I will always remember when Vu, our program coordinator, told us that if we get hit by a motorbike, we should just brush it off and let it go. Some more random stories that will make you say #onlyinvietnam:
The people of Vietnam are warm and welcoming, generous and kind, caring and compassionate, but also diverse and unique as well. It's impossible to generalize the social practices of a whole country accurately and completely, but with the help of our Vietnamese roommates and buddies, we've started to delineate some key differences in how people interact in Vietnam vs. America.
At this point in time, I'm at my aunt's beautiful Delaware beach house overlooking the Atlantic and I could not be more shocked with the differences in my environment now and just a week ago. Starting today, this will be a short series compiling anecdotes and miniature analyses on cultural differences between Vietnam and the United States.
One of the most clear, and sometimes frustrating, differences between American and Vietnamese culture has been the issue of personal space. In America, people are expected to maintain and respect a bubble of personal space. But in Vietnam, this concept just doesn't really exist. Motorbikers will park right in front of you, pedestrians will brush by you, and if your hair is not black or straight, 9/10 chance someone will touch it. Click through these photos for more stories:
*NOTE: Bear with me because I use International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) notation in /brackets/. I taught my students IPA the first week of class and it has proven invaluable to me as an ESL instructor. If you'd like to learn, click here.
Let me get on my soapbox so I can extol the virtues of teaching linguistics (particularly phonetics and phonology) in the ESL classroom. If there is one class I'm so grateful for having taken in college, it's Introduction to Linguistics (LING 201) with Dr. Gareth Price. First off, I find linguistics really neat and fascinating. But moreover, since I'm a native English speaker, it's easy to take so many things for granted. For example, we pronounce the past tense '-ed' with a /t/ in 'popped' but with /d/ in 'buzzed', and I bet that's never crossed your mind if English is your first language. With LING 201 under my belt, I now have a better understanding of why certain things are difficult for or misunderstood by nonnative speakers, and I can teach my students with a greater awareness of these challenges. Knowing that my students would be entering their final years in high school, I also felt comfortable pushing them further by teaching the same linguistics concepts I've learned from my class. This not only helps them get a leg-up on the college-level English courses they'd take in university, but it also helps them deconstruct the English language and analyze it from a perspective they might not have considered before.
I've learned that oftentimes, rote memorization and repetition is pretty much the only way our students learn English. To continue with the past tense '-ed' pronunciation example, I hope that they not only learn the rules of when to use which pronunciation, but also understand the phonological processes at play (ex. verbs ending in /t/ or /d/ require one to pronounce the 'ed' as an extra syllable due to dissimilation as in 'wanted', etc.). If they can analyze sound patterns, and understand why processes like dissimilation occur, then I feel like they can understand more fully why English works the way it does. Plus, after teaching them linguistics concepts like rhoticization or syllable- vs. stress-timing, we can have intelligent conversations on how British English differs from American English, or how English differs from Vietnamese. Equipped with the tools of linguistic analysis, I hope they are able to come up with new conclusions on their own and broaden their own English skills without dependence on an instructor to teach them rules.
Two examples for how a linguistics perspective has immensely improved both my ability to teach English and my students' abilities to learn English:
1. Putting on my linguistics hat, I've learned from peers, experience, and online articles that word-final sounds in Vietnamese are not all that important. For example, the word nước (the Vietnamese word for 'water') ends with c, which suggests a /k/ sound. But if you actually enunciated that 'c', you'd sound like a fool because in Vietnamese, word-final /p/, /t/, and /k/ sounds are glottalized and unreleased. In laymen's terms, you should never actually pronounce the word-final /k/. You should shape the mouth and tongue in the positions to create that final /k/ sound but you shouldn't release air to enunciate it. Now, take the English word 'nook' and a Vietnamese ESL learner will pronounce it similarly to nước, with a glottalized and unreleased /k/. To a native English speaker, this may sound silly or incomprehensible, but that is because the ESL learner is using a Vietnamese phonological rule in an English context. These kinds of phonological mix-ups contribute to what we hear as an 'accent'.
