Dear John

This is the 19th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice!

I have been clearing out my belongings in preparation for my indefinite move to Vietnam and I found this letter in a bunch of old papers tucked away at the back of my wardrobe. I met John a few years before I met the Italian and I wrote about him in The Ex-Files. I wish I knew about attachment theory back then, because I would have felt less like I was going nuts, which is painfully obvious in my letter to him, which, incidentally, I never sent.

Dear John,

After last night, I felt that I really needed to write down what I thought about this whole thing. I didn’t sleep at all, actually. I personally think that your definition of love is something that is based on too narrow a set of terms. From everything I’ve read, you seem to have a romantic notion of what love should be based on a general lack of experience. I don’t blame you. This is not your fault.

You said you don’t love me “enough”. How do you know? Do you feel closer to me than your parents? Have you ever felt this comfortable with anyone else? Have you ever wanted to spend as much time with anyone as you have with me? Have you ever be so willing to forgive and accept another person’s faults? Have you ever had this much sexual attraction for another person for this long a period of time? I think these are questions you nee to ask yourself, and answer honestly.

I think love is one word which encompasses a whole lot of other words. I think love is caring about another person and what happens to them, wanting to help them. It is about honesty, trust and respect; it is about compatibility, companionship and commitment. It is sex. It is about complications. It is about creating history. It is the time you spend with one important person. It is tears and anger and laughter and sadness, It is mercurial and changes from day-to-day, depending on your mood, energy levels and interactions with other people during the day. It is understanding and acceptance. It is empathy, it is communication. It is all these things and more.

I think love is one word which encompasses a whole lot of other words.

You show me all these things, and I can honestly say I have experienced more love with you, and you say you are unsure, than I have over the whole of my life from people who claim to love me. Love is behaviour, not a feeling.

Can I say that I would rather be with you in a relationship where you are “unsure” than without you. That is how sure I am about my feelings for you. I think if you look carefully and think about the time we’ve spent together good and bad you will see that you started much of our history together. The initial sexual attraction to me was very strong for you — and still is — and is getting stronger, not fading as it would if you didn’t want to be with me at all. The time we spend together, the history we are creating is feeding this. The connection is strong, deep and real.

Maybe you feel unsure because, as you said, you don’t know what love is, and maybe you feel you don’t deserve love. You do. You are a wonderful human being and you give me so much. You make me feel incredibly happy, powerful and strong. You have added a depth to my life, and continue to do so. I have learned so much from you and think I have grown as a person. These are incredible gifts you have given me. You are so worth the effort. We are so worth the effort.

Basically, I am writing this to get you thinking, questioning and re-evaluating, to see all that is right and positive and sure about what we have. Please don’t give up because you aren’t sure. The fact that we are still spending quality time together proves that you are more sure than not. Take time. Spend time with me. Allow yourself to feel close to me when you want to. Don’t worry about it if you don’t sometimes. Don’t say: Aha! That proves it — I don’t feel much today. Think about all the other times when you do and these far outweigh the times you don’t.

I think God has brought us together and is showing us how to be strong together. Think about how we met, how in sync we are, how things continue to by in sync, with everything happening for a reason. I think I’ve accepted that what we have being together is God’s will. And I can’t and don’t want to fight this.

All my love,

Diane


Photo via VisualHunt.com

On being an ageing woman

This is the 18th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

There’s nothing wrong with old age. ~ The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

One of my favourite movies is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, it’s based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story (which I’ve never read and probably should) that traces the life of Benjamin Button, who was born old, and gets progressively younger. I find the movie deeply philosophical and moving in the way it deals with questions of age and ageing.

I was never one to rely on my looks to get me anywhere in life, mainly because I’ve not really had them to start with. I don’t consider myself ugly — far from it — but I am not beautiful. I am, on a good day, quite attractive. In my younger years, I had no trouble attracting men. My late teens and twenties were, in fact, spent quite promiscuously. There was something about me that men found rather fascinating. I think (but I can’t confirm) that I was a curious mix of vulnerability and strength, of resilience and uncertainty. I wasn’t skinny, but I wasn’t overweight; I had large breasts (and still do) and slim hips (which aren’t quite so slim anymore).

