One of the reasons why I chose to volunteer in Vietnam is because I can easily blend in with the locals. While Vietnam is a beautiful country with a vibrant culture, it is also plagued with stories of tourist scams. I figured that since my skin tone and facial features are similar to that of the Vietnamese, I would look like a local and have less of a target on my back. I was correct with that assumption. If I do not open my mouth, locals assume I am Vietnamese. Yes, it comes with many advantages and less attention on me. Little did I know looking like a local also comes with certain expectations.
“You’re from America, but you’re Asian-looking…” is one of the many variations of a similar response I receive when speaking with locals here. The concept of the United States being a multicultural land of immigrants is foreign to many local Vietnamese people; ironically, this concept is foreign to some of the folks living in America as well. I cannot blame them since the U.S. media and entertainments are filled with non-Asian looking faces. I can see why there is the confusion, but I cannot help but get annoyed at times when this is the repeated response I get on a daily basis. At times, it almost feels like they think I am lying to them about where I am from or that I am being pretentious by speaking English.
Being “Asian-looking” sets an expectation that I can speak Vietnamese since I look like them whereas the assumption of not knowing Vietnamese is made for those with a Western face. The expectation, or rather a generalization, that I must know the language is part of my daily struggle. When they realize I do not know Vietnamese, the first reaction is confusion, then annoyance over the inconvenience in communication I have caused, then an eventual acceptance with a reciprocating smile if I am lucky. If they can speak a bit of English, I would have to explain that I am from the U.S. and my ethnicity is Chinese and that whole conversation recycles itself.
Communicate through smiles – it’s universal, I think. Intimidated by the language barrier and horror stories of scams in Vietnam, it took 20 restaurants that I walked passed before I got the courage to stop at one of them for dinner one night. I wanted to try phở bò (rice noodle in beef broth) in Hanoi, the city where this national dish originated from (purist would disagree on the precise origination of pho, but I won’t get into that). I walked up to the local eatery and slowly enunciated “phở bò” as closely as I can to the proper Vietnamese pronunciation. My local friends have told me that my accent when pronouncing these food dishes sounds like it’s from a Vietnamese person. Maybe I was nervous, but a lot more pointing and body language was required to get my bowl of phở. The lady who took my ordered was confused to why I could not speak Vietnamese and glared at me as I took a seat inside. Sigh, what I do for phở. When I paid, she finally lit up a genuine smile and I responded with “cảm ơn”, or thank you in Vietnamese. When I pay, I usually give a bigger bill like 50,000 VND ($2.20 USD) to avoid trying to ask for the price and have the other person struggle with telling me the amount. Generally a bowl of noodles in a local establishment should cost around 20,000 to 40,000 VND. Even if they try to snag an extra 5,000 or 10,000 dong from me, it’s fine; I consider it a foreigner fee of not knowing the language.
When reading this post, one of your responses may be, “Why don’t you learn Vietnamese?” It’s hard. It is challenging for two reasons: 1) there are 6 tones to the Vietnamese pronunciation and I only have 1-2 months here to learn, and 2) locals are more than eager to practice their English and would take any opportunity to converse more in English. The demand for learning English or finding a native speaker to practice is so high, it is incredibly easy to find an English teaching gig here.
Those who know me may chuckle knowing that my strategy of getting around in Vietnam is to smile since I am known to have a resting bitch face. I think smiling is a universal gesture of respect and amicability. If it may have another meaning in some other cultures, please let me know, haha.