So very, very wrong. I thought that I was not going to learn anything about myself from visiting Vietnam. I don’t think I have ever been more wrong about anything. These first two weeks have been a very eye-opening and awakening experience.
My parents never taught me Vietnamese, but I did pick up quite a bit just by being around it as a kid. I used to be able to understand most of what they said in Vietnamese, but I wasn’t able to speak it back. Ever since I moved out years ago, I have lost a great deal of vocabulary since I am not exposed to it as often. I wasn’t expecting to be able to understand much here in Vietnam.
But the longer we stay here, the more that is coming back to me. I can understand a surprising amount of Vietnamese or at least get the gist of what people are saying, though I still can’t speak it well at all. On one hand, it’s very helpful to be able to understand what people are saying to us, but it’s incredibly frustrating to not be able to express myself in return. This is an interaction that is exemplary of most conversations I have in Vietnam:
Taxi Driver: <in Viet> Where are you going?
Me: My Dinh bus station.
TD: My Dinh.
Me: Vang (yes). Our bus… um… one-thirty. Our bus is at 1:30. Di di mao (go faster)!
TD: <lots of Viet I don’t understand>
Me: I… um… I’m… Khong biet noi tieng Viet (don’t speak Vietnamese).
TD: <in Viet> You don’t know Vietnamese? You just spoke it.
Me: I ummmm… khong biet (don’t know). Khong hieu (don’t understand).
TD: <more Viet>
Me: uhhhh I don’t… khong…
TD: <in Viet> You don’t know, right. <mutters>
Me: <tips heavily to pacify deep shame welling up inside>
Slowly, slowly, I’m getting better at speaking in Vietnamese. When we’re in non-touristy areas, I learn a lot more because we can’t fall back on English, and I have to find the words. I’m pleasantly surprised with how much I can speak after two weeks, and it’s been very helpful in our travels. It’s still a huge struggle, though. If the interaction is very brief, I can hide most of my ignorance. “Yes, hello, how are you? how much? I’m American.” are passable, and the locals probably think I’m just shy or quiet or have a funny accent. But much beyond that and I’m guessing everyone thinks I’m a bit slow in the head or just plain dumb. A lot of times, people still stare at me when I say something or will respond with something that I haven’t figured out yet, so it’s a short-lived interaction. But it’s been fun (and simultaneously excruciating) trying to use Viet.
I feel a lot of shame in not knowing the language. Everyone here clearly recognizes me as Viet and expects me to know the language and then are shocked or surprised when I don’t. I’ve had countless people say (in Viet) “She’s Vietnamese but doesn’t speak it. <grumbling and muttering>.” When I get back home, I want to become fluent so that the next time I come to Vietnam, I’ll be able to speak it well.
As many American kids do, I always assumed my parents were weirder than everyone else’s. Asian parents are certainly another breed, but I thought that mine were especially quirky. Turns out they’re just Vietnamese.
There are so many things I’m seeing here in Vietnam that explains all the “quirks” that annoyed me about my parents. From the way they talk to each other (everyone talks to everyone, even strangers, with zero hesitation or pretense), to the way older women talk to me (lecturing, as if they know best) and their commendable talent at guilt-tripping, to the bizarre “workouts” people do in the morning (my dad used to mimic jumping rope in place… without a rope), to being generally very loud (every conversation sounds like an argument), to those crappy plastic chairs and bowls that are everywhere, to how everyone repurposes things, to their fondness for growing food, to the disregard of what other people think of them. All of these are perfectly normal in Vietnam; it was just weird to me as a kid because I was seeing it out of context.
One of our travel buddies, Cara, made a very interesting insight: Vietnamese people have this really hard exterior which turns a lot of tourists off because it comes across as very brash, overly direct and aggressive. But once you break through that shell, Vietnamese people are incredibly helpful, generous and sincere. I’ve definitely seen that in many of the people we’ve met and who have helped us on our way, I see it in my parents, and I see it in me. It’s been really interesting to see myself in a different cultural context, and it explains some of who I am.
finding kindred spirits
In Hanoi, we hung out with ultimate player Dieu who is Vietnamese but was born in Ukraine and schooled in Britain. And in Ha Giang, we hung out with couchsurfer Tèo who is from Ha Giang and currently studying in Hanoi. In getting to know both of these girls, I was able to confirm that a lot of things about my parents and my upbringing weren’t unique to me and are common to all Vietnamese parents or families.
In America, most people don’t understand why I studied what I did in college. Even though I hated every minute of it, I majored in Computer Science because that’s what my dad told me to do, and at that age, it had never occurred to me that I even had a choice to study anything else; you just do what your parents tell you to do. Dieu studied what her father told her to in university, too, even though she wasn’t very interested in it. She talked about how stability is the most important thing that Vietnamese parents want for their kids. The whole concept of “loving your job” and “pursuing your passion” doesn’t exist in our parents’ minds. I felt really vindicated when we talked about this because in the states, most people find it bizarre that I so mindlessly chose my career path and don’t understand why I felt like I didn’t have a choice. Here in Vietnam, it’s just a given that you do what your parents demand, and it was nice to have someone empathize with me.
Tèo was really fun for me to talk to because I feel like we’re so similar in many ways (favorite movies: Finding Nemo, Kung Fu Panda, and Despicable Me; intrepid and independent Vietnamese girls; travel and adventure seekers). And I felt that she was a better / stronger / braver version of me: she has never let society’s dictates define who she is and is so fearless. She is only 21 but has already traveled around Asia by herself! We talked about our parents’ expectations of us, our dreams of travel, the weird folk remedies our parents used on us when we were kids, and so many other things that we shared in common. It was great to compare notes and find someone who is so similar despite being from such a different place. Meeting her was really refreshing and inspiring for me.
what does this all mean?
I haven’t figured out what this all means with regard to who I am, but it’s been such an awakening. There are so many things I’m starting to understand about my parents and my life just by being in Vietnam. My mom wasn’t just always yelling at me; that’s just how they talk to each other. My dad’s obsession with getting toothpicks after every meal isn’t weird, it’s cultural. I can be extremely blunt and direct not because I’m a jerk but because that’s how I learned to communicate. You can take the person out of Vietnam, but you can’t take the Vietnamese out of the person.
I didn’t like how I felt when I wrote the post about how I didn’t expect to get any personal value out of visiting my ancestral home. Looking back on it now, it feels like I was trying my damnedest to resist accepting any connection to my heritage. To say that we’ll never learn anything from any experience is arrogant and closed-minded, and I am so glad that I was wrong. Was it arrogance that made me think I couldn’t learn anything? Was it stubbornness and a refusal to acknowledge a childhood and upbringing that I have long resented? Am I clinging to the illusion of being able to control who I am and how I came to be this way?
I’m realizing now that, whether I like it or not, I do come from here. I might not have any relatives left here, I don’t speak the language, and I didn’t grow up here, but I am inescapably Vietnamese. The longer I stay here and the more Vietnamese people I meet, the more at peace I am with being Vietnamese.