Commonality of the Water Buffalo and Indiana Cow
I grew up around cows. I guess that was why one of the most interesting things I noticed during my first visit to Thailand were the huge water buffalo. Particularly in the rural areas, they were visible to those who traveled the highways in passing cars and trucks. They would graze heedlessly along the road ignoring the traffic that zoomed past their landscape. Often they would be neck-deep in dark mud and water of the rice patties. They reminded me of the cows and bulls of my birthplace, only much, much larger.
I recall one day, after hours of traveling along the rural highways, we eventually reached the home of my wife's nephew Sohmsai. He lived in an area that was close to downtown Khon Kaen where the streets were lined with tightly spaced homes, not that far-removed from what one would see in a lower class neighborhood of mid-America. As we exited our truck and walked onto his porch, I glanced over my right shoulder to observe something that caught my eye a short distance away. There tied loosely to a small bush in a vacant lot was a very large water buffalo grazing on tall grass otherwise littered with paper and bottles discarded by passer-bys. It seemed oblivious to our presence on the nearby porch.
Politely though, I stopped staring at the animal and went inside the home to meet and socialize with my wife's family. Soon though, I was bored with the conversation which was entirely in Thai. I excused myself and decided to go back out onto the porch and watch the water buffalo. I thought about my childhood.
Growing up as a boy, I got used to seeing cows in my Hoosier state. The county fair was a big deal for some of my high school classmates because it was their time to showoff their prize livestock. I lived in the city though and could hardly relate to winning blue ribbons for a fat, well-groomed bull. Still, I was always fascinated by the wide-eyed and gentle creatures.
I can recall as a very small boy frustrated at the fact that they would ignore me when I called them from the edge of my grandma's fence where I could observe them leisurely eating the available green grass of the pasture. I would yell trying to get the attention of any one of them, "Here cow! Here cow!" They would continue eating the grass, unable to care less about the little boy that wanted them to come to the fence so he could pet them on head.
It was only when my grandfather would bring them into the barn for milking and lock their heads between the wooden slats of the milking stall that I was able to pet their soft curly heads. Then one day I learned a way of talking to those gentle creatures.
It was my best friend's older brother that taught me the secret. We were amusing ourselves at my neighbor's house by demonstrating to each other how many different animals we could imitate. Chickens and ducks were easy. I could even belch out a convincing frog sound. But it was Newell, my best friend's brother, that won all of our attention. He could make a sound like a cow. Actually it was probably more like a bull. I tried to imitate it myself, but at first was unsuccessful. Then the older brother told me it was a lot like my deep-in-the-throat frog sound but even lower down into the chest. He let me feel the bottom of his throat just above the chest as he made the sound. It resonated as he bellowed with the most convincing imitation I had ever heard. I tried it over and over, still with little success. It was really rough on the vocal chords and would make me cough if I continued the effort too long.
Even though I practiced all the time in the years that followed, it was not until I reached adolescence that I could make the sound with any convincing quality. My friends were amused with my new skill. I often demonstrated it by calling cows hundreds of yards from the countryside roads. My friends would stop their cars, in which I was a passenger, on a bet that I could not get the distant cows to come to the fence. They were proven wrong. The cows would always come at full gallop. It must have been a bull's courting call that I was imitating. I really did not know what I was saying to them. I only knew that somehow they deemed it important.
I drifted out of my Hoosier-land memories and focused on the large black beast across the street from where I was standing. I wondered if I could "talk" to this Thailand buffalo thousands of miles from my birthplace, years removed from practicing that boyhood skill. I could not resist the temptation even though now I was a man in his early fifties. I had to know if I could get this animal's attention with that same imitation I had learned so many years ago. I hesitated at first, not wanting to embarrass myself in front of my wife's family who already found me to be a strange anomaly with all my other cultural differences.
It had been a long time since I had tried to make the sound. I was not even sure I could do it anymore. Finally I summoned the courage. From deep beneath my throat a loud resonating sound filled the air almost shaking the glass windows from the frame of the house. Mhewuhhhhhewww! Mhewuhhhhhewww!
The outcome was more than I had bargained for. Whatever I had said seemed to illicit far more excitement from that distant beast than anyone could have anticipated. It responded with seemingly anger. It's head jerked upward and its eyes fixed directly on me. What had initially reminded me of those gentle cows back in Indiana was now more like a raging bull, but perhaps 2 1/2 times larger in size. It's huge pointed horns (suddenly I noticed) must have spanned 6 feet across the top of its head. It jerked itself loose from the scraggly bush to which its leash was attached and it came charging across the street toward me. I thought it was going to crash through the front yard gate. I ran in fear for my life to the inside of the house where everyone was now staring at me as if I was a raving maniac.
Fortunately the buffalo had stopped short of bullying it's way onto the front porch. It stood outside though, with head extended into the yard over the fence, returning my earlier bellowed challenges with his own convincing Mhewuhhhhewww! Mhewuhhhhewww! It would thrust its head upward with every earth-shaking call for me to return and fight like a man, obviously challenging me to stop hiding inside like a sniveling coward.
It may have continued to stand outside intimidating us had it not been for its owner coming to find out what had upset this prized possession. He retrieved it with a silent, but glaring stare into the house. The next door neighbors were ratting on me. I could tell because they were pointing inside the house. I did not have to speak Thai to know that they were describing the deranged American who had caused the ruckus. My wife looked at me with disbelief and embarrassment. She was lost for words to explain my behavior to our hosts. I tried to act innocent as if nothing had happened. Eventually their conversation resumed, as the Thai fellow who owned the buffalo lead it from in front of the house. I pretended to be a part of the living room social setting, trying to appear as though I understood the conversation.
So what does a water buffalo and an Indiana cow have in common? Perhaps they have the same vocabulary, but it is for certain that something becomes lost in the translation!
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Published on 12/19/02