So one of the most useful pronunciation lessons I taught was that English word endings are REALLY important and must be ENUNCIATED (<-- taught them this new vocab term, too). In fact, I told them to pronounce any word ending with a consonant to be followed by an exaggerated schwa vowel (sounds like the 'uh' in 'about'). So 'red' became 'red-uh', 'bike' became 'bike-uh', etc. The whole point was to get them releasing air and pronouncing those word-final sounds. It vastly improved my ability to understand what they were trying to say in English.
2. One of my students was having trouble pronouncing the /j/ sound (the 'y' in 'yellow'). She would pronounce it as 'zellow' with a /z/. Having learned from Thịnh and the Langenscheidt's Vietnamese Pocket Dictionary (an ah-mazing resource for the Vietnam traveler), I knew that many North Vietnamese often replace /j/ with /z/. For example, the 'gi' in giờ (the Vietnamese word for 'hour') can be pronounced with either a /j/ or /z/ depending on your regional accent. One might even argue that /j/ and /z/ are allophonic (i.e. different pronunciations do NOT change the meaning) in the word-initial position in Vietnamese*. Of course, in English, /j/ and /z/ are phonemic (i.e. different pronunciations DO change the meaning) since 'yellow' is a color and 'zellow' is gibberish.
I knew that simply saying 'yellow' and having her repeat wouldn't help because her ear wasn't yet used to hearing the difference between her /z/ and my /j/. So instead I attempted a more roundabout way of teaching her how to produce the /j/ sound. Since the /j/ sound is classified as an approximant corresponding to the /i/ vowel sound (the 'ee' in 'bee'), I knew that if I could get her to make the /i/ sound and then transition to the next vowel, her mouth would automatically form the /j/ sound during the transition. In fact, I made the whole class loudly utter and connect 'eeeeee' ----> 'uhhhhh'. When the change from 'eeeee' to 'uhhhh' is sped up, it is practically indistinguishable from a /j/. So in pronouncing the word 'yes', it starts as /iiiiiiiiɛs/ ---> then becomes /iiiɛs/ ---> and finally /jɛs/, the correct pronunciation! This method worked miracles with my student and I will never forget this trick.
In short, phonetics is bae. Phonology is bae. Linguistics is bae. IPA is bae. Dr. Price is bae (if you're reading this, WARM HUGS YOUR WAY!).
*Of course, more research is necessary to back this up, but from what I've observed so far, it seems likely. Also the definitions of allophonic and phonemic are actually more complicated but you can look that up yourself. Disclaimer: I don't claim to be an expert in linguistics at all, but I have pointed my students to expert sources if they really want to dig into it.
And by Adventure Time I do not mean
I'm talking about real life AWESOME ADVENTURES IN VIETNAM :))) Here's a highlight reel of some of our experiences (read dem captions for more of the good deets).
Quang Tri (17th Parallel, Vinh Moc Tunnels, etc.):
Hue (plus Elephant Springs):
Ha Long Bay (plus a little bit of Hanoi):
đẹp = beautiful
đẹp trai = handsome
dễ thương = cute
Yet just like Western perceptions of male beauty, it is undesirable for a man to be đẹp or dễ thương. This is one of the first lessons I received from several Vietnamese roommates at our welcome dinner. And it really got me thinking about the role of physical appearance and beauty standards in Vietnam and the US.
In many daily exchanges with the Vietnamese, there is a strong aversion to male femininity, which welcomes teasing and ridicule. But there is some complexity to this because beauty standards are not dictated from a single source, but an amalgamation of cultural factors and global trends. While it is easy to say that things have been "westernized" or "Americanized" in Vietnam, it is actually also influenced largely by its neighbors of China, Japan, and Korea, among others. So when it comes to male beauty, Korean ideals of softer facial features and less-traditionally masculine (from an American perspective) fashion and hairstyles has some influence. I watch as my roommate applies foundation cream to his face and tell me that I need to learn how to wear cosmetics because my skin is so bad. I know that he is just joking, but just the thought of men wearing makeup in the US is almost unfathomable outside of the entertainment industry. And indeed, most Vietnamese men still do not wear cosmetics, but it is more common to see here if I can only tell from social media and everyday interaction. Just search "đẹp trai" on Google images and you'll see what I mean.
