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The Ardent Polyglot

December 13, 2011 | by Brian Short

Polyglot is kind of an ugly-sounding word, but it's an impressive one, too. Mai Ze Vang, an East Asian Studies major, understands how important speaking a number of languages can be. Mai Ze is Hmong, and spoke English after she came to America as a refugee in 1994. She hopes to get her masters and Ph.D. and become a professor, maybe even start a nonprofit [in Thailand], but first she has to learn the difficult Thai language. We caught up with Mai Ze about learning Thai and about the many differences between studying at home and studying abroad.

Click here to listen to the podcast. Transcript is below.

 

Hmong is my native language, because my ethnicity is Hmong. So I don't know how to read and write but I can speak it. So taking Thai, which is very different, there might be like a word or two [words] that are the same, but it's a lot of commitment. 

I remember the first year just struggling taking Thai, I couldn't get the tones correct. Like, oh my gosh, how could I not differentiate the difference between saying "a dog," or "come here," or "a horse."Because it all sounded the same to me and obviously it's not. But I'm really glad I took it because taking Thai has really opened up a lot of opportunities for me here at Michigan.

I was able to go to Chiang Mai and study at Payap University, where I took really intensive language courses. I took Thai level from three until five, and it was three hours for five days a week. And also being with the Thai people and speaking it and using it. I learned a lot about the culture of the Thai as well as things I don't think I would have learned if I was just here at Michigan, you know, taking Thai.

Even though I read a lot about Thailand, about Thailand's culture, religion, and watched a lot of films, you know, got myself familiarized with what Thailand is like. But actually being there and seeing it was an experience that made me realize how different my culture—Hmong culture, American culture—is compared to Thai culture.

Growing up in the states, I loved playing sports, and I engaged with a lot of men, you know, just playing sports or having fun. But in Thailand it's very polite, it's very respectful, you engage with them but more with women. I guess a lot of my classmates were men. So we would always study or go and grab food together. That kind of stuff could be as...maybe a misunderstanding, or very different, you know. Interacting should be very polite or respectful.

I didn't go and say, well, you know, this is me, I'm not going to go and change myself. I said, oh, ok well, I didn't realize that, hopefully when it happens again I won't do it, and if I do, please let me know so that I'm not making myself or the University of Michigan or my family—I don't want to embarrass them, and obviously because I have a lot of respect for your culture I also don't want to be disrespectful, so, yeah.

And I was only aware of this because my friends would tell me, did you notice that you did this, or did you know that if you're constantly walking with a guy every day, people are going to think that you're with him. I was like, no, that's my classmate, you know, and that's what I do in the states, and I apologize. So, I know it seems really small but it was just important that they told me.

Michigan's Center for Southeast Asian Studies is one of the oldest and best of its kind in the country. For more information on the Center, please click here.  

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