Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I am Vietnamese.

Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I am Vietnamese.

I grew up as an only child in a Vietnamese household surrounded by a 1980’s American southern town. Learning to speak English when I was at school while learning to speak Vietnamese at home posed plenty of innate challenges like getting an ‘r’ to not sound like a ‘wah’ and an ‘l’ to not sound like a ‘wah’….well, come to think about it, I spent a lot of time trying to not have many things sound like ‘wah.’ To top this off, I was not the stereotypical Asian kid…silky black hair, thin and almond eyes…I was the super-sized version with frizzy hair and wide eyes so I was often asked, “What are you?” As political correctness became more popular, it evolved to, “Where are you from?”

I was constantly asked this. And still am.

After my sarcastic responses that ranged from Conyers (the suburban city on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia where I grew up) to Yemen wore out, I now say Vietnamese with a sigh because I know the response every time will inevitably be, “Really? I would have never guessed.” And 99% of the time, I’m asked this by another Asian (literally, it’s the first thing they say to me after hello) so once I disclose my heritage, I get to hear how they are amazed that I’m Vietnamese because they themselves are Vietnamese and I look like no one in their family and surely I don’t look like anyone else in my family so there must be ‘something else’ in me.  It’s oh so fun.

When I booked my trip to Thailand as my first country in Asia to visit, I mentally prepared myself for this question to be asked of me throughout the entire trip. And since I tend to face my fears or annoyances in full force, I decided to include Vietnam as part of the trip to see if I could get to the root of all this confusion about me. And even more so, I wanted to understand what the fascination was behind always wanting to know which Asiatic country an Asian was from. Maybe it’s to gain a sense of community? That’s my best guess and maybe that’s why it’s never occurred to me to ask the same question because I have never felt like I was part of that community. Well, this is going into a completely separate subject so I digress…

Thailand surprised me. Not once in the week and half that I was there, was I asked where I was from. I even tried to coerce the question out of a few people I talked to by asking how long they lived in Bangkok, whether they enjoyed it etc to pry the question out of them. At first I thought maybe they weren’t interested in knowing more about me, but they would ask a barrage of other questions about my travels and history but not once was I asked where I was from.  In Phuket, I went to a local restaurant and even tried a “well, this is definitely not what I grew up with” to see if I would be asked but again, no questions about my heritage.

Ceremony in Hanoi

In Vietnam, I had the same experience. Time after time, I would talk to a local and not once was I asked that inescapable question. But what I did learn to do was to take full advantage of this, specifically when shopping. Bargaining is widely accepted when looking to purchase something so I would inquire about the price in English and ask any questions in English…and if it was something that I wanted, I would start bargaining in Vietnamese. Jaws dropped every single time I did this and I started my own little competition to see how far I could get someone’s jaw to drop.  The winner was when I saw tonsils.

And this is when I realized the answer to my question: Not one person that I encountered in Vietnam realized I was Vietnamese.

This sums up the range of reactions I would receive when telling someone I am Vietnamese.

After I started speaking in Vietnamese, a few people would then ask me where I was from and again, it was followed by disbelief…and sometimes what I perceived as amazement…but every reaction solidified my acknowledgement that I did not carry whatever traits signify my heritage. I did talk to a few locals in length and learned that they had assumed I was a Westerner and well, a Westerner is a Westerner. It didn’t matter if I was from London or Detroit. They also talked to me about how in Vietnamese culture, it is very important to have a sense of community because in many areas, the community is just like extended family. I suspect this is the same for other Asian countries and it answered my question as to why I’m asked this so much when in America. Maybe they simply wanted to see if I was part of their community.

I thought this experience would bring some sort of enlightenment to my past and why I do certain things that I do…maybe feeling like an outsider all these years is why I want to experience the world to see if there is a place that I would ‘fit in’…maybe this is why there’s some reason I’m never physically attracted to another Asian…maybe this is why I love Asian food because it’s the only thing I can relate to…maybe this is all psychobabble that a therapist would say to me. Because I didn’t have any of these feelings. On the contrary, this experience gave me the most overwhelming sense of fulfillment. I was still an unknown in my own home country and I realized I was absolutely okay with that. I kinda felt like an undercover agent walking around the streets of Hanoi, knowing no one suspected I could understand what they were saying…and I like the fact that I’m a mystery to anyone who tries to guess my heritage because only I (and well, my family) know the real answer. So next time I go get my nails done, at the same salon I’ve been to for the past 5 years, and am asked yet again, “where are you from?” I will say, I am Vietnamese. And you?