There is also the issue of skin color. In Saigon and Quang Tri alike, we would see posters and stores plastered with the same phrase: "Ideal White". Some of us Americans were actually a little shocked when we saw this, since we were taught that we are supposed to celebrate diversity in skin tone and never elevate white skin in superiority. But we stared at those words and the glowing Caucasian model smiling underneath them. Our roommates would rave about the effectiveness of "bb" cream, which turns your skin a pasty pale and protects it from the sun. When we went to the beach, all of the Americans would lay out in the sun, getting the ideal "healthy" tan, while the Vietnamese roommates would sit in the shade and dab on more sunscreen and bb cream. Of course, I understand that Asian cultures have valued pale skin for centuries in part because it is associated with royalty, whereas dark skin is associated with the rural poor working out in the fields under the sun. In many ways it seems that beauty is defined by what is difficult or rare to obtain, be it Vietnamese desiring white skin and Caucasians desiring tan skin. It just sometimes boggles my mind when I see dozens and dozens of women on their motorbikes whizzing around the city covered head to toe in 100 degree weather because their skin must remain untouched by the sun. Now, it's true that the sun is scorching and dangerous in Vietnam, so their attire may be more practical than aesthetic. I ask my roommate if they find it a little too stuffy to wear in the steamy weather. He responds, "Oh they're sweating like crazy...but it's better to get hot than to get tan."
Physical size and body shape is yet another factor in beauty standards. When we visited Hue, our tour guide told us about the ideal Vietnamese girl possessing a body shaped like the country of Vietnam itself: long, thin, curved, etc. While it made us all a little uncomfortable, we accepted that this is how women were expected to look in Vietnam. (Aside: this is not even to mention the expectations that women be dainty, gentle, etc.) When I made my students do introductions for ESL class, several girls even felt the need to explain that they were "fat" because of x or y when I never asked them to talk about their physical appearance.
IDK how much is genetic and how much is environmental, but the average Vietnamese person does tend to be a lot smaller than the average American. I'll be honest and say that on first impression, I couldn't believe that our Hue University roommates were the same age or older than us. Kayla told us that Jared, our beefiest member of the DukeEngage crew, is like a giant compared to what Vietnamese are used to seeing. Even myself, a size small in the US is a size extra large here. When Thịnh and I went shopping in Hue, I had to keep going up in size to find clothes that would fit. (Aside: if you ever go jeans shopping, bring Thịnh because he will check every contour and wrinkle, make you squat, tell you to turn and walk, and judge until he squints a little and says it's the perfect fit.)
My most vivid shopping memory was at a men's clothing store (single-gender stores seem to be more common) in downtown Hue. I wanted to find a shirt with a Chinese-neck collar. First off, Thịnh told me to stay quiet so the shop workers wouldn't find out that a foreigner was going to buy something and mark up the price accordingly. Well, that failed, and when I had to try something on, the store worker told me to just change in the middle of the store. I was a little surprised, but didn't think too much of it...afterall, maybe this was considered normal in Vietnam. So I took off my shirt and heard a few "oh's" as I struggled to fit my arms through the sleeves and wrap the new shirt (size large) around my back. Thịnh later told me that some of the workers were like, "cơ kia", which means "that's muscular". It was just a strange experience because it would never happen in the US. Back home, I'm scrawny like a shrimp, and everything I'd try would be too big and loose. The store worker then asked me (Thịnh had to translate of course) if I would be a model for the store and proceeded to make me try on like 10 more outfits, some of which were obviously a little too tight around my chest and limbs. It was definitely awkward, especially when at a certain point everyone in the store was staring, but ngl it actually felt kinda flattering since I'd never been considered big or strong in my life up to this moment.
