Uncontained Rants...

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Lovestruck in Vietnam

As the wind whips through my hair, I cling on tightly to his waist. He turns around and as his gaze meets mine, it’s as if time has frozen—this moment to be captured for eternity. Yeah right. Reality comes reeling back as we look up, realizing that we’re slowly veering to the right. It’s fear that takes my breath away as the headlights illuminate the pole just as we plow into it. The bike topples over with us on it, and I’m thrown off the rear as my things go flying in every direction. Dazed and confused, we pick ourselves up with minor scratches and bruises. After sheepishly stumbling back onto the motorbike, we head home. I’m sitting on the back of my Vietnamese boyfriend’s xe may (motorbike), it’s 2am, and I sit back thinking, “How the heck did I get here?”

Well, “here” would be Hanoi and “getting here” would have been by way of the fall 2003 Education Abroad Program in Vietnam. Along with 22 other college students, I had arrived in Hanoi for four months of intensive language and cultural studies that included trips throughout the country. It had been 2 months since my arrival, and more than anything, I’d learned that when it came to my experience in Vietnam, I should expect the unexpected.

Before coming to Hanoi for the program, I received mixed opinions about my stay in the capital city. It was either, “Wow, that’ll be a great opportunity!” or “You’re going to Hanoi?!” (insert laughter here), the latter being made predominantly by my fellow Vietnamese Americans. Quite honestly, I had no idea what to make of Hanoi. I seriously thought I’d be spending my days wading knee-deep in rice paddies. “Don’t come back with a husband!” my friends teased me as I merely rolled my eyes. The reality was that each day would serve to change my preconceptions about Vietnamese life and culture, even an aspect I’d least expect to experience firsthand--dating and relationships.

From the moment I walked out of Noi Bai Airport into the thick mid-summer humidity, I knew I would stick out like a sore thumb. Looking around, any hopes I had of being slightly inconspicuous were dashed. I didn’t fit in. The clothes I wore, the way I talked, the fact that I was twice the size of the average Vietnamese woman, and the fact that I was the only girl outside on a sunny day without a hat, sunglasses, face scarf and elbow-length gloves. And if its one thing I thought I knew for certain, it’s that I wouldn’t be meeting the love of my life in Vietnam. Well, I didn’t. Born and raised in California, I’ve been known to proclaim that I’d never date a Vietnamese guy, for the sole reason that I’m just “too Americanized”. Thus, I’d be the first to rationalize that not fitting in would make it virtually impossible for me to meet someone, in Vietnam, no less.

After 2 months in Hanoi, I had nearly come to the conclusion that all Vietnamese men were chain smoking-beer guzzling-womanizers. To be honest, many of them were. (I’m not a man-hater, I promise) So, who would have guessed that I’d get involved with someone in Vietnam? But like I said, some things just can’t be expected. I can honestly say that it was hip-hop that ushered in the unforeseen when I met a local DJ, Anh Viet. He was a pure-bred Hanoi boy, thick Northern accent and all, with an affinity for Western pop culture. Did I ever think I’d meet a guy in Vietnam with a love for hip hop as great as my own? I was swept. After getting over the initial giddiness of a new relationship, the reality slowly set in, and I was faced with my initial challenge: the language barrier. I can speak, read and write Vietnamese on a manageable-slightly-higher-than-primary level, but there’s something about actually holding a full-length conversation in Vietnamese that completely stumped me in those first few months.

Case in point: It had been a week or so since I started hanging out with Anh Viet, and I was becoming more aware that something was missing from our relationship. Normally outspoken and talkative, I realized I was consistently at a loss for words in our conversations. My language deficiencies had rendered me speechless—quite literally. As he rambled on and on about the Pink Floyd video we were watching, I found that all I could do was smile and nod. Just smile and nod. Repeat. I was becoming that reserved, passive woman of few words I had so defiantly tried to resist becoming for the past 21 years! My smile remained frozen as my mind raced and my heartbeat accelerated. A thousand and one words swirled in my head, a barrage of thoughts, opinions, ideas and one-liners. The only problem was—they were all in English! Translate. Translate, I thought. What’s that word? How do I say that? After a few minutes, his expression turned into puzzlement as he stared at my zombie-like daze. “All you’re doing is nodding. You’re not saying anything”, he said. The frantic voice in my head shouted, “I KNOW!!” but my feeble voice could only say, “Well, that’s because I agree with what you’re saying”. Somewhat satisfied with my explanation, he got up to change the music. I slumped in my seat, exhausted by the linguistic onslaught that had just occurred in my head.

For the next few days, I pondered my dilemma. Meeting this guy was great. I was eager to find out more about his life, his interests, and his views from growing up in a country so different from my own. This window of opportunity, albeit unexpected, was something I couldn’t pass up. But, my frustration was that there was so much I wanted to talk to him about but I couldn’t find the exact words to convey my thoughts and opinions. Every conversation involved me flipping through the filo-fax of Vietnamese words in my head to piece together some sort of coherent sentence. My attempts to engage in any kind of conversation beyond the usual formalities became warped. It was as if some curse had wickedly disabled my ability to make sense in Vietnamese. I didn’t want to come off as the one-dimensional personality my side of our conversations was showing and my limitations were driving me crazy. I finally summed up the courage to talk to him about this.

Thinking about what words I could use to most accurately communicate my feelings consumed my thoughts all day. Later that night when he was dropping me off at home, I tried my best to explain my unresponsiveness in what seemed like four complete sentences. Before I even finished my thoughts, he smiled and put his arm around me. “Don’t worry, I know. It’s ok”, he assured me. And that was it. Breathing a sigh of relief, I felt like this huge weight had been lifted. The disparities in our respective languages would soon lessen. After a few weeks of classes and the fact that I was forced to speak more Vietnamese on a daily basis than I ever had before, my Vietnamese speech patterns reached some degree of normalcy.

It would be two months later when I boarded a plane to go back to the States. Leaving with a slightly ambiguous definition of our relationship and a treasure trove of memories, I waved goodbye to Anh Viet and the many friends I had met in the last four months. Sitting on the plane, I closed my eyes and thought about that sweaty afternoon when I first arrived in Hanoi. I was so sure that I would have it all figured out and that four months would give me a chance to scrutinize and affirm my assumptions on gender issues, youth identity, politics, and even dating and relationships. But, I realized that my notions on these aspects of life in Vietnam had been challenged—I found myself in a semi-normal dating relationship in Vietnam and in the midst of it, the differences that I thought would never allow me to “fit in” became dwarfed by the commonalities. Obviously, my experience was that of a privileged American student in Vietnam, but the friendships I made showed me that for some of Vietnam’s urban young adults, like me, they were just trying to get by, dealing with parental pressures to “succeed”, wanting to fit in, and pursue their ambitions. By the time the plane took off, I could see that the differences that loomed so large when I first arrived were merely footnotes in my larger experience. I smiled as I thought that perhaps it took a fleeting encounter with a street pole on a xe may for me to come to terms with that.


  • Interesting. Very touching. And amazingly, I understood it all. Mine was also 4 mos, but it was in Germany. But one day, I promised myself, when time grants, I will do it in VN.

    By Blogger JuLie, at 12:21 AM  

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