It was at a Gimbap Nara today—Gimbap Nara: Korean fast food place, with food quality above and beyond any fast food place in America—while hungrily wolfing down a steel bowl full of bibimbap—bibimbap, mixed vegetables with rice, hot sauce, and a fried egg—I noticed that some of the people sitting in front of me were not speaking Korean, but Thai!
It is an unmistakable language. Nothing sounds quite like it—except Lao, and probably Vietnamese and Burmese as well. The sound is very distinct, and actually as usual I have to tell a brief story if I’m going to tell you what it really sounds like.
In Bangkok, somewhere near the infamous Khao San Road, on a nice sidestreet thanon with plenty of blooming bougainvilleas, I have placed myself inside an empty restaurant, and begun attacking a delicious pile of pancakes that somehow miraculously costs less than half of what they do anywhere else. I slurp a fruit smoothy. Viscous golden honey drips off my gaping face like vaseline off of one of the xenomorphs from the Alien movies: I look up to the TV on the wall (this is Asia, no restaurant is without its TV): and there it is.
A Thai talk show. Hardly different from Korean talk shows (the women are naturally dark but make themselves as pale as possible), hardly different from an American talk show (they are probably talking about the same stupid bullshit), but the sole major oddity that reminds me that I am in a very foreign land is this: they sound like ducks! They are quacking! Quack quack quack! It is horrible for me to say or think so, but the thought has never left me since.
Thailand can be a very nice place, and I’m sure the Thai language is very delightful to its native speakers, but to me it sounds very distinctly like a pond full of quacking ducks who are suddenly thrilled because an old man has thrown them some scraps of bread.
And so it is now, here in Korea: in this little restaurant there are some ditzy teenage girls whining over their cellphones, a number of patrons who are shouting orders at the middle-aged waitresses without bothering to use verbs, and then these three people before me who are quacking like ducks.
I am sure, on the flipside, that English sounds the same to speakers of some other language.