Dear Princess Celestia,
CC: Anyone else reading my blog.
So I’m a week into my course now, more than one seventh of the way to magic Vietnamese fluency. Or something like that. Between work, classes, minimal homework, and an annoying head-cold, I’ve been pretty much flat out, which is lucky as I don’t have any other plans or commitments. (Or none I can’t procrastinate away, rather)
Magic Kindergarten has been an interesting experience. As a mature-age student at the ANU, I was generally taking classes where the lecturers were pretty senior, and therefore much older than me. However, here I’m confronted with the fact that as a foreign-language student (equivalent of the English course at ANUTech, I guess) I’m actually working with fairly junior teachers. Specifically, junior to me. My oldest teacher is three years younger than me, and the youngest is… well I suspect she’s actually only just graduated from my current creepy dating range. (Bet that’s not how you thought that sentence was going to end…) This actually caused my one main personal pronouns flub, as I hadn’t realised she was my teacher, and called her “em”. In my defense, she’d called me “anh” and herself “em” first, so I took my cue from that. That’s been the weirdest part, actually, as my main technique for dealing with personal pronouns was to simply guess until the native-speaker used some, and reflect them. Apparently that’s not a viable strategy.
For people who aren’t familiar with Vietnamese personal pronouns (like myself ^_^), the system is generally age-based: people your age and older up to your father’s age are “anh” and “chị“, people younger than you are “em” and people older than your father are “ông” and “bà“. There’s a couple of exceptions to the age rules, such as “thầy” for male teachers, “cô” for female teachers and women slightly older than your father whom you think it would be safer to call “auntie” than “grandmother”. I’m not sure exactly how that last one works, I think it’s supposed to be for unmarried women only, but I call my landlady cô when I can bring myself to vocalise properly and she seems to get a laugh out of it. The age rules also have more complications, e.g., apparently my friend’s eventual children will be “anh” and “chị” to his younger brother-in-law’s already born child as the parent’s ages override the children’s.
To complicate things a little further, I was taught in class that one’s self is “tôi” until one is close to someone, in which case you refer to yourself as they would refer to you, and vice versa. I believed that was keyed off the more senior person using the personal pronoun for themselves, but haven’t really tried that out. So far I’m sticking with “tôi” for everyone I meet here who hasn’t told me to use the personal pronoun. (Which has actually been no-one here, but certainly my bilingual friends have told me to use the personal pronoun from the outset. It doesn’t clarify matters that I’m “anh” to pretty much all of them, limiting my sample size.) I’ll take a being deliberately a little stand-off-ish over unintentionally insulting for now. Call it a little “Gaijin Smash” if you like.
Here’s a “primer” on Vietnamese personal pronouns if the above wasn’t clear.
I’ll gladly receive corrections to the above in the comments, of course.
Speaking of Gaijin Smash, one of my lecturers was telling me that one of his students used to get out of traffic fines and such by simply repeating “I don’t understand” in Korean until the officer gave up. However, many police officers now speak English, so I can’t really rely on that technique, and I doubt I’d get away with it if I tried Korean. Apparently French might work unless I get an older police officer. If anyone knows the Gaelic expression for “I don’t understand. Do you speak Gaelic” feel free to post in the comments? Perhaps wildly mispronouncing “I don’t understand Vietnamese” in Vietnamese will work. “Thuy khon hieeeuuuuu thing Vietnam”. Actually, simply trying to say that normally would probably be enough to warm them off.
If any Vietnamese police officers are reading this, this is of course hypothetical.
I briefly considered explaining the term “Gaijin Smash” to my lecturer, but decided against it. We lost enough time trying to explore the abstract concept of “half-past”. It seems Vietnamese doesn’t have such a concept, but does contain a grammar rule that depends on it. (The correct use of “kém” in reading time) Another longer-than-expected discussion was “a little far” being not quite as far as “far” in Vietnamese, while meaning “just too far” in (Australian) English. I don’t know if this is direct translation (“hơi” is the adverb “a little”) or if that’s a different English dialect. This turned into a discussion of Australian indirect expressions (“How are you?” “Not bad”; “How was the test?” “Not great”) which at the time seemed related, but on reflection, maybe not.
So… back to Magic Kindergarten.
It’s Kindergarten because the first lesson was dedicated to my placement test. I did so poorly and slowly on it that my second lesson (and the homework inbetween) was also spent on the placement test. That’s not encouraging. I described myself as being sent back to magic kindergarten because I was initially enrolled for level B, but am currently “reviewing” the level A-2 book. The fact that all my lecturers are younger than me didn’t become apparently until later in the week. I don’t know if I’m psychic, lucky, or if the universe really does rearrange itself to match my subconscious. In which case I need to have a few discreet words with my subconscious on a number of topics.
I guess University’s not Magic. But certainly Vietnam is. I kept telling people that I was coming here because simply from sheer population size, there are as many attractive young women in Vietnam as there are women in Australia. Turns out I was actually right about this; which is a bit of a surprise ’cause I was simply covering the fact that I didn’t have a good reason to be here. I have several poor reasons, so I’m relying on the aggregate. Think of it as a motivation bubble, where I rebundle bad reasons until they look like they’re worth a single good reason, and then sell it to someone who is being insufficiently critical. This is one aspect of reality my subconscious has done a terrific job of, no complaints at all.
And everyone’s so industrious, I don’t feel so bad being a workaholic. I dunno what my landlords do during the day (they’re usually out) but given the huge amount of UPSes and Huawei equipment in an insulated and shielded room on the roof, and the two company signs on the door, I suspect there’s two or three businesses going on here. Particularly when every bedroom in my home has a LAN cable, and when I pointed out that the one in my room had been cut off, the “son-in-law who speaks English” (Mr Quy) produced a crimping tool and RJ-45 cable head and expected that I’d know how to use them.
Having done this, and bought a USB multi-card reader to read the CF card driving my Alix 2c2 router, I installed OpenWRT on it and now have a private WiFi network in my room. And decently fast Internet, even if Facebook is DNS-blocked. (But Google’s DNS service is not. If you’re a Vietnamese official from the relevant ministry or bureau of public safety, that’s hypothetical.) So now I’m no longer paying $1 per 40MB for 3G data.
It probably reflects my poor communication skills that I got my Internet connection because I was trying to borrow a screwdriver. ^_^
Nonetheless, that particular interaction as well as the discovery of a street full of computer shops nearby cheered me up quite a lot. A belly full of Cháo and nem chua rán helped too. I’d been feeling rather down that morning (partly because I’d just discovered the night before that I’d misread the above-mentioned 3G data plan, and partly because of the heavy cold I was suffering) but by the end of the day, being back on the Internet for real, I was feeling much more like I had arrived somewhere magical.
Then again, perhaps it’s simply that a sufficiently different culture is indistinguishable from magic?
For those who don’t consider the mere ability to walk down the street and be stared at by attractive women to be magical, there’s also the fact that I can buy Steam games at US prices on my Australian credit card. So hit me up if you want something gifted, for a small appreciation. ^_^
If none of the above strikes you as magical, or at least amusing, you might be at the wrong blog. Or you’re hoping to hear me report about the magic of friendship, in which case you’ll have to wait for a later post, as I’ve experiments to run, there is research to be done, and a forgotten but returning ancient evil to thwart.
tl;dr: I feel FANTASTIC and I’m still alive.
Your Faithful Student, TBBle.