The Questions

Suffice to say that if you were to go with me to a restaurant here which I had visited a couple months earlier, there is a fair chance that if you asked the waitstaff my name, age, occupation, nationality and the street I live on, they could probably tell you. And not because I’m in the habit of taking the waitstaff home with me.

Some of the answers you'd hear back might sound like nonsense.  This is because I occasionally tire of answering the same questions, the same way, day after day for every person I meet. Instead, I invent more interesting answers. Or attempt to answer correctly in Vietnamese.

1st question. "What's your name?" I answer Joel which is immediately transliterated to Joe, Joey George or John. The Vietnamese language doesn't employ trailing L's. In fact, the unemployment rate for trailing consonants is very high in Vietnam. People don't hear them in the same manner that I don't hear the tonal cues that differentiate words in Vietnamese.  This of course becomes immediately relevant when I ask the person with whom I'm speaking for their name in turn. Thus we begin by mispronouncing each other's names. I do have a Vietnamese name and I've tried it out a couple times, but I don't actually respond to it, so it isn't much help. Also, I can't pronounce it properly.

2nd question. "Where are you from?" I usually answer Cali. I'm not really from California but I lived there a while and that answer keeps things simple. Vietnamese is monosyllabic and relies on word pairs, so even when I say California people hear Cali. I didn't understand the frequent perplexed looks I got when I used to say Los Angeles until I realized it's just like the look that comes on my face when someone names a place as though I should know it. Saying Tucson, or Arizona usually has no meaning. Only friends and newspapers say I'm from Hollywood and it makes me cringe.

I understood about the whole places one should know thing one day when my landlady was talking to me about a place called Cam Pu Chea. Never heard of it, but I've never heard of lots of places. At least I think she is asking me about this place, though I can't be sure because we're having the conversation in Vietnamese. At any rate, I'm really trying to figure out what this place is because she says it like I should know it while we're looking at pictures I took when I was at Angkor Wat. In Cambodia. Oh.

My Landlady is very patient and has learned to understand my very poor Vietnamese. She has also taught me a fair amount. This has actually made my Vietnamese even more incomprehensible. In Vietnamese, Northern pronunciation is quite distinct from Southern. Many words are different too. My landlady is from Hanoi. I reside in HCMC. So my Vietnamese is a hopeless mish-mash of mispronunciations. Bear in mind we are talking about a language where a simple mispronunciation will mean something quite different. I ordered a newspaper for breakfast once. Then there was the month I was complimenting my crew with one of the most offensive phrases in the Vietnamese language.

3rd question. "How old are you?" The answer is the basis for many protocols of etiquette. Vietnamese has a whole system of pronouns based on one person's age as it relates to another person's age. There is one pronoun for everybody younger than you, unless they are a child. If someone is older than you then it gets gender specific and more complicated. My favorite is the pronoun for a woman who is older than you but younger than your mother. Also the way to calculate your age in Vietnam is different. Everyone is one year old at birth and everyone's birthday is the lunar new year. So I think I turned 33 last January, 32 in September and I'll be 34 in February.

Once everyone has sorted out the relative ages of themselves and their mothers, it's time for the next question. If it isn't "What do you do?" or "How long have you been here?" it is typically "Where do you live?" I wish I knew why people ask me this. I also wish I could pronounce the name of the street I live on, because that would make my life much simpler when trying to tell taxi and xe om drivers how to take me home.

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