My Vietnamese must be improving. Walking back to my hotel after dinner this evening, I watched as a big garbage truck picked up the Vietnamese version of dumpsters and without thinking about it read the motto on the side of the truck: Green — Clean — Beautiful. Civic uplift is the same everywhere, apparently. And during dinner I was able to tell in a rough way what the Vietnamese couple seated near me were talking about.
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.
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.
Arrived yesterday after a very long trip but without incident. Was met as arranged with a driver from the hotel, which made the last leg of the trip as seamless as all the rest. I’d been absurdly afraid that Vietnam would be somehow less challenging — smoothed out by modernization — but I need not have worried. Same crazy traffic, same utter disregard for Western notions of zoning, same water buffalo being led across lanes of traffic from the airport by little boys.
Item: I did notice a couple of changes — everyone who rides a motorbike now wears a helmet (though some are pretty minimalist in design) and, in town, the street hawkers seemed much less aggressive than before. Maybe I was just too dazed to notice.
Item: I find that when I have the vocabulary I can generally make myself understood in Vietnamese, but the biggest difference is that I can hear spoken Vietnamese better than before. I chalk this up to drill with the computer, however sporadic, over the last few months. It’s my intention to make this trip an exercise in intensive language study.
Item: The long Cathay Pacific flight was very pleasant — more room in coach than is usual, I think, with attentive service. The amenities may not have been quite so nice, but any slight economizing that’s taken place since the last time I flew the airline didn’t detract from what was a very comfortable flight. It didn’t hurt that the airplane was only half full and that I had my entire row to myself. I slept a fair amount and read quite a bit, finishing another of the Patric O’Brien sea novels I’ve become re-addicted to recently. I tried to watch Sweeney Todd on the video screen, but I couldn’t get into it — I liked the music, but the pacing was tedious, perhaps to make space for the music. The whole Tim Burton night-of-the-living-dead / teased hair and black eye-shadow way of imagining the nineteenth century just did not seem convincing to me, not that I require historical fidelity. Add a comic book conception of good and evil and you don’t have a very convincing package.
Item: Just had my first Skype experience, a call from Carole, with video! When I first came to Vietnam more than a decade ago there was no such technology — only very expensive land-line calls. The quality of this call with Carole was remarkable, especially when you realize that it was free. I don’t have a video camera, so she couldn’t se mee, but I could see her — and Candy sitting on her lap. Over her shoulder I could look out the window at the Northern New Yoek spring. Amazing.
I guess I could have begun counting from the final day of classes last semester, but today is the first day I would have gone into the classroom had I been teaching, so this feels like the first official day of my sabbatical. Have I said that I am wildly grateful for such a luxury? If I haven’t, I am. At a time when many of my fellow citizens are losing their jobs, don’t have health insurance, lack adequate housing, etc., to be paid to sit home & think feels almost immoral. Perhaps that’s an old streak of Protestantism coming to the surface; if so, it’s a reminder that Protestantism was originally about social justice and individual dignity / responsibility. The best way I can see to redeem — don’t you love how the religious vocabulary emerges? — my time is to make effective use of it. So far, this has been a pretty lazy winter break: I’ve done a lot of reading, but dropped studying Vietnamese; I wrote a couple of stories, but haven’t looked at any of my poems in weeks; I’ve shoveled a good deal of snow, but I have been very lazy in the kitchen, falling into auto-cook mode most of the time.
I’m going to try to blog regularly during the sabbatical, mostly as a form of self-discipline & self-reflection. I’m not oing to make any foolhardy commitments to post something every day, but that will be my goal, even if it’s just a squib or a report on local bird life or what I cooked for dinner. With luck, there will also be more substantial bits as well. Anyway, it’s cold & snowy this morning & I probably won’t go farther afield today than the post office (though Carole is heading off to work in a few minutes), so the weather is cooperating: no excuse but to get some real work done.