HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, November 12, 2012

Failure to Communicate

I've documented in a few previous posts the frustration, and occasional hilarity, that accompanies trying to speak Vietnamese here. Last week though I had an encounter that was absolutely infuriating. After dodgeball  my local friend Thinh and I stopped by the sinh to (smoothie) stand on my street, which has to be one of the best in the city. We sat down and a middle-aged male worker came up and asked Thinh what he wanted. Then he pointed at me and asked Thinh what I wanted. I said sinh to xoai (mango smoothie) in perfectly understandable Vietnamese. He didn't even look at me. Instead he just focused on Thinh. I repeated myself, again to no reaction or response. Finally Thinh repeated it and he put in the order. It was late and I didn't want that much sugar in my drink, so I then called for it duong (little sugar), and once again the guy didn't even react. Thinh repeated what I said and he immediately took note of it.

I was furious. It wasn't that this guy didn't understand me, it's that he didn't even attempt to listen to me. He refused to even look my way. I don't know if it is laziness, xenophobia, blind ignorance, or lack of education, but this isn't an uncommon thing. A week ago my landlord stopped by to fix something and he brought his elderly father along. I asked the older man, in Vietnamese, if he wanted a glass of water, and there didn't seem to be any recognition that I was speaking his language.

I've talked to numerous Vietnamese people about this issue of locals (usually older) completely ignoring foreigners who are speaking their language, and the most common reason given is that they don't expect us to speak Vietnamese. This doesn't cut it for me. Yes, it is true that the wide majority of foreigners here speak little to no Vietnamese. But if I'm walking around some country where I don't expect to hear English and I suddenly hear someone speaking it I won't think, "Wow, what is that strange tongue? I'm going to ignore it." I'm going to notice it's my damn native language! I doubt I'll ever hear a satisfactory explanation for this problem.

It'a pathetic the way these people treat foreigners who move to Vietnam by choice and decide to try to learn the language by choice. Experiences like this make me wonder why I'm putting so much time and money into studying Vietnamese. I'm six months in and I can't even get someone to listen to me order a smoothie. The worst part is that the smoothie guy has no idea how much he angered me. He's just going to go on living in his narrow, provincial little world where someone with a white face can't possibly speak any Vietnamese.

16 comments:

  1. I've also been learning Vietnamese, for about 8 months now, and the same thing happens to me all the time. It's nice when you stumble on someone open-minded and curious at the fact that you're speaking some Vietnamese; it makes it totally worth going to all those classes. But more often than not, it ends up being frustrating.

    One tentative explanation I heard recently was that using full sentences can make a difference. I've tried to do it and I do seem to have a better time being understood. It's easy to say "mi xao bo" to a waitress but it makes me mad when they don't even understand such a simple thing. But then if I repeat with, "Anh muon mi xao bo voi tra da" for example, they get it.

    In any case, I don't think there's one single answer to that problem. It's just... crazy.

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    1. I've had people tell me to use full sentences as well, even though it doesn't seem like locals always use them when they order things. However the issue in this example wasn't that the guy didn't understand me, it's that he refused to even listen to me. It wouldn't have mattered what I said, it wasn't getting through.

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  2. I think you being with a vietnamese friend might also be a reason why you got treated that way. Try talking to locals and buying stuff in vietnamese without a vietnamese person with you. They would have no other option. Maybe locals just expect the vietnamese person to help you out or they are just more comfortable talking to someone vietnamese. Plus, foreigners might be intimidating to them. Well that's my thoughts, and looking forward to more stories on it!

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    1. All good points, thanks for you thoughts!

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  3. mike, you need to throw a "do ma" in there and then they'll listen.

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    1. I've certainly considered it a few times.

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  4. Stuttering off a few pidjin Vietnamese words to impress your boyfriend does not equal to a mastering of the language, so please layoff the "I'm being ignored by the rude locals" rants! OK?
    BTW, It's fucking rude to order things in such described manners EVERYWHERE!!! Try ordering something with just a word or two in a funky foreign accent next time you're in a Denny and see how well the waitress will treat you.

