Troi oi! I am so ugly tiger.
“We’ll have the penis salad, please.”
A bemused smile flickered across the waiter’s face. Mispronouncing “grapefruit” in an upscale restaurant is infinitely better than at the market, where the fruit vendor would have chortled hysterically, loudly calling to her fellow sellers, “Ha! The lady Tây (foreigner) just asked for a kilo of cocks!”
Vietnamese is, to say the least, an amusing language. It’s tones slide up and down, squeaking or dropping suddenly, then becoming high and creaky so that pronunciation is a minefield of potential insults and vulgarities. I manage either to entertain, impress or confuse whomever I am speaking with; the novelty of a Tây speaking Tiếng Việt seems slow to wear off, even among those who see me daily. Naturally, some people react to my Vietnamese as if they are witnessing an exorcism.
“Em có khỏe không?” I recently asked the girl at a cafe I frequent.
She dropped the rag with which she had been wiping tables and stared at me. I thought she hadn’t understood.
“Em có khỏe không?” I repeated, taking care to say each word as accurately as I could.
Her eyes widened more. We foreigners are notoriously unpredictable and strange. My head was surely going to start spinning and I’d spew green bile all over her any second.
I assumed I was using the wrong age pronouns. The age pronouns are as varied and complex as the tones. I walk around calling older men “Anh” (Older Brother) when they should be “Chú” (Uncle, if he’s younger than my father but more than ten years older than me) or “Bác” (Uncle, older and as in Uncle Ho). Perhaps she, like me, was 24, necessitating that I use “Bạn” (Friend). Or perhaps she was older, mandating “Chị” (Older sister) rather than “Em” (Younger sister or brother).
“Bao nhiêu tuổi?” I had to solve the problem. “How old are you?”
At this, the poor girl physically drew back as though terrified I would bite her. Clearly, I was fighting a losing battle. “Bao nhiêu tiền?” I asked, digging through my wallet for a 20,000 VND note. “How much is it?”
“Hai mười. 20,000 Việt Nam đồng.” It’s the same conversation we have every time I go to her cafe.
Reactions such as this make learning Vietnamese incredibly frustrating. Not to mention the language is intimidating and contains sounds we don’t hear, let alone say, in English anyway. But, for every three people who give up trying to converse, there is one who is patient–or bored–enough to try.
A month ago, my housemate and I came home very late and very drunk in a taxi. I am a cheerful and loquacious drunk so I happily chattered away to the taxi driver, who laughed when I asked, “Anh là người Việt phải không? You’re Vietnamese, aren’t you?” It’s one of those scripted phrases I learned from my textbook, Vietnamese for Foreigners. He chuckled but agreed that yes, he was indeed Vietnamese, though not originally from Hanoi. I told him that I was American, an English teacher, liked Vietnam, eating bún chả, riding motorbikes and my two younger sisters in America. I told him what my parents did for a living then I introduced my housemate, Fiona, explained that she’s Australian, also a teacher and likes Vietnam, eating bún chả but prefers bicycles. According to Fiona (given my wasted state, I couldn’t possibly have remembered it all), I even figured out new words and a new grammar structure he was telling me. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I remembered them to add to my daily lexicon. Then, I was out of things to say so I declared, “Em yêu Anh! I love you!” at which the driver burst into such laughter that he missed the turn onto our lane.
It is the genuine warmth and curiosity of exchanges like these that convince me that learning Vietnamese is a good idea, even though half the time I open my mouth and people assume I have either a speech problem or cognitive disabilities. A connection, even partially in thickly-accented pidgin, is worth the heartache, the embarrassment and the brain drain of learning a strange new alphabet. And a connection that entertains someone, is worth a thousand perfectly pronounced words.
*Troi oi, as seen in the title of this post, means roughly, “Oh my God!” It is useful when the traffic is bad or when you are trying to bargain and the prices are set too high. The other part of the title refers to the literal translation of the Vietnamese word for embarrassed, which means, “ugly tiger” in English. Told you Vietnamese was funny.