I spent one year in Southeast Asia -Vietnam. It was an incredible experience that made me want to go back for more. Here are three things you will experience while in Nam.
1.- Not a laughing matter: Do not laugh when they tell you their favorite food is dog. No, seriously. I was teaching English in Vietnam and one day I decided to do favorites (colors, places, foods, etc.), so I asked my students to tell me their favorite ________________ (fill in the blank). All was good until I asked about food; what’s your favorite food? I asked. Suddenly I had a bunch of eager little hands up in the air saying: Dog, teacher dog! I laughed out loud because of course this was a joke, right? But I ended up laughing alone when I encountered clueless little faces looking at me and my bursting. Ok, this is Asia, I get it, we eat cows and pigs in the West, they eat dog here. Fine. By the way, that kid in the picture, that’s my son about to eat a fried iguana. It tasted just like chicken!
2.- Learn the real meaning of “yes”: This one is like a Facebook relationship -complicated. Yes means no and no means no but only when no is not too impolite.
I was looking to rent a three-bedroom apartment and saw a real estate agency ad on the paper for a two-bedroom. The following conversation was me trying to find out if they also had three-bedroom units available.
“Is that two-bedroom unit all you have or you also have three bedrooms?” I asked.
“Yes.” The guy on the phone replied.
“So you don’t have any three-bedroom units?”
“Ok, is it a two or a three-bedroom apartment?” me exasperated now.
“Ok, thank you.”
I never really found out whether they had two or three or both. The thing is that there’s not double negation in Vietnam so that yes when trying to say no is confusing, especially if you’re trying to avoid instant death when driving a motorbike in chaotic traffic. Also, culturally speaking, Vietnamese people tend to shy away from saying no, it’s perceived as impolite.
3.- You look like a pork chop: That’s exactly what you will say when trying to compliment your neighbor speaking the local tongue. Vietnamese is extremely difficult to learn, it’s a tonal language as difficult as Chinese so you run the risk of looking like a giant squid if you say something right after swallowing saliva, breathing air or blinking your eyes. I was given the Vietnamese name of -Binh An- by my students which when pronounced correctly means “peace”. I thought it was a beautiful way to introduce myself in Vietnamese. “Hi, I’m Peace.” What they didn’t tell me is that when mispronounced, it could mean a bunch of stuff including “selfish”. So I am running around showing off my newly acquired language skills and introducing myself as “Toi la Binh An” only to be really saying, “Hi, I’m Selfish.” At least I made a bunch of people laugh. Vietnam, I love you.