Language Barriers

November 17, 2010

Greetings and salutations from southern Vietnam.  The weather has been hot here (the supermarket sign said 37 deg C earlier this week, although that was in direct sunlight) and yes, we’re still mixing concrete.  We’ve also laid quite a few bricks and have been making great progress on the house.  The humidity tends to make it a bit more uncomfortable, because all the sweating I do (and I do quite a bit) doesn’t actually cool me down, it just soaks through my work clothes and makes the concrete dust stick to me.  So, who’s up for joining me next year??  I’m not doing a very good job selling the project, but I’m actually really enjoying the work and the way we all have to maneuver our way through the language difficulties.  And there are difficulties!

I only have a few days left on the building project before I head North to Hanoi and Halong Bay, and then tour down the coast of the country over the next 15 days.  I managed to buy my plane ticket here without any issues, but working my way through booking a hotel, getting transport from the airport to the hotel Friday night, and registering for a cooking class Saturday morning while I wait for my tour group to arrive has proven quite a task.  At one point I filled out what I thought was a booking form online, but when I clicked Submit, I was rewarded with a white page that said “Missing your message!!” in the upper left corner.  Umm, what?  I don’t know.

Because we are in an area that doesn’t get a lot of tourists, people here are not used to hearing poor Vietnamese, and as a result, our attempts at speaking the language are usually met with blank stares.  The intonations are confounding to me, but pantomime goes a long way.

On Sunday the other volunteers and I helped out with an English Club that meets every week by the river to practice speaking English.  We didn’t really get any instructions, but I soon had a group of young girls (10-13 years old) asking me about my favorite color, what types of music I like, and how old I am.  The great thing about kids is that they tend to not censor their reactions (“Oh!  Very old!!  Why not marry?”).  My girls were big fans of the American pop singer Justin Bieber (“He is very handsome!”) and the Disney crew like Hannah Montana and High School Musical cast.  My knowledge of these kids is limited, but I could at least identify them as pseudo-celebrities.

Eventually the girls asked me to sing a song, which caught me like a deer in headlights.  Instantly every song I ever knew slipped from my mind, except for one…  so I gave them an unfortunate rendition of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”, which is regrettable not only because I butchered such an awesome song, but also because I’m the last person who wants to encourage the use of double negatives.  Perhaps if I knew any Justin Bieber songs, that would have gone over better.  One of the girls, Phuong, asked for my Vietnamese cell phone number and has been obsessively texting me since then “What you do now?”  “What are you eat for lunch?”.

Last night for dinner we ventured down to a night market near the river for a culinary adventure that turned into a linguistic adventure as well.  I’ve seen quite a few things on menus that I haven’t tried (snake head soup and fried pig penis are two that come to mind), but last night we found a gem of a menu with fascinating English translations.  These are honest-to-goodness items on the menu:

Steamed Oysterdischarge
Positive Grease the Baking
Proud Baked Eggs Butter
Real Estate Fat Fried in Fat
Buildings Fat Fry Me
Interesting Buildings Post Discharge
Sheep Ink is Brittle
Mixture Fried Stock Breeding
Liver The Blood Cockle Fry
Hotpot Status
Gruel with Clam
Plasma Shell with Garlic

I went with the more mundane beef and broccoli fried noodles, which were great but came back to haunt me this morning.  Today was the first bout of illness for me and I’m feeling better now.  There are plenty of possible culprits around, including the ice I had in my beer last night and a “grapes smoothie” that was deliciously odd.  One of the other volunteers has vowed to go back and order Interesting Buildings Post Discharge just to see what in the world it is.  I can’t imagine.

Back to Vietnam 2010