    @ Anon with the "do ma" advice: ĐỤ MÁ MÀY!

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    1. I love how the internet turns so many people into complete assholes. Despite the fact that you have no idea who I am you obviously have a great understanding of my level of Vietnamese. Dick.

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  5. I blame the French. You know how they are about their language. Guess, people over there picked up that bad habit too.
    All joking aside, I agree with what Manu and the first Anonymous said. Using full sentences will probably be more helpful or it'll lessen the assumption that you're throwing out random words without a clue. Secondly, even if your local friend has the worst Vietnamese ever spoken and you were perfectly fluent, he'd probably speak to your friend first. It's probably a bad habit.

    Also, don't mind what Robert said. He has poor English comprehension.Do keep in mind that Vietnam is still a developing country so don't expect too much cultural openness. We're just too used to the diversity over here in the good 'ol of USA.

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    1. Again, all very good points. At some point I will go out into the countryside on my own and force Vietnamese to be the language of communication.

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  6. First of all, I visit your blog at lease once a week to see if there is any update. I have been really enjoying reading your posts. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

    I do not know how well you speak Vietnamese. Just saying if we(Im Korean been living here for over 3years) are at the same level(frankly speaking, my Vietnamese would be better than yours though..lol), I would not be surprised to hear your story at all. Because, I also face the same situation all most everyday. However, I would not blame on people who do not understand even very simple words by my previous experience in another country. Here is my short story; I travelled Australia 6years ago , during the trip, I lost my mobile phone in Perth. Since my insurance was supposed to cover all my belongings as long as I present them appropriate documents. So I had to come to the police station nearby a guesthouse I stayed. The officer asked me what was the number I used and I said like 0123456789, but he did not even understand the single number I had repeated more than 3 times. I had to write down the numbers then. It was a small city and guess people their do not get used or never hear English in Asian accent.

    So my guess is he might not be noticed you spitted out some words in Vietnamese as most people are very pleased to hear some foreigners try to speak in their language. I do, I am not sure maybe some people don’t.

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    1. Thanks for the comment - and I'm glad you enjoy the blog. I don't mean to make it sound like Vietnam is the only country where this happens. I'm certain what happened to you in Australia has happened in the U.S. and other western countries. This is the first nation I've lived in other than America though, so I don't have anything to compare it to. Speaking a foreign language can be daunting, obviously we both know that - best of luck with your future efforts!

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  7. Michael,

    Please don't let a few local Viets discourage you from learning to speak Vietnamese language. I think you should continue to practice the language regardless of what they think or say. Proficiency in any foreign language require a fair amount of dedication and the willingness to learn.

    When you go back to the States for your holidays or wherever you are in the world, you will find us, the Vietnamese people, working and living abroad. We would be so delighted to converse with you in Vietnamese language.


    Maybe, one day, with your knowledge of the Viet people and the language, you will be our U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. What do you think of that idea?


    As always, thanks for posting and have a pleasant day.

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    1. Hey, thanks for your thoughts - though you should leave your name in the comment! I will certainly continue to learn and practice Vietnamese, this post wasn't about me giving up. I'm actually visiting home (New Orleans) for Christmas and I plan to use Vietnamese at the restaurants located there, we have a pretty large Viet community in the city. I'm curious to see how people will react. As for the idea of being ambassador - I've always wanted to work for the State Department, but it's a tough place to get a job at. And ambassadorships are often given as political favors - we'll see what happens though!

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  8. Maybe them ignoring you is a blessing in diguise. When i go to vietnam my family in vietnam usualy do the ordering purchasing to ensure i don't get hussle hahaha.. maybe they figure ooh man ! a foriegner and he speaks vietnamese double wammy ...can't hussle him so i'll ignore him ...

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    1. Haha - interesting theory, hadn't thought of that.

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