Eating & Speaking

I’ve been a little careful about what I’ve been eating the last couple of days. This means choosing somewhat more bland restaurants, often ones designed specifically to appeal to non-Vietnamese tastes, even if the food is Vietnamese. Whether this makes any real difference is difficult to say: It’s equally possible to eat something off in one of these places as in a street stall, maybe more so since the best Vietnamese street stalls turn over a lot of food very quickly. In any case, since I still feel a little wobbly I have been taking care.

The waitress in the tourist place seemed, at first, utterly bored. She was a little surprised when I placed my order in halting Vietnamese, then went back to what she was doing at her computer on the little desk at the side of the restaurant. I sat next to a window looking out at the street & sipped my lime juice & Schweppes soda. After a little while, she went to the back of the room then brought me my clay pot chicken with rice. I had to ask for chopsticks: “Xin cho Bác cái đũa.” The five-word sentence brought a flicker of smile to the young woman’s face. She went to get them, lay them on my table, then retired again to her computer.

The chicken was tasty but salty. About halfway through the meal I asked for another soda. When it came, I said, “Mặn quá!” (Very salty). She looked concerned, but I said, in English, “It’s okay, just salty.” At this point, something clicked, I think. What I had taken as boredom was perhaps diffidence. A bit later, when she took my plate away, she asked me in Vietnamese how long I had been in Vietnam. I have a kind of standard answer to this question that simplifies reality somewhat, since my language skills are not up to the temporal details. “I’ve lived here a year,” I told her, and have studied Vietnamese in the US; that I’m a professor & work with a publishing house as an editor. I can get this all into choppy Vietnamese without too many problems. The young woman looked at the chair across from me & I nodded for her to sit down. At this point we had to begin moving back & forth between English & Vietnamese: “You understand a lot,” she said. “I don’t hear the language very well, though,” I told her. My hearing is really not up to any sort of fluency in a tonal language. “I think you understand a lot about Vietnam, though,” she said. I don’t really know how she could know this, except perhaps by accepting my attempt to speak her language, or maybe by not dragging all my cultural assumptions into the restaurant with me. We talked about various things, mixing our languages, and then I went off into the night.

When any two speakers converse, whether they share a birth language or not, there is a moment of assent, fraught with vulnerability, right at the start. They agree to speak in good faith. (Most encounters are not actually conversations, of course, but instrumental exchanges–that’s how we get through the day.) Sartre calls bad faith a kind of self-deception, or play-acting.1  When the young woman in the restaurant glanced at the chair across from me, she was asking, even if she was herself not fully aware of it, that we drop the play-acting. We were then able to have a conversation, however halting, across our languages. Such encounters are rare at home or abroad, but perhaps being forced out of one’s habitual bad faith, in Sartre’s sense, increases the possibility that real conversations may occur. The barrier between speakers who have only bits & pieces of each other’s languages actually creates an opportunity for openness.

I can’t really reconstruct or recall the details of that conversation–it was mostly concerned with small matters. I asked a lot of questions about the names for things, I remember. Near the end of our talk, the young woman (I’ll have to go back now & learn her name: it didn’t seem important at the time) asked, “Why do you keep coming back to Hanoi?” Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I wonder what the answer is, of if there is an answer. Or maybe it’s actually simple: I keep returning so as to lift of the corner of the curtain & to remember that it iOS possible to have a conversation with someone–or with one’s self–in good faith.



Situations (VN Diary No. 25)

Going around Hanoi and trying to speak Vietnamese (with my limited vocabulary and grammatical resources) has made me acutely aware of the social contexts in which language operates. In a restaurant, certain kinds of words and sentences are used; in a shop, different words and sentences. In fact, this makes it easier for me to communicate because I know what to expect in different places. I’ve also learned to expect several stock questions: How long have I been in Vietnam? How old am I? What work do you do? What country am I from? And because I expect these questions, I don’t have to think quite so hard, but can fall back into language I already know. Such scts of communication always take place within some social context. Aren’t poems the same, in some respects. In poetry, the shop or restaurant might be replaces with a mode or genre — an elegy or a sonnet. So the conventions of conversation or poetry are not something — at least initially — to be gotten outside of, but something to be used. The actual language of a conversation or a poem can only be extracted from the context by an act of critical violence, an act of Abstraction, to adopt Blake’s terminology. But surely we don’t want to be limited to conventional subjects and modes. True enough. I offer my observation only to make the point that such conventional situations can carry a good deal of satisfaction and even emotional power. They ought not be sneered at or avoided in favor of novelty or originality, I think. Such moments of mutuality can be deeply significant. Poems, like my primitive conversations, start in such places and such moments.

Cross-posted at The Plumbline School.

Using the Language (VN Diary No. 12)

I’m better at speaking Vietnamese in the morning. This morning I went to buy a small shoulder bag to carry around my wallet and notebook and dictionary. I already knew the street where such things are sold so I headed over there and began looking around. One of the shops seemed to have several bags that might do, so I went in and, speaking Vietnamese, asked for a shoulder bag, a small one. For five minutes or so I looked at various bags, asking for different colors and sizes, then negotiating the price (The owner knocked a dollar off! I’m such a tough negotiator.) I did the whole thing completely in vietnamese. Must have been the shot of espresso I had after breakfast. This afternoon, on the other hand, wrung out from the heat, I couldn’t even manage to order a Mango smoothie in the language. I really should stay ot of places that cater to tourists, where the staff (rightly) wants to help me by speaking my language. I have the best experiences when buying from the street, where people’s English is minimal to non-existant. Anyway, I certainly was not fluent this morning, but I conducted an extended transaction — a stylized conversation — completely in Vietnamese.