Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Universal Language

      One of the first things people asked me when I told them I was going to Southeast Asia was if I knew the language, or, more specifically, the three languages. I wish I was one of those brilliant brains who knew multiple languages fluently. Unfortunately, I have no such gift and know three languages, but two of them only very slightly.  The subsequent question was of course about how I was going to communicate with Vietnamese, Cambodians and Thais. Since my powers of telepathy have not been sufficiently exercised my plan was to just wing it. Was I worried about this? Not really, this trip was an adventure, after all! A few google queries revealed that in the touristy areas I would find a ready supply of English speakers to suit my travel needs and learning a few key phrases would help; namely hello, thank you, goodbye, how much and toilet. Good news- toilet seems to be the same in all languages!   No need for embarrassing bathroom- like gestures to communicate your most urgent needs. Simply saying "toilet" in a discreet and inquiring tone will suffice.
      I made a small list of important phrases including how to say 'cashew nut'  and 'no' in various languages because I am deathly allergic to them. And, although this turned out to be unnecessary, I went so far as to laminate a picture of a cashew (both in the shell and out) and draw a large red circle with a slash through the middle on top, in case it was necessary to whip the card out and wave it around a restaurant. I wasn't sure this would be needed since I had vowed to eat NO nuts at all just to be safe, but one never knew where the stray and unassuming nut could be hidden and I was not taking any chances. Being on the verge of death by cashew is bad enough, but having to trust in a third world hospital in a land which did not speak my language? I was stocked with epi-pens and benadryl.  Also, this would easily communicate to any doctor what the emergency was in case I did eat one, no words necessary. Luckily, while the cashew nut (or as they say in Vietnam, the "hot dieu") while readily available in the markets, did not feature in many dishes.
      It was surprisingly easy to get by with those few phrases, and in Thailand, even less. By the time we got there we had already been to Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia so learning to say more than 'hello' and 'thank you' was just not in the cards. Once you have thrust yourself in a foreign country and communication becomes necessary, making yourself understood regardless of the language barrier is imperative and it quickly becomes natural to use gestures and body language to convey meaning. We, however, were certainly not discovering the America's here- this is a global world, so we, to some extent, speak a global language. Just say the word "facebook" to any young hip Vietnamese with a smart phone. "Mark Zuckerberg he love Vietnam! He come with wife. Spend long time here." It won't come as much of a surprise to learn that any young, hip, Vietnamese with a smart phone also knows a decent amount of English- and how to use an American server to get around their communist country's ban on facebook.
     While a decent amount of people in Hanoi speak English, body language was still king, especially since some people had a hard time understanding our accent as they were used to Australians, not Americans. Lindsay was already familiar with some body language and gestures I was not as she had traveled before. I watched her signal to the waiter that we wanted our check by holding her left hand like a tablet and writing on it with her right finger. I mused at how simple this was, but how I would never do it at home.
      I would have to do a lot of thinking to come up with gestures to convey meaning. In the end though, I didn't- they seemed to come naturally after a while and I did them without thinking. Asking how much something costs is done by rubbing your thumb across your other four fingers. Asking how to get back to your hotel is done by pointing to a street sign then producing a map and pointing to your hotel's location.  Food is easy- bring your fingers to your mouth. Numbers 1 through 10 are shown on your hand. If you are confused about money the Vietnamese will show you the bill they are looking for and it has been my experience that they are very honest (my money trick is simple- know what $10 is and you know what the rest of the bills are worth).  Asking about your room is done by holding your two hands together and placing your head on them as if on a pillow. This last one, though can have another, more sinister meaning.
      We were on the now infamous Fasipan Express overnight train to Sapa; the one where we ended up in a four person sleeper with not 2 but 3 Vietnamese. After the whole banana ordeal, where one of the men in our car thought it would be funny to make sexual jokes with a banana, Lindsay and I climbed into our top bunks to get ready for bed. On my way out to the bathroom I found our car attendant laying on a beach chair at the end of the car in front of the bathroom. Apparently he was going to sleep while on the job. I found out later that if you needed something you simply woke him up. Why don't we do this in America? Whatever- I knew going into this I would have to go with the flow if I wanted to be a happy camper- or locomotiver- while on this trip. I simply climbed over the guy; he was awake but he didn't seem to mind.
      When I came back Lindsay went out ( we didn't feel safe leaving our precious 25 pounds of gear unattended with the banana guy). She came back in visibly annoyed. "I guess that guy is just going to sleep out there" She said.
        "I guess so- maybe because it's the overnight train."
         "He's gross. Why does he have to be by our car?"
         "He does seem strange. I'd rather have shared a car with our guide" I agreed.
         "Where is our guide? That guy out there, he asked me if I wanted to sleep with him!"
           "He pointed to him, then to me then went like this (made the sleeping gesture) then pointed to our door!" I have to admit I thought this was a little funny. Lindsay did not. The women in Vietnam are very modest- but we were quickly learning the men were not. "Oh my god I hate this train! And when I was stepping over him he patted my butt." Poor Lindsay. Ewww. Luckily I came away unscathed.  He was not interested in me. I tried to reassure her- the man was clearly what we in the education world call 'on the spectrum' or, in layman's terms, mentally challenged.  Lindsay could not get to sleep that night and even asked me share her bunk with her. I was flattered. I had been working out, and she thought I was strong enough to keep him at bay in case he tried to come into our car and find her in the night. How sweet. Or...wait a minute.... maybe she thought I could act as a human shield to her and he would not know the difference in the dark- or care- and get me first. Whatever her thought the beds were far too small for two people, despite the fact that a man and a woman were sharing one right below me-the Vietnamese are small people. While visiting there I knew what it must feel like to be my 6 foot 4 husband; oh the joys of being tall. I felt so small when we landed at JFK.
       Anyway, the door was locked and we did walk to a different bathroom after that. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to communicate 'ewe, gross, no- stay away from me!' in body language. Our communication back up plan- just speaking English (because let's face it, English is the closest thing we have to a universal language) was not going to work either- this guy did not know any English, I can assure you. The attendant did not bother us again. Lindsay must have gotten her message across somehow. Perhaps it was her disgusted face, the fact that she quickly moved away from him, her slamming the door and locking it and her avoidance of him after that which kept him at bay. I guess there is body language for 'eww, gross, no- stay away from me!' after all.

Our ticket to the crazy train- the Fanxipan Express

The train- and this is the expensive one!

Me enjoying a cashew free meal

Many nuts for sale- none for me please. Don't make me take out the card. 

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