I’ve always had a big personality, despite the awful childhood that almost beat it out of me. Speaking up and out often resulted in being hit with whatever my mother could get her hands on: shoe, hand, wooden spoon. Funny how as an adult I am proud of my ability not to be cowed by anything very much. My big personality has always been my major draw card, and I haven’t worried too much about my graying hair, lines and wrinkles, the heading south of my body, despite diet and exercise. And four of my five tattoos — and counting — have been inked into my body after the age of 52.

I thought I had accepted that I was almost officially middle-aged, and had talked myself into the idea that ageing is a privilege. Not everyone gets to grow old. I even call myself an old lady, although I was kind of joking, and am pleased when people say: You’re not old!

The lines and wrinkles that are now an enduring and defining part of my face are evidence that time is marching away from me.

I had accepted my ageing… up until the last few months, that is.

Now, I am painfully aware that I am not young. I am, in fact, sliding solidly into old age.

I am aware that men look at — ogle, even — young women, even when they are involved in a rigorous conversation with me. Eyes slide sideways to take in a lithe form as she passes by.

I am aware that I am, essentially, invisible. I am overlooked and bypassed and ignored in bars and queues, and I protest with a: Hey! I was here first! and proceed to tell off the person who dared overlook and bypass and ignore me.

I am aware that menopause is descending on me at a rapid rate of knots, and with biological imperatives removed, I am a less than ideal mate, especially for the (slightly) younger men I prefer. Some would say these men are relieved, but that urge to procreate is strong, even if sex does not result in offspring.

I am aware that, as much as I profess to be comfortable in my skin, the truth is I am not. The lines and wrinkles that are now an enduring and defining part of my face are evidence that time is marching away from me. I am closer to my death now than I ever was, fate notwithstanding.

I am aware that when I am out with my much younger (and gorgeous) friends, I am thought of — by others, strangers — as their mother. Of course, I should be flattered that others, strangers, would think my genes are that good, but the superficial, snap judgement that my age is equivalent to motherhood is something I object to.

I am aware that the beautiful, younger men who cross my path daily in Vietnam will never find me attractive or appealing in the superficial way that I sometimes desire. In that “I would like to take you into my bed, strip you naked and have my way with you” way that occurred regularly 20 or 30 years ago.

(Although I recently met a beautiful Vietnamese man around my age who is very keen to take me into his bed, strip me naked and have his way with me. And not in a superficial way either, which is a much, much better.)

How do I reconcile ageing and invisibility? Ageing and judgmental stereotyping? Ageing and the inevitability of death?

I have no answer to these questions, at least not yet, but surely the answer partly lies in the idea that age is not synonymous with being old.

And old is not what I am.

Or will ever be.


Photo taken by me in on a ferry in Kerala, India in 2015.

Near death experience

This is the 17th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

Saturday, July 22, 2017 will henceforth be known as the day I could have died, but didn’t.

I could have died from a head injury when I was thrown from motorcycle on a treacherous mountain road, but I didn’t.

I was lucky, that’s for sure.

***

I had been asked if I wanted to do a trip to Cao Bang, for Word — the magazine I write for. Cao Bang — a mountainous area the north-east of Vietnam, near the Chinese border — is just starting to open up to tourism, and there are a number of NGOs working in the area, supporting local people with homestays and community development initiatives. An NGO had approached the magazine wanting media coverage. Word had sent a writer to Ha Giang with the same NGO some time ago, with no problems.

Of course, I jumped at the chance because a) I went to Mu Cang Chai the previous weekend and it was a fabulous trip, b) it seemed like an awesome thing to do and c) it was free.

The road was steep, uneven and extremely rocky. The bike flipped sideways, and I was thrown backwards and hit my head on the road, missing a large rock by inches.

Cao Bang is a seven or eight-hour journey from Hanoi, give or take toilet stops and meal breaks. I was travelling with project leaders, 15 experienced tour guides and trekkers and a lovely young lady from Vietnam News — all Vietnamese. I was the only foreigner on this trip, but it wasn’t an issue, because English-speaking ability ranged from excellent to ok. And I got to practise my Vietnamese.

