Student once asked her how to pronounce the Thai equivalent of "green melons".
"I really couldn't answer him," says Mrs Rungnapa Kitiarsa, a Thai-language teacher.
That is because "green melons" are "fak khiaao" in Thai, which sounds too similar to an expletive commonly uttered here.
She exclaims: "I can't say that to a student!"
It is one of her more memorable experiences teaching her mother tongue to first-time learners for nearly a decade at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Centre for Language Studies.
Every year, she tutors more than a hundred undergraduates to speak and write basic Thai at an introductory level.
They are at a stage where mistakes are expected, though some still crack her up, she says.
Mrs Rungnapa, 48, explains: "One Thai word can have many meanings depending on the tone."
Part of the syllabus also requires her to teach the class about Thailand, its culture and the royal family.
It is also her chance to voice out her pet peeves since moving here in 2005.
"Table manners are very important. I tell them if they go to Thailand, they cannot talk with the mouth open, cannot spit fish bones on the table and must be very polite at the table," she says.
Students also have to give group presentations about the various provinces in Thailand.
"They feel like going to Thailand after that. I encourage it because they get to practise what they learnt."
But when they return from their holidays, Mrs Rungnapa is often reminded of the stereotypes that people have of Thailand.
She hears stories of students visiting the cabarets of Phuket or the seedier neighbourhoods in Bangkok.
"I know the image of Thai women is not so good. It offends me slightly, but its not the students' fault," she says sadly.
"I feel sorry that they should see those aspects of Thailand."
Students also come back telling her that "the type of Thai language she teaches is too polite".
"Oh, I would never teach them how to swear but they seem to be able to pick it up on their own.
"They want to learn the bad words," she says, smiling.
When Mrs Rungnapa started teaching in Singapore, she was immediately impressed with the way students interact with teachers here.
"I love it here. The students are very close to the teachers, very informal, just like friends.
"It's not the same as in Thailand, where the teacher-student relationship is very reverential. People must respect their elders there," she adds.
Even out of class, former students show her the "wai" - a Thai greeting - when they see her.
They call her "Ajahn" (Thai for teacher) and she says it has a different connotation to what she is used to.
That is because she's also an advisor to the Friends of Thai Workers Association (FTWA), a non-governmental organisation that looks after the interests of Thai migrant workers here.
They call her Ajahn too. And when they do, it has a venerable slant to it.
Every Sunday, Mrs Rungnapa teaches English for free to transient Thai workers at the FTWA office in Golden Mile Complex.
"NUS students usually enrol in my class for fun or out of interest. They're well-educated.
"These workers, meanwhile, enrol in my class because they need it to work and survive here."
Instead of conversational words, she teaches industrial terms like "accident", "legal" or "construction machinery".
From next year, her lesson plan will include teaching simple phrases to help Thai workers bond with workers from other countries, she says.
She says: "I teach Singaporeans how to speak Thai, and Thais how to speak English.
"I feel like the bridge between two cultures."
It's a role that she inherited from her late husband, Dr Pattana Kitiarsa, who started the FTWA when they first came to Singapore with their two children.
He worked as an ethnographer at NUS.
Says Mrs Rungnapa: "He saw himself in Thai workers here and made it his goal to help them. For years, he didn't involve me in the activities.
"When he passed away from cancer in 2013, hundreds of people from FTWA turned up at his bedside, and then at his funeral and wake. They organised and paid for everything."
Touched to the core, she joined FTWA to continue her husband's legacy.
With her busy schedule at NUS and FTWA, it is incredible that Mrs Rungnapa has any time for herself and her children, now 15 and 17.But she does.
Her free time is spent as a parent volunteer at her son's school and as a participant at West Coast Community Centre's sports activities.
Her routine: Fitness class on Saturday morning, zumba class on Saturday evening, yoga class on Sunday morning, FTWA classes on Sunday evening and pilates on Monday evening.
It is part of her efforts to "be a Singaporean", she says.
"I made many friends through these activities. I might be from Thailand, but I don't feel like an expat. I'm here to live, and my friends make me feel that this is home."
SECRETS OF THE TRADE
The Thai language can be difficult to pick up as different inflections and tones can change the meaning of a word. To be more effective in teaching it, emphasise speech rather than writing. In a big class, it is easy to sideline students who seem disinterested.
Remembering each student's name will help them feel more involved and passionate about the class. Keep the class fun and the students motivated with group presentations and skits about Thailand. Many take up the course because they are just as interested in Thai culture as in the language.
This article was first published on Dec 07, 2014.
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