Let me back up, in case I seem like a hypocrite. There is a Christian saying that goes something like, “People who live in a glass house should not throw stones.” I live in a glass house. My Vietnamese is terrible.
It is very easy to live in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City - Vietnam, only speaking English. Whether you’re an English teacher or a lawyer, it is easy to isolate yourself in an English bubble, saying that Vietnamese is too difficult to learn. I would really like to avoid this.
Anyway, until i can write a column in Vietnamese, by myself, without the help of a translator, I will feel like a small child in Vietnam. No, worse than that. Small children can convey their basic needs, tell when they are happy or unhappy, and why. I cannot do this... yet.
But this desire for language is not about writing, specifically, or even speaking. The real reason is that so many things in this country remain a mystery to me.
These mysteries are small but numerous. For example, why is it okay for Vietnamese men to be so close physically; touching, holding hands, even sitting on each other’s laps and hugging? But, from conversations I’ve had, the issue of homosexuality is taboo.
(I hesitated to write that, because, after my first post, talking about how I would never be married, it might cast some doubt on my own sexuality. So, as an aside, I’ll share one more personal detail. I’ve had a relationship with a girl in America for more than 11 years. This, as all things, must come to an end, in one way or another. But I doubt that it will end in marriage.)
Another mystery, among so many, is religion. I’ve heard many Western people talk about this as well. Ostensibly, this is a Buddhist country. But it seems most people don’t adhere to strict Buddhism. Through foreign eyes, it seems that people go to pagodas when they want to pass an exam, have a baby, or on certain special days.
Maybe this is a misunderstanding on my part. Probably it is! But when I first came here I’d been a vegetarian for 17 years. I thought, since Vietnam is a Buddhist country, it would be easy for me to stick to my non-meat diet. Now I laugh at this, because I’ve started eating meat here out of necessity.
I only bring up these ‘mysteries’ to make a point. The key to unlocking them, and finding a deeper understanding of this culture is to learn the language.
I do have a bit more confidence than before. Last year, I went back to California for 6 months. When I left, I could not even speak to a shopkeeper, outside of numbers: 1,2, 30,000. 40,000, whatever.
When I returned from my trip, something had happened! Sometimes a person would ask me a question in Vietnamese and, to my surprise, a complete sentence would come out of my mouth, without thinking. Not a long or complex sentence. Not at all. But the person would understand me. It was almost as if a little bit of Vietnamese had sunk into my ears, and into my brain without my knowing.
I don’t want to mislead you, my Vietnamese still sucks. But these small steps are tremendously encouraging for a learner. They make me believe, at my best moments, that someday - dare I say it? - I may be able to speak Vietnamese as well as the famous Mr. Joe.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
But this will be the key to unlocking all the mystery, beauty and uniqueness of Vietnamese culture.
Believe me, I will keep you posted on my progress and difficulties in learning your ancient and subtle language. Also, it can go both ways. Many Vietnamese people want to learn English. They will face similar obstacles.
I hope that we could face and surmount these difficulties together, with good humor.