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The first things I always notice when landing at a foreign airport are the information signs. Almost everything else – from the rows of duty free boutiques, the sterile waiting room terminals, the rich travellers and the gloss porcelain floors – reeks of familiarity; it’s only ever the information signs that change. Letters I’m used to start reforming themselves indiscriminately into unknown words as others morph into bizarre and unintelligible characters. It takes me a moment to settle my mind and realize that although everything else looks the same, I’ve basically lost my ability to read – it’s like I’m in some crazy twilight zone. And that’s about when the fear sets in that I might not be able to communicate with anyone at all in my new country.

I came to Vietnam on June 1st, two weeks before the other fellows, to attempt to learn as much Vietnamese as possible. Truthfully, I wasn’t the best Vietnamese speaker in the U.S. I never spoke it at home (or anywhere else) and made few attempts to learn it. I’m probably the worst off of any of the Fellows in terms of speaking the language, which makes my fear of miscommunication somewhat upheld.

At first, I found my inadequacy at speaking the language to be absolutely frustrating. Sometimes you have so many things you want to say and so few words to say it – you feel like that kid at the swimming pool, just learning that when you yell underwater, it’s not sounds that come out, but just bubbles. I found it difficult to talk to people because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sound like a full adult. I found it difficult to accept kind gifts because I knew I wouldn’t be able to adequately give thanks. I couldn’t even fully articulate why I decided to work in Vietnam and what exactly I was to do here.

But what has surprised me these last few weeks is that there are some times where I’m glad I didn’t know all the words. There was one time in my Vietnamese class when a teacher asked me a sublimely basic question: “muc dich trong couc song em gi?” (what’s your goal in life?). Had she asked me in English, I would’ve been able to prattle off an answer in a heartbeat, mechanically citing some old trope about Aristotelian virtue or pragmatic humanism. In Vietnamese, I was left speechless. How can I explain such an important concept when I can’t fall back on my familiar answers? How do I fully explain myself with such a scant vocabulary? What do I do when I’m without my precious words?

There was another time when I was eating dinner with my aunt and uncle and I had forgotten the Vietnamese word for “frog”. Of course, I tried to describe what I meant with words I knew, and they tried to guess. What ensued was 30 minutes I’ll never forget. Starting with impromptu “Jeopardy” descriptions (“the French eat it”), to “Taboo” clues (“it’s green, lives in fresh water, jumps”) and finally becoming a full blown game of Pictionary (unfortunately, I drew Kermit the frog, a character neither of them had any concept of), my attempts at describing a frog led to a great connection that wouldn’t have occurred had I simply known the word.

As I walk through Saigon today, I still can’t read many of the signs. Thankfully, though, I’ve learned it’s more than okay to ask the locals for directions. I’ve realized that language can sometimes be too much of a crutch, and our mastery of it and fluidity in it sometimes prevents us from really getting to know others. We give the familiar answers too quickly without fully thinking about the questions. Other times, our ease in communication prevents us from memorable experiences. As I continue my journey to learn Vietnamese, I’m bound to find myself lost in translation at least once and again. But maybe I gain something else, something positive, when I find myself struggling to find the words.


One comment

  • Sandy says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. It expresses the thoughts and feelings of someone who hasn’t been as in touch with the language as the older generation would like, but it brings great perspective to the fact that you still care and you’re ready to take this part of your life to the next level. Good luck!!! I’m super excited to see how much you’ve learned!!!

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