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Balancing a Language Barrier

Can Tho, Vietnam

by Lara Calloway

Having so often been blessed with others who speak English in my inter-cultural experiences, I often forget how difficult communication is without that unifying medium. I recently came to this obvious yet disappointing realization while sitting on a park bench in Can Tho, Vietnam with my traveling companion, Amy. After a few minutes, a group of young Vietnamese guys stumbled past us and presented us with the obligatory western wave and loud “Hello!” They laughed in amusement at our feeble attempts to respond back with “Seinciao!” and began to walk away, stopping every few steps to glance over their shoulders at the spectacle that was us.

Intent on doing something exciting, we caught up to them and with much hand gesturing and giggling, managed to work our way into their circle. They didn’t speak any English, and our Vietnamese was limited to “thank you”, “yes” and “no,” so we ran out of things to say to each other pretty quickly. (Later, I found out that we were mispronouncing “no” to instead say “pineapple,” so I guess a fair amount of their sniggering was justifiably held at our unknowing expense.)

vietnam boys

What we intended to be a fun exchange between newfound friends turned out to be a semi-embarrassing and rather pointless rendezvous with total strangers. They led us absently around the streets for a while before returning to the park where we met, looking around uncomfortably as if not sure where we came from. In The Other City of Angels, Ethnography with the Bangkok Police Eric J. Haanstad addresses the hindrances that spawn from his overwhelming feelings of incompetence in his own fieldwork in Bangkok, calling it “disadaptation syndrome.” A syndrome that in this case, I was certainly suffering from. I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the situation and I was starting to feel increasingly stupid for honestly believing that attempting to finagle around a colossal language barrier was going to be “something exciting.”

Feeling intrusive and awkward and with nothing left to do, we resorted to any form of communication we might have left, and started to do circus tricks for the three of them. I balanced in a handstand over Amy’s shoulders, and we locked legs to do a levitation trick. They clapped approvingly, but by their facial expressions and shared quiet murmurings, we could tell they were uncomfortable. They took the opportunity while we were off guard and upside-down in handstands to yell a hasty goodbye (I think?) before hopping on their bikes and jetting around the corner, finally rid of us.

Looking back, I might have done the same thing had I been assaulted and practically forced to hang around with two foreigners who alternated between saying “yes”, “thank you”, and “pineapple” to me. In fact, I’m positive I would have done the same thing. I realized then, more so than ever, the value of being multi-lingual, and the advantages, though not necessarily the requisite, of speaking the same language of those you are trying to interrelate with.

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