Linguistic Fun Park

February 27, 2007

Most travelers to SE Asia never learn any of the local language other than “Hello” and “Thank you.” Some may forward their language skills to “Sorry” and “How much?” but, in general, English is the langua franca between tourists and locals.

I can be counted amongst this group of the linguistically challenged. I would like to speak, of course. I just feel like a schmuck making the words come out of my mouth. With all of those tonals, the pronunciation is impossible! I’m the gringa, the gaijin, and, call it pride, but I hate that feeling.

My boyfriend, Shin, on the other hand, doesn’t. On our first day in Thailand, he bought a palm-sized South-East Asia phrasebook, which covers the basics of all the region’s languages, from Burmese to Vietnamese. He uses it with glee. Before we enter any new country, he’s already gotten the numeric system memorized. He knows how to say the requisite “Hello” and “Thank you.” He’s even tried to memorize the phrase “No MSG please,” but most of the time, that’s beyond his linguistic level.

Unlike me, Shin isn’t afraid to make an idiot of himself. Last night, we ate at a restaurant where there were no tourists. There was an English menu, but you can never make sense of them as they always translate the dishes to boring names like “pork on white rice” or “grilled chicken” when it’s really so much more. So he broke out the phrasebook, pointing to the translation for “What are your specialties?” Shin often gets mistaken for a local and I think they find it hilarious that someone who looks like them speaks such crap Vietnamese. In any case, our waitress was having the time of her life as we tried to order a hot-pot and a beer, finally taking it upon herself to be our teacher.

Mot beer, hai glass,” Shin says. One beer, two glasses.

Hai cai!” the waitress corrects him like a schoolmarm and runs off to get the glasses.

Our waitress was very concerned about us. We didn’t know how to eat the hot-pot, so she reappeared every few minutes, to put in more vegetables or drop in a bundle of noodles. Half-way through the meal, we wanted to express our gratitude and say that the food was delicious. Guong, in Vietnamese. Shin says “gong.”

“Gong?! Gong?!” our waitress repeats (Vietnamese people don’t really hide their confusion to spare the customer embarrassment.) Finally, she gets what we’re trying to say. Guong! Good!” And she cracks then up, goes off to the corner, and laughs with another waitress.

Shin asks for the bill, which he again pronounces wrong. The waitress hits his shoulder and corrects him. We spend two minutes practicing our Vietnamese intonation and then she disappears to get the check.

I admire Shin for his bravery. There are many backpackers who will risk grotty guesthouses and unknown food at the market. I’ve met very few who will risk the humiliation of butchering the local language. Embarrassment aside, the phrasebook has proved successful, even when we still can’t communicate. I think the locals appreciate our effort. It lightens the mood and prepares everyone involved for a linguistic roller-coaster ride.

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