*Last month, 2-Magazine’s Jim Algie followed me around to a few meetings and events with clients and threw this article together. Thanks Jim! *
If you haven’t read 2-Magazine yet…. why not? Available in Thailand, Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong and more – 2-mag.com
Click here for PDF version of this article
2feature – 2magazine speaks to a man who is turning his multi-linguistic skills into the ABCs of a successful and multifarious business venture.
Thai is, like, well, it’s a tonal language and they’re much more difficult to learn than other languages, says the expat, using an alibi (or a drawn-out synonym for slothfulness) that you’ve doubtless heard many times before. Ask polyglot Stuart Jay Raj what is the major speech impediment for farangs learning Thai and you’ll hear something different: “It seems foreign, but 60 to 65 percent of Thai is based on Sanskrit, which is part of the Indo-European group of languages that are cousins to Latin and Greek.”
He ought to know. Fluent in more than a dozen languages (including Thai, Mandarin, Bahasa Indonesia and Danish), the 32-year-old is on speaking terms with around 15 more tongues. Earlier today, before our interview at the Greyhound restaurant near Soi Aree, he’d just received an email in Thai from a Buddhist monk in Los Angeles who has been using Stuart’s podcasts for RadioBangkok. Net to teach foreigners and natives about Thai language and culture at a temple. Stuart shook his head in disbelief and smiled when recounting the email and how the monk had said “it’s funny that a foreigner knows more than some of us about our own language, but thank you”.
By now, the communications expert should be used to such accolades. Only a few weeks before this rendezvous he’d been giving a presentation at a government office, crammed with the biggest of bigwigs from the Office of the Thai Senate and the National Language Office. Here were the folks you would see whispering in the prime minister’s ear during an official overseas visit, or the first to greet visiting dignitaries in the Kingdom. Stuart was there to teach them presentation skills, so they don’t say to Dick Cheney, “Do you like Thailand?” he mocks in pitch-perfect Tinglish. “You eat sapicy food?” (In order to loosen their tongues further, he’s even planning on taking them along on photo shoots with supermodels.)
But his sense of humor often underlines a more serious sub-text. This was apparent when he asked the assembled throng about a Thai proverb that asks whether you should hit a cobra or an Indian first. Nearly everyone there shouts Ti khaek because the cliché (also used in Singapore and Malaysia and other countries) implies that the Indian will bite you first. From a different angle, it’s a backhanded compliment about the hardnosed business techniques of Indian people.
Imagine the crowd’s shock when Stuart revealed his father was Indian but that his mother was Australian and that he grew up Down Under. Because of his language skills most locals, upon meeting him, think he’s half-Thai. Stuart likes to keep them guessing. “I don’t call that lying. I call that an investment.” Once the relationship has been solidified, he will tell them he’s actually half-Indian. The usual reaction, he said with a laugh, is, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
But anecdotes like these serve him well as a facilitator, cultural troubleshooter and linguistic bridge in his work throughout Asia with multi-tentacled conglomerates like Tesco, Pepsi and the UN. The parable about the Indian and the snake is one of those slippery stereotypes that will slither away if you try to grasp it. These stereotypes, rooted so deeply in our languages and cultures, cannot be uprooted, Stuart advises his clients, you just have to work around them.
As a boy growing up in Sydney, embedded in a community of Chinese-Indonesians, he quickly came to terms with Mandarin, Javanese, Bahasa Indonesian, and a dialect of West Timor. On a family trip to the United States, he returned with a renewed interest in his father’s mother tongue of
“60 to 65 percent of Thai is based on Sanskrit, which is part of the Indo-European group of languages that are cousins to Latin and Greek.”
Hindi. At their house, his mother entertained her Thai friends. But most of all it was his maternal grandfather, a communications expert in World War II, who fostered in him a love of decoding systems, whether they were linguistic, electronic or a Rubik’s cube – to the point where the two of them would communicate with each over by tapping out Morse code on the dinner table.
“On his deathbed, when he had Parkinson’s disease, he had to teach himself to write again. Even then he could still draw the schematic diagrams for radio transceivers he used during World War II,” said Stuart, the managing director of his own company, Kogneit, whose slogan is “Think, Create, Communicate”.
Even though he still enjoys working with Australian companies, his assessment of his homeland is spiked with a few wry asides. “Nice car, nice mortgage, nice divorce, nice psychiatrist bills. A lot of Aussies feel that the government owes them something. But there’s an edge to life over here [in Thailand], so if you don’t perform you die.”
For him, what Aussies call the “tall poppy syndrome” is a double-edged sword. In one way, it’s meant to keep people on an even footing. In another, it discourages anyone with lofty ambitions by ensuring they get cut down to size.
But there’s no question that his homeland gave him a foot up on the ladder of learning that your average Bulgarian or Cambodian would never have gotten a toehold on.
His academic pursuits on both sides of the lectern – doing a double major in applied linguistics and political science, and later teaching Southeast Asian studies at Griffith University in Brisbane – was the ‘seed money’ for the windfall he’s now reaping. A recent two-week seminar he led in Beijing was business as usual for the linguist. Switching back and forth from Hindi to Mandarin to English, Stuart had to teach a group of urban transport professionals how to make their language, presentations and materials more street level so they’re comprehensible to the people on the ground.
In action he’s a dynamic performer who comes off as part-businessman (the three-piece pin-striped suit) and part entertainer (the pop star’s tendrils of gelled-up hair). During the presentation for high-ranking Thai bureaucrats, he kept the more straitlaced scholars enthralled by throwing them tidbits of knowledge – the rolling r’s Thais use do not actually exist in classical Thai; they were an invention of the aristocracy – along with a few Indian-style head wobbles for comic relief; and a high-energy floor plan that saw him rarely sit down or stop moving. His references to “popular culture” (if that isn’t an oxymoron), in a slideshow containing images of George Bush, Britney Spears and Chairman Mao, which was intended to show how we judge people by how they speak, kept the presentation from ascending the steps of the Ivory Tower and disappearing into the ether of higher learning.
His entertainer’s flair stems partly from his many years as a jazz pianist. With the ROL Trio, he has jazzed up numerous nights at local venues like the FCCT and Tokyo Joe’s. The group’s name is an acronym of its members’ surnames: R for Raj; O for Kenro Oshidari, the group’s bassist and main songwriter; and drummer Dale Lee, the owner of Coffee Works in Thailand. Since Kenro is working for the UN now in Africa, coordinating some tens of thousands of people, the group has been on a sabbatical for a while. But expect them to swing back into action with a new bassist in 2008.
Even when speaking about jazz, his obsession with communication remains on the tip of his tongue. He doesn’t believe that people are necessarily more predisposed to using either the creative or the analytical sides of their brain. By way of an example, he argued that all music which “is pleasing to the ear is also mathematically perfect”.
It’s the kind of insight that Stuart specializes in.
And that’s the direction he sees his career and company moving in – what he calls the “Stuart Jay Raj brand” – bringing together big business and small enterprises, high-brow scholasticism and middle-brow populism, NGOs and the UN, into an all-over-the-map career that could sport a slogan like “Unite and Conquer.”
Now how would you translate that into Mandarin and brand it in Russia?
Check out Stuart’s blog at http://stujay.blogspot.com to find out, among other things, how he attempted to learn Vietnamese in just three weeks.