Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What Different Animals Represent in Different Cultures

It happened last summer. On a Wednesday. In the afternoon.

I'd just relived my youth through an amazing lunch at Le Normandie at the Mandarin Oriental which was concluded with not just one, but two pieces of anything I wanted from the dessert cart. They were served in a pool of crème anglaise decorated with hibiscus flowers made of mango coulis. It was old-fashioned, nostalgic, delicious. And I was happy.

What does this have anything to do with anything? Why all the details?

Well, please allow me to include some gratuitous information for today isn't just any day; it marks the one-year anniversary of the day I published the first post on this site.

August 26th, 2009, which was the day I'd just been describing to you, was when I decided to write a blog about linguistics and intercultural communications. The decision was made after that glorious lunch, when I was in a car, right in the heart of Bangkok's business district, on Rama IV Road heading towards Wittayu Road.

On my way back home, the car came to a long stand-still at an intersection. See the little green dot in the satellite shot above? That's where it happened. On my left was Lumpini Park, Bangkok's equivalent of New York City's Central Park. As I was minding my own business, the driver, who had been completely quiet up to that point, blurted out, "Hia!"

I looked at him. Without any body gestures or anything at all to let me know what he was referring to, the guy repeated the same monosyllabic, "Hia!" -- only more loudly. My mind was scrambling to figure out to or about whom he was talking, but then there wasn't anyone else around. Me? (Gasp.) Hia? Really? Why?

Then he said it the third time while looking at me through the rear view mirror, thus confirming what I was afraid would be the case: the guy was really talking to me.

I need to explain to you first that when someone calls you a "hia" (เหี้ย), they mean you're an a--hole. This Thai word is one of the classic insults -- very vulgar ones -- which have been around for as long as I remember. The word was in vogue when my grandparents were little; it still is today.

Nobody had ever called me a hia to my face before. And I used to think that if it ever happened, I would be able to come up with a quick come-back since I'm usually pretty darn good at repartee. In this case, though, I was too busy being in shock.

"Huh?" was the result of all the wit and eloquence I could muster.

That's when my driver pointed to the left.

Through the wrought-iron gate surrounding the lush Lumpini Park, just meters away, I could see this dark green, scaly creature on a tree. Then the driver and I uttered the word in unison -- his fourth time and my first -- "hia!"

I whipped out my phone, took the picture above, and spent the remainder of the trip home concocting this blog in my mind.

Hia literally means monitor lizard. That's the primary meaning. Then, apparently, at some point in history, hia, the animal, became hia, the vile insult. How? Why? I have no clue.

My only guess is that people in the old days considered the presence of a monitor lizard in their immediate surrounding a bad thing. Bangkok, formerly dubbed "Venice of the East," used to have lots of canals and fewer roads and buildings. Sounds like a perfect place for these huge lizards who thrive in damp areas to me. Now, take into consideration that people in the old days had small animals (e.g. chickens, ducks) in the area underneath their homes to which these carnivorous creatures had easy access. When a hia is spotted around your home, it is definitely not an auspicious occasion. [Plus, not to offend lizard lovers, these things are ugly as heck. To be honest, right after I took that picture, I could feel the crème anglaise coming back up, hibiscus and all.]

An encounter with a monitor lizard, therefore, is considered by the superstitious as bad luck. Even an attempt in recent times to refer to a hia with the euphemistic, "tua nguen tua thong" (ตัวเงินตัวทอง), which roughly means "that which brings in good luck in the form of silver and gold," hasn't done much in erasing the negative connotation associated with this animal.

Re-branding fail.

Anyway, at least I came to understand that the driver was trying to get me to take a look at that huge monitor lizard -- a rare sight in the concrete jungle of Bangkok in modern times; he wasn't calling me a hia. Whew.

That got me thinking. Are there other animals that carry positive and negative connotations in the Thai culture?

Water buffaloes represent "stupidity" and sometimes "bull-headedness" in the Thai culture. The history of it is just as dubious as the history of how hia (animal) became hia (insult).

Hyperactive, unruly kids are often likened to monkeys. But this one is almost self-explanatory. Ditto with ants and bees which represent industriousness.

Do you know which one stumps me big time? Turtle.

Turtle (เต่า) -- it makes no sense to me either -- is slang for body odor. How did that happen? Don't ask me. Culture is a curious thing. Sometimes you can explain it; sometimes you just have to accept it without understanding it.

And until you come to accept that a turtle represents stinky armpits, you would never understand this most popular Thai TV commercial, which debuted almost a decade ago, about an orphaned little turtle looking for his mother or why the Thai people find this deodorant commercial so hysterically funny.