Iâ€™ve been a little careful about what Iâ€™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: Itâ€™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: â€œXin cho BÃ¡c cÃ¡i Ä‘Å©a.â€ The five-word sentence brought a flicker of smile to the young womanâ€™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, â€œMáº·n quÃ¡!â€ (Very salty). She looked concerned, but I said, in English, â€œItâ€™s okay, just salty.â€ 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. â€œIâ€™ve lived here a year,â€ I told her, and have studied Vietnamese in the US; that Iâ€™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:Â â€œYou understand a lot,â€ she said. â€œI donâ€™t hear the language very well, though,â€ I told her. My hearing is really not up to any sort of fluency in a tonal language. â€œI think you understand a lot about Vietnam, though,â€ she said. I donâ€™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–thatâ€™s how we get through the day.) Sartre calls bad faith a kind of self-deception, or play-acting.1 Â 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 encountersÂ are rare at home or abroad, but perhaps being forced out of oneâ€™s habitual bad faith, in Sartreâ€™s sense, increases the possibility that real conversations may occur. The barrier between speakers who have only bits & pieces of each otherâ€™s languages actually creates an opportunity for openness.
I canâ€™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 (Iâ€™ll have to go back now & learn her name: it didnâ€™t seem important at the time) asked, â€œWhy do you keep coming back to Hanoi?â€ Well, thatâ€™s the question, isnâ€™t it? I wonder what the answer is, of if there is an answer. Or maybe itâ€™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 oneâ€™s self–in good faith.