Five months ago I attempted to write a humour piece called Foreigners Shouldn’t Speak Vietnamese Because it Makes Me Look Bad. I was going to pepper it with funny and ironic things, like asking why people can’t just point at stuff instead of learning taxi Vietnamese, and listing skills foreigners could learn that wouldn’t affect my self-worth. But it wasn’t that funny. I was actually jealous.
Four months ago, I started attending a beginner’s Vietnamese class. It’s my second attempt at learning the language. My teacher is the hilarious, energetic Annie of minor YouTube fame (she’s also at learnvietnamesewithannie.com). She has a series of videos available online that feature common expressions, vocabulary associated with different situations and her big, humour-filled eyes.
Annie teaches us polite Vietnamese. She always calls me anh Ed, and once wore an ao dai to class. Five of us attend the Tuesday and Thursday class, which started in January and went through to the end of March — last month we started on level two. Two of my friends also signed up, and there’s a nice convivial atmosphere for our awkward first-date questioning about whether or not we enjoy swimming.
And it’s already been paying off. As the founder of this magazine — whose superb Vietnamese was the inspiration for that Foreigners Shouldn’t Speak Vietnamese article — said about when he started learning the language, “I just remember a whole new world opening up.”
Keeping your world open takes work. When I first moved to Vietnam, I felt this constant momentum — even if what I was doing was boring, I could just say “I’m doing this... in Vietnam” and it would lose that dead-end feeling. That trick doesn’t work anymore.
Sometimes I lie to Vietnamese people about how long I’ve been here. I don’t really love those conversations about how I should speak Vietnamese already — it sounds much better when that advice is given in a future tense.
But it’s true. Although I use English for work, and most of my Vietnamese friends are fluent-ish, it matters to my life here. It’s the source of that small-moment magic which makes the world always seem new and unpredictable.
I look at those expat forums a bit too often. They’re good for a lot of things, especially wasting time. But once in a while, a post gets at the core of the expat dilemma.
In January, someone wrote a very honest post on Expats in Ho Chi Minh City, asking about how to deal with the frustrations of living in Saigon. It wasn’t said in bitterness, it wasn’t someone trying to pick a fight. He was talking about the frustrations many of us face on a daily basis.
This time, it hit me while I was on my way to work. The oblivious woman in front of me was pissing me off. She didn’t see I was trying to squeeze back into the correct lane before an oncoming truck pulverised me.
I leaned on my horn. At first she didn’t realise where the sound was coming from — the scary truck roaring up behind? A renegade taxi? Me? Eventually she figured it out, and she moved.
I saw the tense look on her face and felt remorse — this time it was me creating the stressful situation I’m so often frustrated by. I couldn’t even bring myself to smile as I looked at her panicked eyes.
And then I thought — next time I’m in that situation, I’ll yell, “Chi oi! Xin loi! Cho toi qua!” Simple words I learned a long time ago, but the dots never connected.
By the time I had a couple lessons under my belt I was already feeling more comfortable. I had put in some work on my ridiculous pronunciation of the word ‘pho’, which my friend likened to pronouncing ‘soup’ as ‘sooooooooup’. I was feeling confident.
On the day our cleaners came by, I engaged the non-English-speaking husband of the pair in conversation for the first time. I cobbled together a few words, like ‘xong roi’ (‘finished’) and ‘bao’ (‘newspaper’), while holding up the last issue of the magazine. I told him how late I stayed up while finishing edits on the issue. He repeated, “Chin gio sang?” then said, “Ooooh.” It wasn’t much, but it sure beats the hell out of “Xin chao, anh khoe khong?”
My classmate told me about her first real conversation with her motherly landlord, who sometimes gives her food. She told her landlord she felt sick, and her landlord asked if she was pregnant (we’ve learnt some real-life situation Vietnamese for sure). Lana reacted in mock horror, saying she was too young. The landlord then told Lana that her sister had given birth to two sons at the ages of 33 and 37, so Lana has plenty of time.
Standing there on the sidewalk after class, Lana said, “So it was a short conversation, but it was a real conversation. This is something I think about sometimes, so it was really nice to hear an older Vietnamese woman say that I still have plenty of time. This is one of the reasons I want to learn Vietnamese, to be able to speak with this woman who I’ve lived around for so long.”