Friday, July 14, 2006

It's 20 question time

If you’re not fluent in Vietnamese then travelling through the remote countryside can seem pretty repetitive in the conversation department – but maybe that’s a good thing, argues
Teddy de Burca Jnr.

Every trip I make into the countryside is usually good for my exceedingly pedestrian spoken Vietnamese, especially in the back of beyond, where little to no English is spoken. It means I’m forced into speaking and making more of an effort. So like a student after intensive language drills I return with real zest in my speech (which gradually then wears off, of course).

It’s not like on the beach in Hoi An, a tourist trap, where decent English is spoken by a lot of the locals. There I guard my knowledge of Vietnamese like a concealed weapon to be pulled out only when I am a) being ripped off or b) being pestered.

As the hawkers sidle up the beach towards wherever I’m sitting the tourists around scuttle away, into the restaurant, or into the sea, but I remain the definition of unruffled. Little do they know who they’re dealing with, I chuckle to myself.

When the beach urchins plonk themselves down beside me and begin to poke me in the arm, I slash through the pitiful pleas of “you buy one for me” with a curt “toi khong muon” or whatever negative response tickles my fancy on the occasion.

Of course that doesn’t actually work. (Why is it no matter how long I live in Vietnam I labour under the illusion that this would send them packing?) If there’s one thing that might cheer up the half-starved child’s day it’s the chance of chatting with a foreigner in Vietnamese but don’t I look pretty silly as I can’t understand their central Vietnamese dialect and it becomes apparent they can run rings around me in English, too.

But on the number of motorbike trips I’ve taken up north, in some pretty out of the way towns, speaking Vietnamese is a practicality. You have to speak to eat and find somewhere to sleep. I normally stop and ask at the local bia hoi, tea stall or café for advice. That’s where the 20 questions start flying. It’s like the conversational equivalent of the 110m hurdles. I don’t need to tell you what the questions are – “are you married? How big is your salary? Do you like Vietnamese women? Do you want to marry one?”

There’s a tendency to be bored by these conversations, so it’s pretty common for expats to learn a diverting tactic or a few crowd pleasing phrases (Am I in Cambodia? Or I’ve got two wives already but one more is ok), which can be whipped out in the event of a dull conversation; sort of a get out of jail free card. In reality it’s probably equivalent to a Vietnamese person who spoke Pidgin English suddenly saying, “Tally ho!” instead of “let’s go”, which would be funny but it wouldn’t mean they’re good.

Although a lot of people find it frustrating, I, however, see it as a good indicator of how bad my Vietnamese is. If you’re struggling over simple small talk, or can’t change the subject to something interesting, then let’s face it, you’re not very good. It’s like looking at your face after a late night in a mirror under fluorescent light. The stark truth is revealed, somewhat harshly.

We all live in Vietnam, some of us short term, a lot of us long term, and a lot of us would like to think we’re speaking Vietnamese fairly well, or at least give that impression, even when we’re not. I’ve certainly done my fair share of showboating in front of family and friends from home by simply ordering coffee with no sugar.
“My god, you’re fluent!” shrieked my mother when she first visited.
“Ah yes, of course,” my father said, as if speaking Asian languages ran in the family genes (undoubtedly his side) despite the fact no one had ever even set foot in the place.
“Well, I get by,” I said, knowing that my honest response is assumed to be highly commendable modesty.

But, I know the truth, I’m a pidgin speaker, and there’ll have to be a lot more boring conversations for that to change anytime soon. Every language student needs repetition to achieve fluency. That’s what the 20 questions are all about – it’s show us what you can do. The less questions asked, the more likely it is you’re actually having a conversation.

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