Moving on, regional differences also seem to influence perceptions of attractiveness. For example, North Vietnamese boys are viewed as a lot more handsome than South and Central boys. However, they are also stereotyped as arrogant. (PS: Vietnamese education never teaches about social prejudice, stereotypes, etc...the PC culture is practically nonexistent, but that's a topic for another blog post.)
I know that in America we love to bicker about whether someone's "hot" or not (*cough* Hilary Swank), but I've always thought that attractiveness is more or less universal. From my experiences on this trip, I've learned that this could never be more false. Comments thrown around about cute boys or pretty girls revealed to me that every culture (and person within that culture!) has their own conceptualization of what is physically attractive. So I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
Phòng 3 = Room 3, a.k.a. Thịnh and Jason's ESL classroom
Thinh and I have a great bunch of kids. We stepped foot into Phòng 2 with initially very low expectations for their English abilities. But we soon realized that they are actually a very bright, motivated bunch of young adults. We teach mostly rising high school seniors. We figured that these older students would have the best grasp of English compared to the lower grades, and since they are (relatively) more mature and have to prepare for college entrance examinations soon (which include an English section!) they would be most willing to learn and cooperate.
Important to note about the English education system in Vietnam is that students begin learning English as a requirement from an early age, and these students often have pretty strong reading and writing skills by grade 12. But opportunities to practice real-life communication in English are lacking. And that's where we step in. While we don't have to worry about teaching tons of English grammar and vocab since they already receive that in school, we do provide them real interaction with native English speakers to improve their speaking and listening skills. It's comfortable knowing that we can have a real tangible impact on their English skills, which they need for college and beyond. In Vietnamese society, English communication skills open a lot of doors whether in banking, teaching, business, tourism, etc. So whether it is fair or not, English proficiency is often a key ingredient in social mobility and providing a better life for themselves and their families.
6/25/16 - 7/1/16
Whoo! It has been a LONG time since I’ve last blogged. Two weeks have passed in Quảng Trị (QT) and all I can say is that it’s been a blast. The sun is sunnier, the yogurt is runnier, and the strangers are friendlier. But honestly, our roommates are among some of the best people I know. The Vietnamese are super genuinely caring for each other. You can tell simply from how they behave at the dinner table. Whereas in America, where we might ask someone to pass the rice, in Vietnam, our roommates would scoop rice for you and for every other person at the table. It is clear from the way that we’d play games together (whether wolves, catchphrase, UNO, etc.) or sing together that the Vietnamese value a strong sense of family. It seems as though they embrace social interdependence rather than feel the need to always be independent. My roommate and I have talked extensively on this topic, and he explained how the American culture is more individualist, emphasizing individual achievement, whereas Vietnamese and many Asian cultures are more collectivist, or more family- and community-oriented. One day, my roommate and I were walking back from the market when an older lady pulled up beside us and asked for help balancing to two giant rice sacks on her motorbike. My roommate obliged enthusiastically, and she pat him on the back in gratitude before riding off into the dust. The open willingness to request and give help makes the people of Quang Tri feel more like a big extended family than strangers on the street.
Speaking of my roommate, he is AWESOME! His name is Nhật Thịnh which means 'bright sun' but he goes just by Thịnh. He and I have become so close over the past two weeks, and I could not think of a better pairing. We are both kinda clumsy, absent-minded boys. We are both basic bitches (XD) who photograph almost everything we eat and get ratch at the club. But we’re also both serious, hard-working students. And we are both pretty sensitive guys at heart who care less about masculine-presenting and more about connecting with others on a deeper level.