Top 4 of My Favorite “Dumb American” Language Blunders

A polyglot, I am not.

I’ve definitely been exposed to various languages, including the kind that my Grandmother would tell me NOT to use in her presence. Whatever the f*&$ that meant…I dunno. I have definitely not mastered any yet and have made many language blunders.

My fascination with foreign languages started early in life when my brain was in a much more malleable state than present day.

Living in California at a young age, I learned Spanish quickly through semi-immersion meaning every Wednesday, Ms. Luna would visit my class and translate what my teacher was saying. He only spoke Spanish and getting a B in class was not acceptable whether I was being taught in my native language or not.

Later when I thought I was the shit at speaking Spanish, I was placing post-it notes of Spanish words all over household objects to help teach my grandmother the difference between “la sal” and “el sol”.

Then came French.

While spending a summer in Phoenix, my Uncle Steve had picked me up from my grandparents’ home (where the post-it notes were everywhere including the “piso”) to bring me along for a ride to go pick up an olive tree from an elderly lady’s home.
While I waited for him to load up the tree into his truck, I sat with this lovely lady in her small, dusty room that had floor to ceiling bookshelves jammed with all kinds of books shoved in at various angles just so they could fit. I am pretty sure that her wobbly end table was supported by a stack of books.

We didn’t say much for a while. Through the yellowish film on the window, I could see blur of my Uncle Steve struggle with the olive tree while fidgeting with his face mask. He’s allergic to olive trees.

“You can pick any book you would like as long as you promise to read it.”

Do I hear a challenge in the old woman’s voice?

Suddenly, the books seem to have tripled in quantity and began to hover over me.

Bellowing in deep baritones, I hear…. “PICK MEEEEEeeeeeeee….”.

You know this didn’t really happen, but in a kid’s mind if someone tells you that you can have something; a gift, it’s like – suddenly….so overwhelming that everything suddenly appears to be massive and weird shit happens.

So there goes my little nerdy-ass 9-year-old finger…. tracing along the books, leaving a clean, dustless trail until it finally rested on one.


Falling towards me was some more dust and a book that had a faded yellow cover that sort of matched the film on the window.

“Lex Jeux Sont Faits” by Jean-Paul Satre written in a bold, black letters like an important headline.

Girls Gone Abroad - Le Jeux Sont Faits
Girls Gone Abroad – Le Jeux Sont Faits

“I’ll take this one, please.”
She mumbled something, but not sure which language. I think I was too proud of my choice to notice what she said anyways.

Yeah. I read it.
With the help of a French-English dictionary compliments of the local library, because back “then” we didn’t have keyboards readily available under our fingers.
It took me awhile, but I did it.
I’m not even sure I still have that old book, but from time to time, I wonder what ever happened to the old lady and her books.
Years later, Uncle Freddie brings me a stash of things that someone was giving away and among the bounty of gifts was a German language learning book.
No, I didn’t read that one entirely, but I did learn that nouns are capitalized and I know what a der Ofen is.
Reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was much more enjoyable than trying to learn German.

No offense, but French was less of an assault to my ears.
I went on to study French, Spanish and Italian.
And now Portuguese since I will soon have a Brazilian Son-in-Law and I want to know all the bad things he says about me. I dabble with Arabic.
A polyglot I certainly am not, but knowing enough of those languages has earned me the title of the “linguistics one” from the Girls Gone Abroad team.
However, earning such a title does come at a cost of embarrassing language blunders. Allow me to share.

Here are my top 4 favorite dumb American language blunders:

Girls Gone Abroad - Francobolli
Girls Gone Abroad – Francobolli

1. Francobolli vs Franco Belli , Rome, Italy

Confidently walking into a store, I asked a man, “Hai Franco Belli?”. He moves his glasses down his nose to “eye” scold me.

Yep. That look.

Whatever book he was reading, (which I am pretty sure was not “Les Jeux Sont Faits”), he slammed shut and walked away from me.
I asked if he had beautiful French (or Frank) when I meant to ask for stamps.

My grandfather did not get a postcard during this trip.

Girls Gone Abroad - Knives
Girls Gone Abroad – Knives

2. Cuchillos vs Llaves , Bogota, Colombia

Know the difference between these two. Including how to say “Peanuts”.

