Maggie Rosenberg, Thailand's American Sweetheart

Maggie Rosenberg, Thailand's American Sweetheart

By Melissa Pandika

Portrait of Maggie Rosenberg
SourceMichael Maurer for OZY


Because even a dorky-cute YouTube video can speak volumes.

By Melissa Pandika

For 19-year-old Brooklyn native Maggie Rosenberg, learning Thai pop songs began as a frustrated attempt to connect with the people of her host country. But the connection turned out stronger than she had anticipated — spawning TV specials, spoofs and adoring fans who gush over her adorable smile and barely discernible accent.

After returning home from a cultural immersion program in Thailand four years ago, Rosenberg taught herself Thai by learning how to sing the country’s pop hits. Today, her covers draw tens of thousands of views, while her original song, the endearing “I Don’t Speak Thai,” has racked up nearly a million. Most videos feature her strumming a ukulele in her bedroom, her voice evoking the stripped-down sweetness of Taylor Swift and Ingrid Michaelson. But her appeal transcends her talent, and even the novelty of a white girl singing in Thai. In a world that glorifies American pop culture, Rosenberg offers a refreshing alternative. “I’m saying, ‘No … I care about the music you’re making,’” she says. For Thai people, “seeing someone else care about their music and culture as much as they do is very exciting.”

Rosenberg admits that her Thai is “bad.” But music has enabled her to make the connections that once eluded her.

Rosenberg has a dark, bushy mane and elfin features, her crinkled eyes accentuated with flicks of liquid liner. Sitting in her Brooklyn Heights living room, she traces her musical roots to her father, a drummer, and her stepfather, an opera singer. Singing fulfilled Rosenberg most; she picked up a guitar at age 13 and began penning her own songs soon after.

The summer after her sophomore year in high school, Rosenberg participated in a homestay in the Thai village of Ban Pa Sak Ngam. With almost zero knowledge of Thai, she resented not understanding the nuances of her host family’s interactions, their humor. A Google search turned up Deung-Deut-Jai, a blog that posts song lyrics in Thai and Roman script, along with the English translation. With the blog as her guidebook, she posted her first cover, Aom Sucharat’s “Huang Huang” (“Jealous and Worried”) on YouTube in 2013. “It was such bad quality, and my Thai is so bad,” she laughs. Still, the blog Thai Winds reposted the video, whose views have soared to nearly 33,000. “I was so shocked,” Rosenberg says.

Her video for “I Don’t Speak Thai” would shock her even more. The cute, head-swaying ditty shares Rosenberg’s own earnest, sometimes awkward attempts to learn Thai. She asks her listeners to speak slowly, confessing: “I don’t speak Thai / But I try very hard.” The video quickly made the rounds on Thai television, while viewers posted their own covers and flooded her with Facebook friend requests. One smitten fan posted three odes to her on YouTube (titled “Maggie Rosenberg 1,” “2” and “3”).

Rosenberg admits that her Thai is “bad.” But music has enabled her to make the connections that once eluded her, perhaps running even deeper than those possible through conversation. After sitting wordlessly in one young man’s house as part of an HIV prevention outreach to rural Thai villages, she began to sing — and moved his mother to tears.

Rosenberg wants to pursue a music career stateside, although she plans to continue posting Thai songs. Her whirlwind fame still leaves her wide-eyed. “It was just some dorky hobby,” she says. But “it makes me happy to know something I do can make someone else really happy.”