As far as our projects go, there’s something great about having only 2 cares in my life for 6.5 weeks: building a sick new bathroom for an underresourced school (Lương Thế Vinh Secondary School) in QT, and teaching ESL lessons to 21 fabulous rising 12th-graders at the local Youth Center. I can focus all of my efforts into these two projects without worrying about juggling classes, schoolwork, extracurriculars, career prospects, figuring out my life, etc. I was sent to Vietnam to complete two and only two concrete (pun-intended) missions. Yet I will also have completed so many more in my time here.
Highlights from the first week in QT include:
One day, we decided to visit a Buddhist temple. Loosely based on Google recommendations for attractions in Saigon, we ended up choosing Chùa Vĩnh Nghiêm. This week, my sole uncle living in Vietnam promised me he would take me to where he and my mom grew up. I figured we could meet up after my friends and I visited the temple.
So early that morning, Grant, Jared, Katrina, and I walked from our guesthouse and headed north toward the river. We planned to just grab breakfast along the way. We passed through a beautiful park, featuring a white statue in the middle. We struggled to discern the genders and identities of the 3 figures in the sculpture, but remembered Dr. Robert’s comment about how much of Communist propaganda intentionally homogenizes facial features. Meanwhile, older women exercised on the ubiquitous outdoor workout equipment in the park. We wandered through alleyways until we found a restaurant that seemed nice. After we ordered food, though, we were very confused when we received like 5 dishes that we never ordered. Later we’d learn that this is just a tactic used by many restaurants in Vietnam to overcharge their customers for food they didn’t order. But we fell for it. And enjoyed every last bite of skewered meat and chả giò.
On our way to the temple, we sighted a garishly pink catholic church and had to check it out. The plethora of Jesus decor was almost over the top, but we still felt a very sacred air when we stepped inside and sat for a little. My uncle later told me that it was built in the 1800s during the French Indochina era.
As we kept walking, we found the Buddhist temple and entered through the ornate gates. A lady pursued us peddling lotus flowers from her cart. We politely refused. We walked around a bit, meeting a South Korean navy seal and having a pleasant conversation with him. We all appreciated the serene beauty of the Buddha fountain.
My uncle rolled in on his motorbike to pick me up from the temple. But before we left, we took a few pictures and he surprised me by saying that my grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s ashes are stored in urns at this very temple. This temple we chose mostly randomly just so happened to be the same one where my ancestor’s remains lie. Whoa.
I waved goodbye to my friends, and my uncle took me on yet another whirlwind motorbiking journey through Saigon. We first visited the alley where my mom spent the majority of her childhood. My uncle told me that so much has changed, so the doors, windows, shops, etc. are all new. It was a little strange to think about…my mom as a little schoolgirl playing on the streets with her brothers and sisters…in this exact spot over 50 year ago. With such a tangible experience to grip onto, I started to fully realize the intertwined histories of my mother and her family and the history of Vietnam itself. And these histories can never be unwound from each other.
Then we visited the home where they moved when my mom was a teenager. It was more on a main road, but again, he said that everything…all the stores, restaurants, neighbors, etc. have changed. So I asked him what has stayed the same through all these years and he gave me one straight answer: the trees.
Some of the trees lining the streets of Saigon are nearly a hundred years old. They are carefully marked and maintained by the government. What I took away from this journey was that Vietnam has grown a lot in the 40 years postwar and very little is the same…Rapid urbanization, political strife, economic highs and lows, globalization, etc. have all shaped a new vision of Vietnam. And it will never stop evolving.
PS: Highlights from our last days in Saigon include...
