Study Vietnamese they said. It's easy they said

July 27, 2022 | 04:44 pm PT
Jesse Peterson Teacher
Recently, I performed in a Vietnamese stand-up comedy open mic in Hanoi.

Someone said, "To be a successful foreigner in Vietnam all you need to do is be Western and speak Vietnamese. Jesse is both Western and speaks Vietnamese, he could take a picture with his toothbrush and a thousand ladies would love it."

Could be true, maybe a slight exaggeration because the toothbrush is a little weird. But he was right; life is much easier for me, now. Of course, they didn't see the personal invisible hell that brought me to where I am now.

When I first arrived in Vietnam I tried to study Vietnamese but gave up pretty early on. Sure, I knew that one giant secret to living in a foreign country is to learn the language. And I figured out to just drill pronunciation as much as possible and forget the rest.

But, most of my neighbors in Saigon were already good at English and everyone else in town was more interested in practicing their English to support the local tourist industry than listening to my unintelligible mouth squawks. On top of that, the largest barrier to entry, the Vietnamese pronunciation, was so alien to my Canadian tongue that as much as I tried to study, it amounted to nothing.

Well, not nothing. Ridicule is not nothing.

When a lady selling cold drinks and cigarettes said to me, "Hiểu chết liền" and everyone laughed, until they saw anger and/or frustration cover my face, well, that's not nothing at all.

"Hiểu chết liền" = "If I understand what you are saying I will die immediately."

I still do not understand how that process works.

It was a powerful sentence though, despite my disdain for the use of it. It created the feeling of spite which is a great motivator for difficult tasks like getting in shape to get back at your ex or for learning difficult languages to get back at that lady.

It was powerful enough to make me decide to live in a small town for long enough to learn Vietnamese to the degree that nobody would ever say "if I understand what you said in Vietnamese I would die now" ever again.

I thought about moving to a small town to create an environment where I would be obligated to learn Vietnamese because of the lack of English language. It had worked for me before and I felt I had a talent for mixing with other cultures, a curiosity for adventure and interesting experiences.

In Afghanistan I was good friends with the Afghan National Army soldiers, often eating goat and flat bread for dinner with them.

In Japan, I was pretty much adopted by a family of retired Yakuza members who'd phone me every evening to call me to dinner. "Moshi moshi, Jeshi? Tabetakunai?" kindly retired Yakuza grandmother asked.

When I got a chance here, I was offered to meet a Vietnamese CEO, a big boss, who needed an assistant in his company in a small town in the north. I was very sure I would get this job because at this time I was very self-disciplined, in top physical condition after rigid workouts. I had an excellent resume and a really positive attitude. I felt I could do anything, and armed with a quick big smile that bloomed out and infected everyone around me.

I did in fact get the job and about three years later I didn’t smile much anymore. I had a body that someone once remarked as "thin arms and fat stomach, you resemble a spider." I was again addicted to cigarettes and (perhaps even worse) drank two soda pops a day. I didn’t eat well and I probably smelled bad. I was hot tempered and also needy, driving people away in horror as if I was diseased; those that I sought to get close to with my bad temperament and cynical look on the outcome of the relationship. I would get angry and scold people if they didn't follow protocols that I deemed were important. I was probably in the worst mental state of my life (and I've been to war).

"Jesse bị khùng." My old friends said, calling me "crazy."

Nobody liked me anymore.

And that was the cost.

I learned that learning language isn't just about the grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary to be tackled, as difficult as that may be, also on how to use the language to fit into the culture. The culture and the customs, the way you used the language, this is even harder than the pronunciation. It's like when you studied hard to graduate high school and think "life will be easy from here on out boys!" but you start back at the beginning of the corporate ladder and nobody cares about your high school report card.

In the town I lived in I often had to eat and drink with important people. I had to adopt Asian styles of giving extra respect and customs to show respect for some bosses and important people, practices that sometimes I didn't feel good doing and made me uncomfortable because sometimes felt that certain individuals didn't deserve the extra reverence that custom demanded I pay.

And many other things, of course, Vietnam and Canada are a very far distance away from each other.

"That’s the custom though." My boss said. And despite my boss's patience with me, putting me in a tennis club with other important people of the town, encouraging me to "nhập gia tùy tục", essentially "When in Rome do as the Romans do."

But I didn’t figure it out in time.

And so, the three years living exclusively inside another culture cut off from my home was a shock to my mind and sense of mental stability.

I had fallen far and when I loaded depression and my spider-belly onto my motorbike three years later to drive back to Saigon over eleven days I started to think of the future and I realized something.

Yeah I was a mess but,

I was fluent in Vietnamese.

And like a cloud parting to reveal a beautiful valley, my depression gave way to my old smile.

I did it.

When I drove back into Saigon my old neighbors were waiting for me and we had a welcome home party. I gave them a big smile and showed the proper respect to them as dictated by custom.

*Jesse Peterson is an English teacher. The opinions expressed are his own.

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