The brief indicated there would be lots of trekking, but I was fine with that. Hiking through idyllic mountains, view breath-taking scenery, it read. After all, I was a trail runner in Australia – how hard could it be?

We arrived in Cao Bang, had lunch and drove to the start of the trek, which was scheduled before we checked into our homestay in a nearby(ish) village.

Remember I asked how hard could it be? Well, think Kokoda Track, and you’d be somewhere in the ballpark. The terrain was extremely steep and rocky, and it alternated between ankle-deep mud covering slippery surfaces and jungle that had to be cut through with a machete. I kept saying: No wonder the Americans and Australians lost the war.

It was clear very early on that the “media girls” (as we were called) were struggling. We were inappropriately dressed for the terrain (I was in jeans, t-shirt and sneakers), and totally unprepared. We had hardly any water, nothing to restore sugar and salt reserves (it was hot and humid), no sunscreen, no insect repellent and no walking sticks. No wonder the Americans and Australians lost the war.

We were last and were left behind with a couple of other trekkers/guides. It was clear early on that there was no exit strategy. None.

Some of us get to the end and are full of regrets, deeply saddened by what could or should have been, but never was.

After a few phone frantic calls between the trekkers/guides, the exit strategy was telling us to keep moving — with the plan being to get us to the main road and then call for a xe om (motorcycle taxi). We walked four kilometres of pure hell: I couldn’t catch my breath even though I have never been asthmatic, and we were exhausted. We even had to backtrack a couple of times because was the trekker/guides who were with us weren’t sure where the main road was, despite making more phone calls (I found out later this was the first time this trek had been done). At one point I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to give up and die on that mountain, or just sit down and cry. In the end it was neither.

When the xe oms came, there were no helmets. I never get on the back of a motorcycle without a helmet, but in this case I had no choice — there was no other way back to the homestay. And we were exhausted. There was no way we could have walked the last few kilometres.

My driver lost control of his bike about 1 kilometre into the journey. The road was steep, uneven and extremely rocky. The bike flipped sideways, and I was thrown backwards and hit my head on the road, missing a large rock by inches.

I crawled to the side of the road, dazed and confused, wondering what I had done to deserve this.

And I thanked God I was still alive.

At the insistence of friends back in Australia (one who said a colleague of hers had died days later after a similar accident and who can forget Natasha Richardson’s death?) I had a CT scan when I got back to Hanoi. I was very lucky. I ended up with a huge lump and a very sore head (and it’s still sore some two weeks later), but no concussion or bleeding into my brain.

***

I’ve always believed that you have a finite number of days on this earth. Limited time. Some of us don’t make it out of the womb, some of us only last days, sometimes only a couple of weeks or just a few years after we are born. Some of us live long, happy lives. Some of us live long, miserable lives. Some of us are dogged with ill-health and misfortune and addiction and godawfulness. Some of us live large and loud, others small and quiet and little. Some of us get to the end and are full of regrets, deeply saddened by what could or should have been, but never was.

You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You could swear, curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go. ~ Captain Mike, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

For some unknown reason, a reason that I am not privy to, it was not my fate to die of a head injury on a mountain in Cao Bang, Vietnam on Saturday, 22 July 2017.

It makes me wonder why not?

What does the universe have planned for me?

What is it that I am yet to do that hasn’t been done?

Time will tell, as it always does.


Photo credit: Thomas James Caldwell via VisualHunt / CC BY-ND

Missing home

This is the 16th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice!

For the first time since arriving in Vietnam  seven — almost eight — months ago, I am missing home.

It’s not for any one particular reason, because I am happy here.

Or I was, and I still am.

It’s this vague, gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach, a feeling of general unease, that has dominated my last few days. I feel teary and disengaged, even though I know I remain spiritually to connected my beloved Hanoi.

But some of my friends have left, or are leaving, or are away for a month or two doing other things. Everyone leaves Hanoi in July and August. The weather, don’t you know. And the end of the teaching year.

I kind of feel like the last woman standing.