For whatever reason, I often confuse these two which is not a good thing when trying to tell a security guard that I have the keys to the apartment we are renting which should serve as proof that we are indeed authorized to enter the unit.

Security guards don’t really like knives as they don’t hold the llaves to their hearts, they can only cut them out.

Girls Gone Abroad - Line in London
Girls Gone Abroad – Line in London

3. Line vs Queue, London, UK
While in London. I arrived to the club where I was meeting a friend who was already inside.

“Hey, I am here! I’m out front! The line is really long!”

“Then cross it.”

Shoving my finger further into my right ear so I could hear her better through my left ear pressed against the phone, “Huh?”
“CROSS it!”

“I can’t! It’s LONG!”

A few moments later, my annoyed friend appears at the door of the club, asking me what the bloody hell is wrong with me that I can’t cross a line.
I swear I looked down at the ground and stared at it thinking…” What the f*&$!” (sorry, grandmother!)
You wait in a queue, not a line. How was I supposed to know this??

Girls Gone Abroad - Morto
Girls Gone Abroad – Morto

4. Marito vs Morto, Sicily

An Italian taxi cab driver insisted we were going to be married. I learned of my future all the way from Cefalu to Palermo.
I told him several times he was not going to be my dead.

When we arrived to Palermo, he cried.

Marito is much more romantic than morto.

You better believe that because of these mistakes and others I haven’t mentioned, I’ll never mess up those words again!

Now that I have told you four of mine, please share some of your language learning blunders so that I know that I am not alone.

Escúchame, ¿tiene la miseria? – and other misspeaks.

#1 Rule When Traveling – Learn a Few Key Phrases

Listen to me…even when I don’t speak your language.

There have been many times my eyes have glanced over a piece of paper with horizontal, faded blue lines which served as perches for various foreign words.
Foreign words strategically chosen and written very close to their English equivalent so there would be no confusion as to which word belonged with which because in a time of desperate moments, you wouldn’t want to make a mistake. (Hint: There have been desperate moments – but I will save that blog post for later.)
Sometimes, if I were lucky, Michelle would even provide the phonetic pronunciation and I would be given a brief tutorial.

Survival words. “Please?”  “Thank You.” “How much for this cocktail?”
The paper, once bright and white, would soon become soft and fuzzy by the many folds and unfolds that it would be forced to experience during the course of a trip.
Sometimes even when a word is mastered, we still pull out the paper while speaking. Kinda like a gesture to ask for forgiveness and a little mercy for tearing up their language.
And yes, the medium is paper because paper will always be available when wi-fi is not.
Michelle showed me the first magical piece of paper in 2007 when we went to Greece. Since then, she’s done this for every trip, well…except for Morocco and Bogota.
We wrongly believed that Moroccans only spoke Arabic and there was NO way we were going to attempt Arabic with or without a cheat sheet. Maybe tip #2 should be to conduct research prior to your trip.

Michelle didn’t write out a list for our trip to Colombia either. Quite possibly because they speak Spanish in Bogota and most Americans know a handful of Spanish phrases.
And we knew a handful of phrases and managed to get by, but it is always just that one word, letter or pronunciation that can make the biggest difference.

For example:
While sitting at Moulin Bleu enjoying a very generous cocktail happy hour, Michelle asks the bartenders, “Excuse me, do you have any peanuts?”
After a slight pause, the bartenders exchange looks and burst out laughing. Even the fellow bar patrons contributed to the jovial moment. Alicia and I just figured that there must be a peanut shortage and how dare someone ask!?

Michelle hands over her phone pointing to the little screen. More laughter. Her phone is returned to her with a correction.
Evidently, she demanded that the bartenders “listen to her” and asked if they had poverty (or misery).

“Escúchame, ¿tiene la miseria?”

Mystery solved.

Google translates “peanuts” to “miseria” and only Michelle can explain how she got “Escúchame”.
While we didn’t get peanuts, we did get a little plate full of snacks, enough laughter to give our abs a workout, and a memory that could never be bought.
The rule was and always will be that when traveling to a foreign country, don’t be that dumbass American that can’t at least say “please” and “thank you”.
But DO be that American that at least makes an attempt even if you are asking a waitress if they have poverty, telling the security guard you have knives, or ensuring your Uber driver goes forward and not left.

However, careful planning and paper is recommended.

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