The history of Vietnam has gradually unfolded before us over our time here in Saigon. On our free Sunday, while some of us stayed at Holly's Cafe for coffee and great wifi, five of us embarked on an adventure of our own to the Independence Palace (aka. Dinh Độc Lập or Reunification Palace), one of the most historic landmarks of the city. Designed by Beaux-Arts-trained Ngô Viết Thụ, the enormous mansion housed the South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm during the Vietnam War. As we moved from room to room, it became increasingly clear that this palace serves as a kind of trophy to the Communist Party of Vietnam. Signs would laud the bombing of the palace as victorious triumph instead of what some South Vietnamese might have considered an act of terror. In American schools, it can feel like we are taught that Communism is essentially evil. Afterall, Cold War politics never truly died out. But actually living in a socialist nation for a week has revealed a more complex reality. The nationalist (note, not communist) revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh was well-educated in Marxist theory and saw its ability to lift Vietnam from the reign of French colonialism. He was the first to explain how French capitalism was oppressing the Vietnamese people. From that perspective, communism served as part of a merely practical solution to the contemporary issues of social injustice (racism, classism, etc.) and economic instability. Add to that the perceived inability of the Saigon Regime to serve its people. I'm not saying this to take sides one way or the other, but this maelstrom of factors and shifts in rhetoric really explain why Vietnam ultimately became a Communist nation (I try to refrain from using the "domino effect" terminology of "falling" or "succumbing" to Communism). This was marked by the historically dubbed Fall (or Liberation) of Saigon on April 30, 1975 as North Vietnamese tanks literally broke through the palace walls and planted their flag on the roof.
The next day, the whole DE gang visited the War Remnants Museum. This shed yet another interesting perspective on the Vietnam War that we would never get in the US. While US textbooks might explain that we withdrew from the war in an ever-increasing struggle, the Museum definitively proclaims that we lost. The museum is not boastful but carefully reflective of what's actually lost during war. I say carefully because great care is taken to showcase American aggression and North Vietnamese loss in a coherent, well-designed light. In many parts of the exhibition, I felt ashamed that I had chosen to wear my Duke tee because I almost didn't want to associate myself with the country that committed so many atrocities. In fact, the museum was once named the American War Crime Museum but recently changed to War Remnants Museum to ruffle fewer feathers and encourage more international tourism. I found it really intriguing to view the Humanity exhibit because it showcased pictures of American POW's having a great time eating and playing basketball in prison camps because the North Vietnamese took care of them with "whole heart and goodwill". To juxtapose with this exhibit, a recreation of a war prison with horrific torture rooms, devices, and practices the American side would use on Vietnamese prisoners is located just outside the museum. There is no begrudgery, as the museum emphasizes recovery and strengthening of US-Vietnam relations postwar, but there is still an uneasiness in the balance of opinion. There is little to no coverage of American loss, except perhaps to show how much money and resources we wasted on this hopeless fight, but there is also no obligation since this is a government-operated museum.
These are the messages that seemed to be emphasized
Regardless of the politics of the exhibits, if there was one thing I took away from this experience, it was the reality that war has no winners. I felt my stomach churning as we saw image after image of babies and grown adults with defects from Agent Orange, strewn bodies from American-led village massacres, and absolute devastation of both natural and manmade landscapes from American bombs and chemical warfare. As we walked through the Agent Orange exhibit, Alexa mentioned that one of the victims was our age. That really hit me. This war that "ended" over 40 years ago still causes the suffering of people, my age, with many of the same hopes and dreams today. After visiting this museum, there is no doubt that Americans have done some terrible things in other countries. (If you don't wanna google it yourself, Agent Orange was part of a US operation to expose Viet Cong soldiers hidden in forested areas by the use of the chemical defoliant...Unbeknownst to American soldiers at the time, Agent Orange is also EXTREMELY toxic to humans, and it killed and severely harmed civilians and soldiers on both sides all throughout the country. Its effects are still felt today because of inherited birth defects.)
But there was one part of the museum that really struck me and reminded me why I was here. It was a map of Vietnam that depicted with black dots the hardest-hit regions from bombings and other violence. Quang Tri, the province right at the demilitarized zone splitting Vietnam into North and South, and also the province we will be serving for the next 6.5 weeks, was completely blackened. Much has changed in the last 40 years, of course, but it was sobering to realize that the region we will be living in was once the center of so much suffering and torment from both sides during the war. Understanding this context of the war in Vietnam will be incredibly valuable to our service throughout the summer.