I like the voice of the woman on the elevated train when it’s approaching Siam Station – the gentle, and almost melancholic, voice announcing “Next station, Siam.” I had just left the cinema alone, on an unexpectedly cool November night in Bangkok. There weren’t many people on the train — most of them were the cinemagoers who just left a screening like me. The woman’s voice was overpowered by the very thick and fast-paced conversation between two Malaysian girls sitting two seats away.
“It’s annoying. Thai people laughed before they hear the punch line.” Said the girl in the elephant pants.
“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Like the are spending the time reading the subtitles.” Said the other girl so firmly believing that all Thais are either deaf or unable to understand English. “And they laugh before the joke! What the fuck?”
“That ruined everything.”
‘Bitches.’ I thought. Some Malaysians and Singaporeans may well be proud of their thick, fast-paced English and look down on others who do not use English as their native tongue and are struggle with it. So evidently there was a superiority complex of my-English-is-better-than-your-English when speaking about Southeast Asians who do not use English as their native tongue. I’m not saying all of them with better English tend to look down on people who don’t speak fluently, but many of them that I came across do have this attitude. Particularly these girls on the train.
As the train started to roll out of Siam Station, it reminded me of my high school history lesson about how Thailand was once called Siam. The name was changed from Siam to Thailand in June 1939 by the Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram (known by the western media as Phibum – the then Thai dictator/prime minister). For some reason I had always assumed that the name of my country has been changed during the reign of the King Rama V. But a century later I read on Wikipedia page that it was changed during the King Ananda Mahidol’s reigns (Rama VIII).
Siam. I really like the way it sounds. ‘Si-am.’ Why change it?
Before I searched Wikipedia for the answer, my hunch navigated me to examine the meaning of the word ‘Thai’ in Thai language and to look at the neighboring countries in the region. Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar were occupied by the British colonialists. Similarly, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were French colonies. The Dutch colonized Indonesia and the Spanish colonized the Philippines. Siam was the only country that managed to maintain its monarchy and independence during this long period the global colonization by European powers. We are the only country in Asia (well, except Japan) that was never colonized by a western country. This then makes me wonder, why learn English?
Siamese (or what are now called Thais) takes much pride in and are proud of our national colony-free status. But history shows that our ancestors were a subgroup of Zhuang people who migrated from the Chinese province of Guangxi – in northern Vietnam near the present day border with China’s – a random migration of a thousand years ago.
What’s the word ‘Thai’ means in Thai?
Thai means a person who has freedom — a person who has break on free from slavery (which includes the slavery that comes from colonization) or obligation that pinned them down. It’s rarely spoken of these days, but when someone yells (phonetically), “I’m Thai!” on a Friday night or when that person decided to move on from the job that they loath, it means that they are now free.
Thailand – the land of people who remain free. The then Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram was looking ahead for the next thousand of years to come. Curious given that he was, essentially, a dictator. There were many minorities and groups in the country (most of them Chinese) and the business prospects shimmering on the horizon, the idea of the name of the country which bespeaks the national values and clear identity of the Siamese appealed to him and to the nation. With the stroke of a pen, the name of Siam was then changed to Thailand. Thai people take pride that we are the only regional country that has never been colonized by the westerns runs deep in our culture and is a great source of pride. For some, they go as far as dreaming of one day the rest of the world would learn Thai.
“I do not understand.” The Malays were still whining. I couldn’t help but feeling agitated that we put our national values based on the ability to speak English for the wrong reasons. As my finger scroll deeper and deeper into the bottomless Wikipedia page, the voice of the lady from the elevated train announcing the name of my stop. She pulled me back from the past, and then, I ascended into the future.
Sam Nathapong is a content writer and journalist living in Bangkok. Twitter @