Naturally (VN Diary No. 17)

So, if you woke up with a head cold, what would be the first thing you would think to do? Well, naturally, you would go with your friend who is writing a language instruction book to a recording studio to help with the English on the accompanying CD. And after that, you would no doubt have lunch and then go to your Vietnamese teacher for what, in this language, amounts to a singing lesson. In both situations I sounded more like a croaking frog than a human being, but everyone was very gracious, which is the norm here. In Vietnamese, croaking frog would go something like this: kęu ?m ?p con ?ch. I put that in just to see if WordPress can handle the unicode keyboard driver I just got installed today. As you can see, Vietnamese uses the Roman alphabet modified with diacritical marks to indicate the extra vowels and the system of tones.

Update: I’ll have to do a little more work on displaying Vietnamese characters.

Language Notes (VN Diary No. 15)

There’s nothing like one’s first language lesson in eight years to drive home one’s almost complete ignorance of the language. It’s like a Renaissance map — not the complete Medieval fiction with Jerusalem at the center, some few regions have been filled in: a more or less accurate coast line for Portugal, say, but a completely fanciful view of Africa. My map of Vietnamese has tiny fractions of sense, small bits that track the real world, but which is mostly empty. I know a lot of nouns and a few basic verbs, but lack the syntax necessary to track the world in any accurate way. And as if the lesson itself  did not provide enough humiliation, I took a xe om back downtown afterward and the driver, hearing my few words of Vietnamese, started off on a long series of questions in his own language — he also had a bit of English — while roaring through traffic. I might not have been able to understand him had we been sitting across a table from each other, but I was completely lost in the noise of the traffic.

Update: This morning I went to lunch with Vietnamese friends who speak English, along with an American who speaks the language well. I find I can ear quite a few individual words in conversation and thus begin to get the drift, but it still moves so fast I get lost. And the American was easiest to understand, perhaps because her Vietnamese was a beat slower and somewhat more textbook clear.

Belief and Contingency (VN Diary No. 13)

It’s very hot today, in the nineties, and having gone out early for breakfast, I’m going to wait until late afternoon for an early dinner, then come back in.

Vietnam continues to exert this weird pressure on my psyche. It’s hard to describe, except to say that it has always, in each visit, forced me toward self-appraisal. Maybe it’s just being cast into a city by myself where I speak the language only haltingly and where everyday customs are so different from what I am used to.

Because I put little faith in the idea that any particular event is meant to be, I have a hard time accounting for my love of Vietnam and its effects on me. Philosophically, I am committed to the idea that contingency rules our lives as human subjects. I have no rational belief in larger purposes or patterns; I take a more Sophoclean attitude toward the relationship between humans and the world, that we make our fate in the face of contingency. That is, we do the best we can with what is given to us. (No piety intended here by the slightly pious language.) So I have been given Vietnam and it’s necessary to make something out of the gift. Poetry in my case, or sentences, at any rate. Sentences as gestures toward comprehension. Given by whom? Given by chance, which I think makes my responsibility more imparative that if the gift had come from the gods or the predictable machinery of fate.

Still, even in the absence of the gods, I am here to make my soul.