Language Barrier

Asia sometimes feels like a wall of incomprehension, a collection of impenetrable languages. After almost a month here, I still don't speak more than a few words of Vietnamese (coffee, beer, noodle soup, my repertoire is exhausted). It is disorienting to pass day after day in streets filled with language that I can only register as noise, and I'm in awe of travel writers who spin compelling and informative narratives out of experiences lived surrounded by alien tongues. Writing about Latin America seems so much more natural to me, as a spanish speaker, than trying to decipher what is going on beneath the surface of a place like Vietnam. Still, one can't learn the language of every single place one visits before writing about it.

A couple of my recent posts have suggested (at least to me, and perhaps to close readers, if I have any) that Vietnam is all go, go, go, a country brimming with youth and focussed on the future, the streets teeming with motorbikes, an avalanche of free enterprise, the war a distant memory. It is an easy impression to get, and without language it might be difficult to get any other. But it isn't altogether correct, especially the last point.

Be clear that the language barrier is the traveller's problem. The dilemma is that to experience "the real Vietnam," one needs to avoid the tourist enclaves, where the English-speaking Vietnamese are gathered, making money by speaking English. The people one meets with whom communication is easy are almost certainly in the tourism business. They are guides, travel agent operators, hotel desk clerks, and the odd exile or emigrant, returned for a visit. But in avoiding them, communication becomes limited to gestures, a pantomime routine of eating, sleeping, and laundering. So one has to take one's stories where one finds them.

At the Cat Tien National Park canteen, a brief conversation with a tour guide on his lunch break starts when he asks me how long I have been in the park. Four days, I say. He looks Vietnamese, but his English is so good he might be a tourist.

"Where are you from?" I ask, just in case. I had embarrassed myself minutes earlier by asking four Taiwanese birdwatchers, one of whom attended Stanford, if they were Japanese.

"I'm from Saigon." Nobody calls it Ho Chi Minh City, except government officials. "You?"

"New York, America."

"I ask my people where they are from, and they say they are British, but on my paperwork it says they are American." I understand he is talking about his clients. "They like to look at birds."

"They lied to you about where they are from? Why would they do that?" (I have yet to meet anyone in Vietnam who resents me for being American.)

"Maybe they are British, but they work or live in the USA, sometimes it is like that. That's all."

"Maybe. You have a tour company?"

"I take the permit from my friend. Once, I had my own tour company. But, too much politics. I don't like. I know politics. After the war I was sent into exile."

He looks my age, with just a few gray hairs on his well-combed black head. But he is almost ten years older: "I joined the army when I was eighteen," he says. "I wanted to make the change to the Air Force, and become a pilot."

This was in 1972, when joining the South Vietnamese armed forces already must have looked like a bad idea on the ground. It would have required a certain amount of optimism. Youthful enthusiasm, perhaps. I don't say so though, for there is something odd and pointed in his delivery. He has slipped with an ease uncharacteristic of the people here into a sort of war memorial mode, without any real prompting from me.

"A tiny, dark room," he says. "No support. Shackles on my ankles. Eat. Sleep. Toilet. No food." He gestures to the miniature dish on the table into which one pours a personal serving of soy-sauce as a condiment. "Rice. One bowl, a little bit bigger than this, every day. All the time dark."

"You mean something like internal exile," I say. "Where were you?"

"Mekong Delta region," he says. "Prison."

Prison can be a metaphor for exile, but he means, quite plainly, that he was in prison. It is particular tragedy when the darkest days of a life are forever remembered as the most profound. My friend has slipped so easily into a terrible reverie, thirty-five years later.

"How long were you in exile?"

"Nine months. I shrink. My stomach shrink. I get thin. Before, I used to eat. I liked to eat. Now, still, I eat little." He points to his half eaten lunch of instant noodles. "I am full."

"No support," he says again, "no support at all," and I understand why his clients might have claimed to be British.

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