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Vietnamese Pie-Plate to the Face

Amy Dewitt

Communication as an Art

I do not speak Vietnamese.  I prided myself in scribbling down four sheets of phrases and words and quickly referring to it on a regular basis – the pages began to recognize their creases and folds, wearing thin.  I was not even concerned about the time it took for me to reach into my pocket, flip through, skim, flip over, skim, and then respond with so much enthusiasm that my response was too muffled to understand.  The concept of communication is exciting, but these travel plans are so puddle-jumped that fluency is not a reasonable goal, but what do four pages really offer me?  I realized that I had specific restrictions that I couldn’t salve in a matter of five days.  My muteness expanded beyond language and spanned into absent-mindedness on our countries’ historical relations as well.  When communication is teetering at the edge of grasping and utter confusion, alternatives to language rise to the occasion…but I didn’t walk into these foreign lands with that confidence; it came unexpectedly and out of necessity.Farmer band

     1) The Mekong Delta held such life and beauty.  Nature has no issue with intercultural communication; it spoke loud and clear.  I stayed in a river village with 18 other SAS members, sleeping under mosquito nets in a house on stilts.  They performed for us – a band of local farmers.  They were bright-eyed, smiley and barefoot, giggling spirit bouncing off of giggling spirit.  Afterward I tried to tell them, “I am very happy” in Vietnamese – Toy shien shien – quite unsuccessfully, but maybe my own sparkly eye and toothy grin said something. 

     2) Sitting in a Can Tho park late in the evening, a group of young teenage boys walked past a friend and I.  We sent out a Xin chao to them, and they quickly assumed we had a whole lexicon of Vietnamese waiting to be spilled out into conversation.  They motioned for us to come with them; we followed.  They didn’t speak English, and we definitely didn’t speak Vietnamese.  What next?  Each group frantically searched for alternative forms of communication.  They used hand signals to invite us to dinner.  We used our fingers to share our ages.  We walked the streets, and both groups filled the silence with songs from our own cultures and used varying levels and degrees of giggles and laughter as another form of communication. 

Last, and the most exciting and intuitive of the night when Vietnam boysall else failed, all other sources of communication utilized, and we lingered on the dock in further silence, my friend and I circus balanced.  It was our parting words without words, a parting performance to their utter flabbergasted amazement.  Maybe it was ridiculous, maybe it set their minds a-reelin’, but we shared pieces of ourselves stretching over boundaries without ever sharing a word.  It was genuine, a pure mingling of cultures. 

Vietnam for Dessert

I left heart and soul in Vietnam.  It was for such a short time – only five days – but I soaked up as much genuine spirit as I possibly could.  The country and the people are engraved into my mind as “beautiful,” without any question.  Why did this infatuation come from this place?  Through the lens of a half-empty cup: Vietnam is a jungle of relentless humidity, overgrown vegetation, crowded waterways, dangerously chaotic roads, poverty, pollution, and cat-sized rats that rule the city streets.  I have visited other countries that have the same conditions, but the impression has not been as deep.  Why Vietnam?

Vietnam force-fed me the largest does of honesty that I have had in a long time.  It was a pie-plate to the face; the jaded perception that I have been bumpered into accepting put me in a very jolting situation in this country.  I remembered teachers intentionally skipping over sections in our history books on Vietnam and the war.  I knew people that fought in the war but were in no state to offer an explanation.  While America had turned the “Vietnam War” into a commodity not long after the fighting ceased, Vietnam only recently hopped onto the tourism bandwagon, raising many American hackles with this new image of an “American War.”  Christina Schwenkel illustrates this difference in perspective in her article, “Recombinant History: Transnational Practices of Memory and Knowledge Production in Contemporary Vietnam.”  Since this commodification Americans have been reintroduced to wartime vernacular, geographical sites, and reopened (often unwillingly) their eyes to a new side of the war that for many did not exist prior.  I knew nothing of the two countries’ history together, and I don’t believe I am alone; I think this ignorance is common amongst Americans.  I believe that the view of the “Vietnam War” by Americans is archaic and slow to change

PollutionI lacked any form of intercultural communication with Vietnam prior to landing on the shores of Saigon.  I was a clean slate.  This allowed me to be wide-eyed and perceptive, unbiased and welcoming.  I was overwhelmed with a freshness – even amongst filth and poverty – that I have never found anywhere else.  My pre-determined ignorance only opened up my heart and mind when I was thrown into the Vietnamese culture; I had no choice.  My communicational skills, even on a personal level of understanding an intercultural relationship, were honed by simply being – just being.  A country that seems to continue on as usual – hustling and bustling at full speed all around me – communicated its beauty through the thickness of pollution and humidity and showed me the truth about misconception.
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