HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why aren't you listening to me?

Saigon is a gold mine for humorous interactions with employees of restaurants, offices, clothing stores, etc. Whether it is their inexperience in the service industry, the language barrier, nervousness when dealing with foreigners, or some combination of the three, utterly baffling interactions are quite common. This isn't a complaint, as such experiences are the source of good stories.

On Sunday night I went to Tokyo Deli for dinner with four friends, one of whom is Vietnamese-American. As we approached the door a staffer opened it for us. I was the first one in and she asked, "How many people?" I said "nam", five in Vietnamese. She reacted to that with a look of revulsion, as if I had just vomited on her face.

Befuddled, I then said "five". She still had the facial expression of someone who had just been traumatized, so I said "five" again, though a little softer and a little slower. Then she saw my Vietnamese-American friend walk in and proceeded to sprint to her while I kept vainly repeating "Five. Nam. Five. Nam." in the background. My friend finally got through to the young woman that there were five of us, and asked in Vietnamese, "Why didn't you listen to him?" She sputtered and told us to go upstairs.

I still have absolutely no idea why she was unable to process what I was saying, but my friends and I had a good laugh about it once we were seated. Getting ignored in two languages takes some effort.

8 comments:

  1. LOL Michael! Or it would be if it weren't so exasperatingly TRUE!

    g-knows of all the countries I've traveled/lived in, the dear Vietnamese hold a candle to none (even the French!) when it comes to persistently ignoring most any attempt by foreigners to speak the local language.

    I've long given them the benefit of the doubt, and excused their condescending ways as but their shy means of not wanting to embarrass us/themselves because they don't understand what we're so earnestly trying to blather (in a language I might add, that has no fewer than six different nuanced tones).

    But "nam" is "nam" is "nam" - pretty tough to get it wrong. So what are we to make of such blatant contempt?

    I dunno. But I recently had a conversation on this very subject with another expat blogger (coincidentally a Vietnamese-American) here Vietnam, and we both concluded that - one of the things we LIKE about Vietnam, is that the locals don't fawn all over foreigners like some other Asian nations we could mention. Rather - in Vietnam, foreigners/tourists are pretty much viewed as a barely tolerated NUISANCE! ;)

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    1. I've never heard a convincing argument as to why many Vietnamese are so unwilling to try to understand foreigners speaking Vietnamese. People have told me they don't want to lose 'face' by not understanding someone, or that they just expect foreigners to speak English, but I don't buy either of those. You would think having more people speaking (or at least trying to speak) their language would be seen as a good thing...apparently not.

      I agree that it is nice to not constantly be obsessed over, but foreigners still attract plenty of attention sometimes. Thanks for the comment!

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  2. This is so sad yet so funny at the same time. Maybe the waitress only knew that one phrase? How about next time, just open your palms, point to it and say five. I'm guessing these people can count right?

    Speaking as a Vietnamese- American, Vietnamese people are generally very nice but when it comes to language, they beat the French by far in condescension. If you think it's tough for white folks or foreigners in general, it's even harder for us 2nd generation people. You can't begin to imagine the things I am able to understand both good, and not so good.

    This happened to my cousin once. So, we went to this Vietnamese restaurant to celebrate I don't know what kind of party, and he decides to order some soda in Vietnamese, and since his Vietnamese is shaky (he can understand it) but not speak it well, the waiter just basically ignored him twice. We waited for 20 minutes and still no soda. I had to finally order for him and the service was faster ( well, still slow but faster than when he ordered) and lo and behold, our drinks came.

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    1. Normally I would've just used five fingers to indicate that, but I was so confused by her confusion that I wasn't sure how to react.

      I've heard that it can be really rough for Viet Kieu, that's a real shame. Of course, the worst part about this for me is that I've been taking Vietnamese lessons for over 4 months now. I can form fairly complex sentences when I put my mind to it, so having someone not understand possibly the easiest-to-pronounce number just dumbfounded me.

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    2. As a Viet-Kieu, I can definitely confirm this. And I swear my Vietnamese is near perfect sometimes (confirmed by many people). I think the hint of a foreign accent paired with an Asian face sometimes just begs rude responses from some people. It's been intimated to me that aside from interactions that resulted in genuine confusion, it sometimes is what I fear most: the person is actually deliberately misunderstanding me as a thinly-veiled insult.

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  3. I had the same problem during my years in China. I like to think that I can speak intermediate conversational Mandarin, yet I still constantly ran into people (usually middle-aged and old people) who would absolutely refuse to understand the words coming out of mouth. And I know my tones were usually perfect too. Those moments would always crush the little confidence I had and discourage me from studying Mandarin any longer, yet I always managed to convince myself to keep studying. It really sucks that people can't meet you halfway, even when you know you're speaking their language almost perfectly.

    One thing I learned in China is that whenever I said just one word, like "five," people sometimes wouldn't understand me, even if my tones were perfect. However, if I said a whole sentence like, "A table for five please," people were more likely to understand me. I guess when they hear the word in question being used in context they can figure it out.

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    1. Your first paragraph is exactly how I feel. Next time I'll try to use a full sentence and see what happens.

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    2. But of course that method will only work if the Vietnamese person is actually willing to try to understand a foreigner speaking Vietnamese (regardless of how good you're Vietnamese is).

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