nodded excitedly. And nee - pad? Chai, yes, he answered, patting me on the back.

Neither of us had expected this. I was reading Thai.

On my walk home, the landscape had changed. I only new a handful of letters, but there they were, everywhere. “ผั” in the middle of the three-letter name of a barber shop. “ข้”, the first character of “kow” showed up in shop after shop.

Every time I'd spot them they looked different - but it was the same letter underneath. For the first time in Thailand, I was also seeing fonts.

I got home, pulled up all 59 letters, and got to studying.

When we’re young, we get the magical, world-opening experience of learning to read. But often, we’re too young to really remember the experience, except in a few fragments here and there.

But decades later, in this lucky life I live, I get to experience the magic of a world full of symbols, unfolding again. Watching the world transform from lines and squiggles into meaning.

This week, find a moment or two to really look around at all the words around you, full of meaning and life.

For all that we’ve made as humanity, they’re the closest thing we've made to magic. :)

Have a great week,

-Steven

p.s. The best thing I read all week was equal parts strange, touching, unsettling, and human. It’s this story about falling asleep. On the subway.

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