Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Language Barrier Killed the Radio Star

Life at my homestay in the village was full of surprises. One Saturday I was helping my host-aunt and uncle cook for their fantastic street-side food stand. A Ning had a very funny attitude about helpers. She liked to select the most exciting imaginable cooking task, such as a bowl of 1000 tiny chilis that needed to have their stems removed, and hand it to me with a big glowing smile: "geeeft for you!" Oh, the joys of participant observation.

We were out on their back porch performing various food-related tasks when I suddenly heard my name on the radio. At first I thought I must have been hearing things, but then the radio said "America" too...

I should explain that this is a local radio station, a one-man show produced and hosted by the venerable DJ Kong. Mae Noi says that everyone in the villages of Doi Saket, Mae Rim, and San Sai listen to him every day. To preserve my dignity I prefer to think he broadcasts within 100 meters of his house. He plays emotional Thai rock music and gets a lot of calls from older women on staticky cell phones, who seem to be reporting the latest village gossip.

Still hoping that I had misheard, I glared at the little plastic radio and listened. Unfortunately, my Thai was just good enough to understand what the DJ said next, which was "What is Nali doing?"

A woman's voice replied: "She's chopping eggplants."

At this point I could do nothing except brandish my knife bemusedly at A Ning, who was holding her cell phone and waving me over to talk with the DJ ("geeeft for you!"). There was no escape. I spent the next minute or so stuttering on the Doi Saket regional radio station, our own little radio echoing each grossly mispronounced word and nervous laugh on a half-second time delay. My host family was helpless with laughter. As, I imagine, was everyone else in the vicinity, at least those who were fans of DJ Kong.

The end result of this episode was that the parental generation of my host family decided that DJ Kong and I were destined for each other. I endured a steady stream of DJ Kong jokes until later that weekend, when after a beautiful dinner at a mountain lake near Doi Saket, they dragged me to his house. A Ning, who had never met DJ Kong in person before, was beside herself with excitement. Grinning from ear to ear, Mae Noi handed me some fruit to give to our host. No Noi (my host brother's girlfriend) drew me aside conspiratorially and assured me that DJ Kong was not actually handsome. What a scene!

DJ Kong turned out to be a kind man in his early 50s, with a simple but impressive broadcasting setup in his garage. He gave us a quick tour, and though I assured him repeatedly that it was not necessary, he insisted on interviewing me for the show. Live, of course. Resistance was futile, so I sat in a chair next to him, half delighted at the silliness of the situation and half dreading my inevitable embarrassment. No Noi and Mae Noi were poised at my shoulders, ready to whisper the appropriate answers to the DJ's questions in my ear.

After a short, pathetically one-sided "interview," we began receiving calls from listeners. If understanding DJ Kong's questions had been tricky, following the callers' speech was totally impossible. Through static and feedback we would hear something that was obviously a question for me, though I'd have no idea what it was; everyone in the room would look at me expectantly while I gaped at them in uselessness. Then No Noi and Mae Noi would lean in and whisper different things in both my ears. Sometimes I recognized one word from the garbled question and ran with it, trying to guess what they had asked. That worked a couple of times, until a disastrous misinterpretation caused me to mistakenly announce to the entire Doi Saket region that I don't have a boyfriend.

Eventually DJ Kong would quietly answer the caller for me, and I would scramble to close the call with a frazzled "khop khun kha" (thank you). For the next few weeks the following scene was repeated several times, at the temple, at local restaurants, and especially at the market: An older lady would stop to look curiously at me. Mae Noi, as always, would introduce me as her daughter. The lady would laugh at this, and Mae Noi would point at me conspiratorially, saying something about "DJ Kong!" Then the lady would say to me, with a look of dawning recognition, "Nali is chopping eggplants!"

So that was who I was in Doi Saket: an idiot, a novelty, a daughter, and a radio star.

1 comment:

  1. Denali, this is one of the funniest stories I think I have ever read. I just needed to say that. Hope your stardom doesn't get in the way of the rest of your experience. ;)