There’s a 15-year-old girl, Anh, who sometimes joins our pickup basketball games on Sunday mornings. We play at her school, where she has practice from 6–8am. When she joins us, she’s still wearing her full uniform and has waited for our arrival for an hour.
Until I moved to Vietnam and started joining in on these games, she was the only female, and was at least 10 years younger than the international men who played.
One day, after we were all done playing, everyone was doing what you do after a pickup game—shooting the shit. Anh hadn’t joined in, but seemed to be listening intently. Then, when the conversation lulled, she shook her head, smiled, and said, “I wish there was one language,” conveying that she wasn’t able to keep up with our profanity-peppered, slang-filled, quickly spoken English.
Living in a foreign nation has helped me realize how fortunate I am to have been born in an English-speaking nation. We are so spoiled.
People often see Phil and me and speak to us in English. Some Vietnamese adults and children are eager to practice on us, starting conversations in cafes or on the sidewalk, or yelling at us in English as we pass them by. I know that English isn’t an easy language to learn, and feel guilty at the effort everyone is making to accommodate me. After all, I’m living in another nation, and I have spent much of my time here thus far exploring cafes and my neighborhood, sitting and reading on the beach, and looking for work, not learning the language.
However, Vietnamese is super difficult. From what I can tell, it’s comprised of tons of short words, using different vowel sounds that are barely distinguishable and consonant combinations that are nearly impossible to replicate. As an English teacher friend said, the Vietnamese “swallow their consonants.”
After getting over my initial reaction to respond to Vietnamese in Spanish, a second language I can barely claim, I’m still not much use. I know how to say a couple of phrases and have long ago “learned the numbers”, but often blank out when I ask how much something is in Vietnamese and get the appropriate Vietnamese numerical response. Luckily, I’ve gotten pretty decent at mimicry (as any 5-year-old can tell you, fingers help with numbers) and most vendors are kind enough to pull out a calculator or some bills to show me what they mean. It helps that I’m trying to buy something from them.
Furthermore, as my teacher friend convincingly argued, there are so many different English-speaking accents—native and foreign—that English speakers are accommodating listeners. We can understand what someone is saying even if we’d have said it differently, including if the tense or order of words isn’t quite correct. But it isn’t as common for foreigners to learn Vietnamese; the Vietnamese aren’t familiar with comprehending foreign accents or small grammatical mistakes. Unless you say something very well, they’ll look at you entirely confused, or, if you’ve done a better job with your pronunciation, they’ll repeat it back to you a few times to make sure they’ve understood. I know my address in Vietnamese, but taxi drivers always repeat it back to me a handful of times before they trust that they know where to go.
English is a common ground for many in Da Nang. Couples whose native languages are French and Russian, or Dutch and Vietnamese, speak English with each other. But this common ground is malleable, and often laughable. One of my purest sources of joy here, as a word person, is discovering things that have been rendered meaningless upon translation into English, or ironic combinations of English words worn by the blissfully unaware. Here are a few of my favorite examples:
Despite how much easier it would be if we all spoke one language, as young basketball-er Anh wished, I strongly believe that it’s worth the cultural richness to have so many different ways of expressing ourselves, words that tie us to our families and our homes, even if there is a barrier to entry that has rendered me a bumbling fool on more than one occasion. The unintentional hilarity doesn’t hurt.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.