Reality in French
Copyright 2006 by Lila Nordstrom
Lila Nordstrom lived in Hanoi, Vietnam, for several months during college, and recorded the experience in an online journal.
Although fairly sick the entire four months I was living in Hanoi, I was sicker than usual for a full week after editing an economics thesis called “Inequality and Education.” I blame bad grammar for the illness, and after the non-excitement of reading a 56-page paper in broken English on a topic that involved a ludicrous number of statistics, I spent a long time recovering. I accomplished this by lounging lazily on my bed to watch bootleg DVDs while living a very absorbing imaginary life inside my mind. Several hysterically funny fictional things happened during the week; my madcap state egged on by the fact that my roommate was away with her visiting parents and I had nothing but the sound of honking horns and people shouting to keep my sense of reality in check.
Eventually, tired of being bedridden, I decided to take a trip across Hanoi to collect my paycheck for the illness-inducing editing job. I was not sure how physically up to the challenge I was, but I had begun to bore myself and experience the first signs of cabin fever. I had an e-mail from the man that gave me the job telling me to simply “stop by” and pick up the check at his office, a good 45 minutes away from my dorm by bus. Despite his e-mail’s implication, the errand was definitely not close enough to consider casual; nobody with any life at all, fictional or otherwise, would have been able to step out of my dorm and simply “stop by.” I began the pilgrimage, however, riding on a motorbike driven by a giddy young man hellbent on learning my entire life story.
When I finally arrived at the office, the doors to the office were locked and the gate partially down, although a motorbike was parked outside. Nobody was in the street and all of the other businesses on the block looked fully closed. I knocked loudly, and after several false alarms I was finally buzzed in only to find that nobody could figure out what I was doing there. The Australian man I had discussed my payment with was not around, and his assistant, who spoke English only in a strictly theoretical sense, had never heard of me nor the graduate thesis I had spent days editing. He suggested I come back later, when his boss was around, and quickly went back to pretending to do work at his computer while surfing the web and chatting on Yahoo! messenger.
Confused, lost, and still sick, I left the office in a huff and wandered around the neighborhood looking for the bus stop that would bring me back to my dorm room and allow me to resume my fictional life. I finally saw it in the distance, across a busy four-lane road with a solid cement barricade dividing it and no crosswalks in sight. Running across the street, I nearly killed myself trying to hop over the barricade without catapulting myself into traffic, and made it to the bus stop’s shelter. I could feel a wave of exhaustion coming on, aided by the fact that I had not eaten in days, and sat on the metal pole that was propped up in the place of a bench under the shelter.
As I waited for the bus, an old man came and sat on one end of the pole. He was joined by a friend a few minutes later, who greeted the old man and sat down between us. They did not talk, his friend choosing to stare at me for several minutes instead. This was not an uncommon occurrence, since I was apparently very funny looking to most people in Vietnam, with my unnaturally pale skin, ridiculously pointy nose, and oddly brown hair. Willing to let it slide for the moment, I averted my eyes in an attempt to look as casual as possible, as if somebody had yelled “act natural” while sticking a large lens in my face and snapping pictures of me. Eventually I began to feel uncomfortable being inspected, however, and silently chided the potential driver of the next bus to hurry up.
After growing tired of staring, the old man’s friend decided he had been silent on the matter long enough and turned to me. He began the requisite, "Where are you from? How long are you in Vietnam, etc.?" conversation in spotty English, although he did not understand my answers beyond the word “America.”
“Ngoi My!” (“American!”) he said to himself, flashing his blackened teeth and nodding to nobody in particular, as if this explained everything. Then, he promptly ran out of English words and got up to walk to the other side of the old man, who could evidentially only hear in one ear.
They were discussing me, I could tell, because when they were done talking, the old man turned to me and began to stare as well. Other people on the pole followed his lead, and soon I was beginning to feel that something bigger than just my general appearance might be wrong with me. The old man moved in closer and said something in my ear sounded like it was in predominantly gibberish. I smiled at him, shrugged, and then I realized that he was asking me where I was from in heavily accented French, the language of Vietnam’s former colonial leadership.
Although I had expected Vietnam to be filled to the brim with French speakers, up to that point the only other French-speaking experience I had had was with a bicycle taxi driver in Central Vietnam who had asked me "Allez-vous to hotel you? You nom what?" during our ride. This worked out well for me, since I was generally self-conscious about attempting French conversation, and was in general not interested in speaking the language of colonialism in a nation that is still very much affected by that period of its history. After pausing a moment in thought, however, I responded to the older man on the pole in my own pathetic French out of amusement, answering “Amerique? No! Etats-Unis? Je ne sais pas le mot.” His friend laughed and explained to him in Vietnamese that I was American and therefore spoke English, not French. The older man pressed on, however, asking me what I was doing in Vietnam, in French. “Q’est-ce que tu faits au Vietnam?”
I smiled as his friend explained to him again that as a “ngoi my,” I spoke English. I also nodded and said “Ngoi My,” for emphasis. Smiling, the older man wagged his finger at me and indicated that he finally understood. Thinking of how to best salvage the situation without a common language between us, I decided the best thing to do would be smile really wide and nod, which then made him think that perhaps I deserved an explanation.
In French, he casually explained that he knew French because of the French had colonized Vietnam a long time ago and had made it necessary for him to learn it. I nodded in the most understanding way possible as the entire line of people sitting next to me, who were also in on the secret that I was an English speaker, giggled to themselves. He looked pleased with himself, and as he finished the story my bus finally came. I waved, shouted "Au revoir!" over the engine’s roar, and stepped in. He waved back and smiled, tapping his friend on the shoulder to indicate that he should wave to me too. So ended my first true reality of the week, and I was back to the joys of non-fictional life.
Lila Nordstrom is a recent graduate of
Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, and is currently exploring a
career in writing and film. She spent the spring semester of her
junior year at Vassar living and studying in Hanoi, Vietnam.
in the subject line of the message.)