Monday, 27 September 2010 05:04

White Face Syndrome

Written by Nick Ross
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Learning Vietnamese can be frustrating...

Many foreigners living in Vietnam try to get a grasp of the language, but they find it hard going. First there are the tones, an alien concept to anyone whose root language is from outside of East Asia. Then there’s the back-of-the-mouth pronunciation and the consonants that are different in almost every way to the parts of speech emanating from elsewhere.

And yet Thai, which is far from the simplest of vernaculars in the world, is spoken by huge swathes of foreigners. Many overseas residents also manage to pick up Cantonese, Mandarin, Khmer, Korean or Japanese. So, why is there a dearth of non-native Vietnamese speakers? Surely it can’t just be because the language is ‘difficult’?

To Speak or Not to Speak

In my attempts to speak Vietnamese, I’ve always been frustrated by people’s reactions. In Vietnam, especially in downtown Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, everyone tries to talk to you in English. On the occasions I decide to speak Vietnamese to people I don’t know, I have to deal with laughter — yes, Vietnamese coming out of a white face is amusing — dumb responses as if people hear but don’t register, and people talking Vietnamese to me like I’m a child. Most irritating is when the person I’m talking to replies in English, even to the point of saying ‘yes’ to my Vietnamese rather than ‘da’ or ‘vang’. There are definitely exceptions to the rule, but put simply, no-one expects me, a white male, to speak Vietnamese.

A recent trip to Thailand put all this in perspective. Sat in a taxi heading away from the tourist areas of Bangkok, the driver starting speaking to me in Thai. Where exactly did I want to go? Where did I want to get out? I don’t speak Thai, but I’d worked out the pronunciation of my destination and somehow, we managed to communicate. It was refreshing. Rather than the guy acting dumb, believing we couldn’t communicate, he believed that I probably spoke some Thai and, if not, then we could somehow work things out.

The experience, together with the input of a close English friend living in Bangkok, got me thinking. In Thailand, to survive and properly interact outside of the foreign enclaves, you need to speak the language. It’s expected of you. If you don’t you’ll be stuck. In Vietnam it’s the opposite. A foreigner can live here 20 years and say no more than ‘cam on’ and ‘hen gap lai’ and never encounter a problem trying to survive.

White Fright

And yet, the experiences I encounter when I speak Vietnamese don’t apply to all foreigners living in Vietnam. A couple of years ago I went to a Chinese noodle restaurant in Saigon with a Japanese friend who also speaks the language. As we got off our bikes I rattled something off about where we should park our vehicles. The staff ignored me and turned to my friend, replying to her, a very Japanese looking Asian, rather than to myself. We were both astonished.

I’ve had other experiences when I’ve been with overseas Vietnamese friends who speak bad Vietnamese, far worse than my own. Local Vietnamese will listen and try to understand, helping them in their attempts to speak the lingo. But the moment the language comes out of my mouth, the reply comes back in English. Or if not, the person we are talking to will turn to my friend for clarification. And then, to add insult to an already festering wound, I am told that I don’t speak clearly.

The fact is simple. While 20 years ago it was Russian, now in 2010, if you are white you are expected to speak English, and certainly not be able to speak Vietnamese. If you’re Filipino, Thai, Chinese, Korean, Japanese or indeed any other nationality from Asia, then it’s not a problem. But if you are Caucasian and African, then forget it. Although it’s not unique to being Caucasian, I call the inability of Vietnamese people to accept that white people may speak their language ‘White Face Syndrome’.



It's not just mastering the tones that are hard...

A Matter of Outlook

This doesn’t suggest that Vietnamese are prone to being prejudiced, racist, biased or indeed to having any other negative slant you can throw their way. Rather, it’s a matter of outlook, of where Vietnamese people see themselves in the world, and also a reflection of history.

The French, the Russians and the Americans were all colonialists in their own different ways, all having different goals, and all having contrasting influences on Vietnam. And, of course, most of them were Caucasian. So, from the outset, the Vietnamese associate western languages with white faces. To speak to foreigners, in particular those from the west, you need to talk English.

White Face Syndrome may also be a defensive strategy. The influence of both France and America on Vietnam was so huge and often negative, that the ‘us and them’ pigeonhole must have become an easy distinction to make. ‘Us’, we speak Vietnamese. ‘Them’, they speak ‘tieng Tay’ (a western language). It’s a rational method for separating out the foreigners from the locals.

However, these days it’s more about outlook. Thailand is an introverted country, focused very much on itself and its myriad of internal issues that continue to cripple it and hold it back. Few Thais outside of the tourist areas speak English, and the country’s development has been the result of the world coming to Thailand rather than Thailand coming to the world.

From Pariah to Messiah?

Vietnam couldn’t be more different. Any internal issues, such as the age-old distrust between north and south, may still bubble under the surface. But with the country’s continued development and the set up of the key three politicians in Vietnam — one must be from the north, one from the centre and one from the south —the issue is, for now at least, largely insignificant.

Then there’s the pariah status of Vietnam in the late 1970s and 1980s during the conflict with the Cambodia. For invading their neighbours (who were crossing over the Mekong Delta border and massacring innocent Vietnamese) and ousting Pol Pot, Vietnam became a ‘pariah state’. The trade embargo that followed wasn’t lifted until the mid-1990s and even now, the legacy of war gives this country a difficult image.

The result is that Vietnam has had to reach out to the world, a world that once ignored them, and one way this has been done has been by learning English, the language of business, and by studying abroad in mainly English speaking universities. The trend towards speaking English has also been influenced by the overseas Vietnamese, the majority of whom speak English.

The International City

It ceases to amaze mehow many urban Vietnamese speak fantastic English. Ten years ago there were very few. Now, you find such accomplished people at almost every step. In another ten years, it’s possible that the country’s big cities may be heading towards something similar to Singapore, Manila or Kuala Lumpur.

Vietnam is an outward-looking country, one that is doing its best to ingratiate itself with the world and reap all the advantages of being a fully accepted member of the global community. Through training, Vietnamese people have taught themselves to be part of this world and if you are a non-Asian foreigner, then from the outset learning Vietnamese is going to be difficult. People here want to speak English, and as a result of history and outlook, don’t expect you to speak Vietnamese.

So, while the tones and pronunciation may be a stumbling block to so many foreigners trying to learn Vietnamese, ‘White Face Syndrome’ is also a barrier. And the way this country is going, on that front, little is going to change.




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