This is a piece by Dick Lipez who after his Peace Corps tour (Ethiopia 1962-64) worked in the famed Charlie Peters Evaluation Division of the Peace Corps. He then went on to become a successful novelist and editorial writer at the Berkshire Eagle and author of gay detective novels.
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Attention Peace Corps authors: Here’s a good idea for an anthology. I don’t have the time to edit it — I have two other books I keep telling people I’m writing—but I’m a prime candidate to contribute to the collection. It would be called Dumb Things I Did in the Peace Corps.
We all have lists. I get chills when I run down mine. Some of these blunders are amusing, but others are so excruciatingly dumb that no one else should ever be allowed to know about them. Unless, of course, other volunteers were there at the time, and maybe even participated in the dumbness. You know who you are.
I got the dumb-anthology idea when guilt and embarrassment led me to take Thai language lessons. My Peace Corps tour was in Ethiopia, but in recent years my (actual) spouse Joe Wheaton and I have spent about eight weeks of each winter in Thailand. I’m there now. It is possible for farangs to get by in Thailand with a few Thai greetings and polite phrases. Some Thais speak excellent English, and quite a few bumble along in English with a cheerful ineptitude that I have an enjoyable time privately snickering at.
When I got back to Bangkok from visiting Burma recently, a hotel desk clerk who knows me said, “Bama lane?”
She said it again. “Bama lane? Bama lane?”
Then I got it. The woman had asked me if it had rained in Burma.
If the Thais are unembarrasses rattling off imperfect English, I finally asked myself, why should I arrogantly refuse to speak Thai just as clumsily? What exactly is my problem?
I had no good answer to that question except the nagging memory of one of my dumbest Peace Corps moments. In the fall of 1963, in Addis Ababa, I was asked by the Shimeles Habte School headmaster, Tickaher Hailu, to deliver the United Nations Day speech to the school assembly.
Insanely, I decided to give the speech in Amharic. My Amharic was poor, limited to not much beyond, Where is the railway station?
(“Babur tabyaw, yet new?” Funny how those things stick.)
The Ethiopian teacher helping me translate my remarks into Amharic kept suggesting that perhaps I should give the short speech in English. The students in the upper grades would follow it well enough, he pointed out. But oh no, we’re the Peace Corps, we ride with the people, thought I. So I forged ahead and did what I had threatened to do.
Now when I look back, I know what actually took place in that sunny schoolyard, with several hundred middle and secondary school boys and girls squinting up at me. What they must have been taking in was not my well-considered remarks invoking the virtues of enlightened internationalism and the spirit of JFK. What they were actually hearing was, “Bama lane? Bama lane?”
Luckily, both the students and teachers at Shimeles were too polite—this was very Ethiopian of them—to clutch their sides with laughter during the speech or to utter a word to me afterwards.
Here is another dumb Peace Corps-related story for the anthology, thankfully not mine. A recent Bangkok Post letter to the editor chastises former Thailand PCV T.F. Rhoden. The letter writer, Jack Wilson, of Nakhon Phanom, complains that Rhoden’s recently published book, Outrageous Thai: Slang, Curses and Epithets, will get readers in trouble. Wilson says brandishing some of Rhoden’s language in a bar or karaoke club could get the user knifed or shot. Rhoden, Wilson writes, “acknowledges in the book that he ‘wasted’ his 20s in Thailand, even though he was a Peace Corps volunteer, and is putting his entire Thai experience behind him.” Wilson speculates that Rhoden “most likely learned and practiced his slang with young Thai girls who thought it was cute and funny to teach a farang how to curse.”
It sounds like Rhoden might be a major contributor to the anthology-of-dumb, maybe even leaving the rest of us in the dust.
Meanwhile, I am proceeding with my Thai lessons, going around saying things like — as I did yesterday — “Pom gow khao.” That’s, “I the number nine rice.”
So an anthology of post-Peace Corps dumbness is a possibility too.