I am painfully aware that I don’t have a special someone to share my feelings with, even though I could have. Twice. But that’s a topic for another post.

(And I don’t mean my recent escapade of the sexy times variety. That was a once-off.)

And it’s not because work things aren’t happening here. They are. If I told you what I’m doing in the next couple of weeks travel-wise (and free!) you’d be green with envy. Stuff still just falls into my lap.

But life is starting to feel kind of normal. I fear that I’m losing that I’m in Hanoi, bitches feeling of awe I had when I first got here. Now life is about pumping out words, getting up exceedingly early to get on buses, and chasing people to get paid.

I need to get my awe back.

***

I’ve moved apartments, and getting used to new noises and routes and people and routines has been unsettling. And as much as the construction around my old apartment was annoying, I did like it very much. I liked my security guys, particularly Mr Hung, who thought it was hilarious that I — with my grey hair — was younger than he was. Chao em, he’d say and then  burst out laughing. He had hardly any English, but decided that speaking to me in French was also hilarious. Bon jour, he’d say. Comment talle-vous. And crack up laughing again.

I miss Ms Van, my cleaning lady who also did my laundry. I discovered that my whites were grey because she had no concept of separating clothes into whites and coloureds/blacks. It was endearing rather than annoying.

But I’ve moved in and I’ve also had a foster kitty come to stay for a couple of months before I go back to Australia in August. Jodi Foster Kitty to be exact. A little ginger kitten who is behaving exactly like my Bella.

And it’s this little kitty which is the catalyst for my homesickness. I think.

Jodi Foster Kitty has reminded me of all the things I love about my home city of Adelaide: my daughter, my friends, my home, my cat. All the things that are not here with me, including all my things, that I’m not able to be close to.

Sure there’s Facebook, and I get to keep up-to-date with everyone, and they with me. But it’s not the same.

Clearly.

I’ve missed birthdays (my daughter’s and my sister’s), a wedding (sorry, Melsy), break-ups and surgery, among other things.

***

While Hanoi is an easy city in which to live, it’s not convenient. I can’t go to a department store and get everything I need all in one place. I can’t buy clothes off the rack. I haven’t run for months.

My pay isn’t easily paid into my bank account, that’s if it’s paid on time. And I’m forever asking when I’ll be paid. I receive profuse apologies, but I think the assumption is that I am foreign, and therefore wealthy. I’ve been told that Vietnamese are always paid first. From the questions I’ve asked, it’s true.

And it’s been hot. So hot. I can tolerate heat, but I don’t enjoy it. It’s even more unpleasant here, with the humidity. Sweat trickles down my back permanently. I just can’t seem to get cool. Menopause doesn’t help.

But there’s respite in the rain — it buckets down late in the afternoon, and sets in for the night. While it’s not cold, going out in the evening is fraught. Umbrellas are useless when the ran falls in sheets. And often the water is past my ankles, up to my mid-calves. I like the rain, even this rain, but it seriously damages evening plans.

***

Today, I booked my flights back to Australia, leaving Hanoi at the end of August.

I’ll be back in Adelaide for a month. The plan was to pack up my personal things, rent my place out and bring Bella Kitteh back to Hanoi with me.

Now, I’m not so sure…

I have six weeks to work out what I want to do, taking into account everything: work, cost of living, climate, pollution, friends, family, health care…

I might be like so many people here, and be back and forth for years, sitting on the fence, unable to make a decision about where I want to live.

Now, I’m not so sure as I was…


Photo credit: Halong Bay by me.

Why I love Vietnam

This is the 15th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice!

I am often asked by people in Australia why I love Vietnam.

The answer is easy: it’s because life here is so easy.

It’s easy living. It’s easy to find work. It’s easy to get around. It’s easy to form networks and friendships. It’s easy to have an interesting life.

Back in Australia, it’s the opposite. There are so many barriers and obstacles that make life difficult. It’s hard to find work, it’s hard to get things done. It’s a completely different mindset in Australia, and it’s about no, rather then yes. It’s wearing and frustrating having to deal with knock-backs all the time.

At least, I think so.

***

I’ve loved Vietnam since 2010, when I first visited this wonderful country. Not having travelled internationally before, I was blown away with how different it was to Australia. It was chaotic and messy and dirty and ancient and beautiful and fascinating, and that was just the landscape!

(Of course, Asia — as I found out — is so very different to Australia. And that’s exactly why I love it.)

But it was something more: I felt a connection to its people, its story, its history. Here was a country that had almost been annihilated by war, many wars, and yet people just got on with things. They hold no grudges (but don’t mention the Chinese), are warm and helpful and friendly. They are industrious and hard working and entrepreneurial, and just want to improve life for their families. And they do this by just getting things done.

This “just getting things done” thing spills over into every aspect of life here in Vietnam, including mine.

***

Instead of a facing the next chapter of my life on the scrap-heap, fighting to be noticed let alone employed, I find I am in demand. This is what it must feel like to be a rock star.

If I walk out of my apartment building, within 20 metres is a mini-market where I can get almost anything I need: eggs, vodka, pesto, curry powder, fresh tomatoes and bananas. Even Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese. Another 50 metres either side are more markets. Another 100 metres up the road, I can have a beer or a coconut or a feed of authentic Mexican, along with a margarita or three. A further 300 metres up the road is a bakery that sells a scrumptious chicken mango salad and delicious iced cocoas and gorgeous baguettes, among other things. Around the corner, another 300 metres away is a co-working space that has friendly obliging management, craft beer and free wifi. My bicycle repair guy is about 400 metres away, as is the nearest public pool. Conveniently within walking distance is really a thing here.

If I want to go further — say one or two kilometres — I ride my bicycle. If I want to go even further, I grab a motorcycle taxi: it’s a cheap, reliable and convenient service.

I mostly work from my apartment, or I go to a co-working space or a cafe (apart from my days at KOTO where two out of three are spent at Yen Vien or the restaurant in Van Mieu). Wifi is everywhere, and it’s free. Work has been easy to find. What makes me ordinary and uninteresting in Australia (English speaking, tertiary educated, fifty plus) makes me highly employable here. Instead of a facing the next chapter of my life on the scrap-heap, fighting to be noticed let alone employed, I find I am in demand. This is what it must feel like to be a rock star.

Because of the writing work I do, I have been wooed by Playboy Establishment and whisked off to Halong Bay to experience luxury cruising. I see my name in print every month. I’ll be travelling to Hong Kong, South Korea and Myanmar this year for work, not to mention Saigon and Danang here in Vietnam. It would be almost impossible for this to happen in Australia.

(KOTO and the trainees keep my feet firmly planted on the ground.)

***

Another day in Hanoi, and another social engagement. My friendship group here is broad and deep and diverse, with friends made quickly and easily. Here is not like home, where I have set groups of friends, and someone would have to drop off the perch to be allowed in. I stayed home a lot, not because I didn’t have anything to do, but because I couldn’t be bothered doing anything. Every day, every week, every month, every year was the same old, same old.

It’s different here. So very different. Yesterday, I did a scooter trip with an Australian-Korean-German-Indian-Vietnamese-Chinese group I happen to have accidentally become a part of. We left at 9.30 and headed west, 50km out of Hanoi in searing heat. It was hot and sweaty and my butt hurt, but it was fabulous. Tonight, I’m having dinner with an Aussie friend and his mate, who has literally just flown into Hanoi.

A few days ago, I was watching episodes of Supernatural with a French friend. On Monday, I waded through floodwater (I’m not kidding… the water was six inches deep) to keep a dinner date with fellow Australians and a UK lass I love hanging out with. A couple of weeks ago, I was slightly hungover, but went for lunchtime Margaritas with a Tex-Mex friend.

A month ago, I went to a bia hoi with another lovely UK lass to watch Game of Thrones. Two months ago, I went to Dalat for the weekend with an American friend. My real estate guy, who is Vietnamese, is a dear friend, as is my Vietnamese teacher. And a fortnight ago, I “visited Hanoi” with my Vietnamese “son”, a KOTO graduate I met in Saigon a couple of months ago — he was in Hanoi for his graduation. This is a snapshot of the things I do, and the cross-section of people who are in my life. It is indeed a rich tapestry.

Everyone I meet is a potential friend, or companion, not to mention my KOTO connections that add a glorious, meaningful depth to my life in Hanoi. Every time I go to the restaurant, I am greeted by at least 20 Hello, Ms Dianes and smiles and waves and (sometimes) hugs. And when I go to the training centre, it’s also like that.

Yesterday, I went to lunch at Pullman Hotel — a scrumptious buffet lunch I’d won in a KOTO fundraising raffle — with three lovely friends who are leaving Hanoi, and I bumped into a KOTO graduate. Or rather, she bumped into me. Hello Ms Diane, she said. I’m Loan, from Class 27.  She was a KOTO graduate. They literally are everywhere. She remembered me from just one assessment task I did with her: a 20 minute job interview.

Qua dep. How beautiful.

***

In Hanoi, I am wanted, loved, admired, respected, valued and needed here in a way I’m not back in Australia. And because of this, I am calmer. Kinder.

I don’t have to fight to get anything done here.

Things just happen.

Is it any wonder I love Vietnam?


 Photo credit: Halong Bay by me.

On learning a new language

This is the 14th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

After only a few days in Hanoi, it was painfully obvious that I needed to learn Vietnamese. I could say thank you, and hello (learned from when I was here in 2010) but it wasn’t nearly enough. Clearly.

Without Vietnamese, I couldn’t communicate with taxi drivers—my main form of transport. I couldn’t tell them where I was going  (I had to rely on Google maps), and I couldn’t tell them where to pick me up (Grab and Uber drivers usually call first to verify the pick-up address).

If I knew where I was going, I couldn’t direct them (left, right, keep going, stop here), let alone tell drivers where to drop me off if I changed my mind about my destination, for example, being dropped off at the shopping centre a kilometre away from my apartment because I had to get milk or eggs or bananas. Or stopping at an ATM because I was out of cash.

And I’m here to tell you that Vietnamese pronunciation is hard. Not as hard as coal mining, mind you, but still hard.

I didn’t know what to order in a restaurant or from a street food vendor, crucial because I am vegetarianish—I don’t eat things that have fur or hair. I didn’t want to accidentally eat beef or pork. Or worse: dog or cat, which are eaten regularly in Vietnam.

Sure, enough people spoke English—certainly it was more prolific than when I was here in 2010 especially among the young—but not being able to speak Vietnamese, well, I felt disabled. Alien. Disempowered.

So I tentatively dipped my toe into a Vietnamese language class. It was taught by a young Vietnamese woman whose English was excellent. Unfortunately her ability to teach was not.

She sped through the alphabet, pronunciation, pronouns, directions and time in record speed.

I lasted three lessons before quitting. I felt stupid and inadequate and slow. What was wrong with me that I didn’t get it? Surely Vietnamese wasn’t that hard?

Turns out it is. Vietnamese is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn, especially for a native English speaker.

(Others have argued that it’s easier than we think. The jury is out on that one.)

I found another teacher, and I did ten—count ’em, ten!—lessons on Vietnamese pronunciation. It was only then that we moved onto vocabulary and sentence building. Because if you can’t or don’t pronounce Vietnamese properly, NO ONE will understand what you are saying. Cue blank looks. And I’ve had a lot of them.

And I’m here to tell you that Vietnamese pronunciation is hard. Not as hard as coal mining, mind you, but still hard. Trying to wrap my tongue around the ng sound (fine at the end of a word, but not so much at the beginning), the ư sound (the only way I could make that sound was to pretend I was angry—it was henceforth known as the angry vowel), the o (as in horrible, but more towards the back of the throat) and the kh sound (another back of the throat sound) was impossible, not to mention vowel sounds (i, y, a, ă , â, e, ê, u, ư, ô, ơ and o) PLUS double vowels PLUS the six tones on top of that. And don’t even get me started on the bubble! Gah!

I didn’t think I’d make it to the end of those ten weeks. But I did.

By the end of those ten weeks, I could read Vietnamese and pronounce it properly. I didn’t understand any of it, but I could read it. Which meant I could read and pronounce addresses and menu items. