Hear, Say

After David arrived in September, we searched for a house to rent in the Old Quarter, the cobblestoned square of alleys close enough to the Saigon River that it is full of Naval officers and their families, and just a long enough walking distance from the city core that it is buffered from the thrum of tourists. In a wren of spindly, winding walkways, we found a three-story concrete row house newly painted a pale yellow, with two bathrooms and bedrooms, furnished with a pleather settee, carved wooden beds and a clothes washer, an amenity only found in houses on one side of the alley, the side that expats rented. Eight feet away, across the alley, were older, squat two-story structures with darker rooms and no air-conditioning, where some of the landlords and many naval families lived. Echoes of clanging cooking pots, scraping chairs, and arcs of conversation ricocheted down the air corridor between the alley walls, hitchhiking one on top of another with such fidelity that it was impossible to tell if a spousal argument we heard was happening next door or eight houses away.

An implicit set of expectations ruled decorum between Vietnamese and expats in the neighborhood. The Europeans, Australian-New Zealanders, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Americans would behave as became the moneyed and privileged, divulge the minimum amount of information necessary about their professional activities or other sources of their livelihood, and serve as an important revenue source by hiring locals to buy and cook their food, chauffeur their children, clean their rented homes, serve as interpreters. In exchange, the Vietnamese would honor a respectful distance, exercise discretion, offer small but useful tips on how to navigate the bureaucracy required for amenities like Internet access, and not go out of their way to cause legal troubles with the authorities.

We violated all these expectations. We swept our own floors and walked laundry up to the washing machine on the roof, where we hung clothes to dry.  We snuck out discretely to get street food and a few cheap restaurant meals a week, and otherwise bought and cooked our own food. I didn’t want to forfeit my trips to the local markets, my thrice weekly opportunity to trigger childhood smell memories and an explorer’s sense of triumph, fingering vegetables with unfamiliar skin textures, ogling open basketfuls of giant prawns, squirming eels, or indulging in a different permutation of che, a snack-in-a-glass, layered with the customer’s individual selections of preserved fruit, sweet beans, flavored tapiocas, all to be stirred into a primordial sludge with ice chips and coconut milk.

To our neighbors, these lapses in etiquette served as invitation. Chi Huong, the plump naval housewife across the alley from us, first sent over her pert four year-old to investigate. Quynh was a similarly large cheeked, audacious package, just one-fifth the size. The hair was cut pixie-style, the clothes usually plain shorts and box cut shirt, dusty from play dirt, the short body stocky with muscles, and because the name was androgynous and the voice somewhat husky, it was several weeks before we could determine with confidence that it was a girl and not a boy. She quickly fell in love with David, grabbing the broom and dustpan out of my hands to sweep the floor to impress him, pushing her way to his side at the laptop to point and question him about what was on the screen. He practiced his new Vietnamese with her, to her delight. This language is harder than I thought, he said at the end of an afternoon visit from Quynh. That’s because she’s sometimes speaking gibberish to you, I retorted, she’s four.

Within a few days, Chi Huong herself padded over in flip flops to survey my kitchen, the books and important looking reports on our coffee table, the laptops with their black rats’ tail adapters. She hid nothing in her punchy smile and unapologetically Northern accent, loudly peppering conversation with questions about my que huong (ancestral village), our salaries (in Vietnam and the United States, before and after taxes), telephone habits, what our parents did for a living, whether my siblings had married Vietnamese, how much we paid for rent, and making cheerful observations about the unfamiliar brands of soy sauce and odd cardboard cereal boxes on our shelves. Then, having politely excused herself as I put out dishes for dinner, she would efficiently and silently transmit the new intelligence to all of her girlfriends in the neighborhood. She’s not here or there (north or south), I imagined her saying, the accent is all muddy.

The exchange was minimally symmetric. Chi Huong revealed that her husband was a naval officer, but nothing about the family she left in the North. She volunteered his official monthly salary, but nothing about the rental income they or their neighbors collected from expats. And privacy or embarrassment kept her from ever inviting us into her house, though she would come to meet us on the stoop every time we stepped out or arrived back from errands.

To help penetrate the unsaid, and feel marginally competent in professional conversations, we each registered for private language classes at the university. By luck of the draw, David was assigned a young woman barely out of her teens from Hue, who preferred to come to our house twice each week, and who, having roots in the geographic and figurative center of the country, seemed to harbor neither love nor hate of the Americans who paid her nor the conquering northerners. Typical Hue, Chi Huong said, not unapprovingly, of her diligence, modest attire, willowy figure, and high cheekbones. David did not seem at all to mind spending hours dissecting his teacher’s heavy accent, where every tone is practically turned upside down.

I, on the other hand, was assigned to a stern marm from Hanoi who insisted on meeting on campus. She sat across a desk from me, always impeccably dressed in chic silk blouses and a bomber jacket, her face framed darkly by a severe bob, and led me through brisk oral exercises that always seemed to circle back to comparisons between America and Vietnam. Americans love pop music and movies but they have to borrow culture from elsewhere; Vietnamese have thousands of years of literature and history. Americans expect everything to be fast; Vietnamese are much more willing to work hard and wait to see the fruits of their labors. I focused on new vocabulary but could not stop my irritation from spilling over.  I see so much in Vietnam that is unique and beautiful. Why do Vietnamese not believe it?  She did not even seem startled by my challenge. Isn’t your husband named David? Don’t you remember David and Goliath? Why should David have believed that he could defeat a monster so much larger and mightier than him?

She redirected me to the short essay I had written for homework and began redlining my awkward grammar. Chi (Miss), she said, when you speak Vietnamese it sounds natural, but not when you write it.

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