You know what they used to say about Ginger Rogers - she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels. I'm starting to feel that way about learning Thai.
I've been listening to a set of Pimsleur CDs and while overall, I think they're pretty good, they're extremely sexist. The Thai language is gendered... not so much like French or Spanish where nouns are arbitrarily assigned a gender... but in that you say things differently if you are a man or a woman. They don't really have an equivalent for "Please" (that I've figured out anyway), but there is a 'polite term' that is added to the end of every sentence. If you are a man speaking Thai, you would end every sentence in "krap" (it actually sounds like half way between "crab" and "clap") and if you are a woman you would end each sentence in "ka". In addition, the words for "I" are different for men ("pom") and women "de-chan". So an expression as basic as "I understand" would be, with the exception of the verb completely different coming from a man or a woman.
A man would say: "Pom cow-jai krap"
A woman would say: "De-chan cow-jai ka"
(oh, and since I've only been listening to CDs, I'm sure this transliteration is completely wrong - but you get the idea)
Coming from an essentially gender-neutral language such as English - this is confusing enough for me. But the CDs are geared 99% to men learning the language. So far all but one dialogue is set up as "You are an American man speaking to a Thai woman." Now I'm not even going to go into the socio-political reasons why this bothers me...except to say that most of the people buying "Learn Thai" CDs probably are American men who will be talking to Thai women. But just from a language learning perspective... it's really pissing me off.
For the actual conversation that starts each lesson - it's not so bad, I practice both parts. But in the rest of the lesson, when the CD asks me to "tell her you understand" I've got to do the mental gymnastics to turn my sentence into the appropriate female response... and know it's not going to match the answer given after the pause. It's driving me crazy. It's taking me at least twice as long as it should to get through one of the lessons and I just have to guess that I'm pronouncing things right. The CD went through an extensive explanation of the intonation of "pom"... ("it starts in a high tone, but abruptly drops to a low tone rising again to a mid level tone - see if your tone matches the speaker... let's try that again") but in 5 lessons it still hasn't given the same treatment to "de-chan" (is it more de-chan or de-shan for example?). I know I'm not going to be fluent when I get to Thailand, but I would at least be able to communicate what little I know without sounding like I don't know if I'm a man or a woman.
The really tough part is that I know I'm going to experience a bit more of the same once I actually get to Thailand. From everything I've read Thai society is hierarchical and status is very important. Unsurprisingly, men have higher status than women, and I'm just going to have to make peace with that notion. After all, the whole reason I'm going abroad is to experience a different culture. I can't very well complain when you know, the culture is actually different from what I am used to. That said, I do wonder how much this will come through in day-to-day life. After all, the US has a reputation for having a very violent culture... and despite our high rate of violent crime - no one's ever tried to beat me up or shoot me. So, I guess it'll just be one more learning experience I'm setting myself up for.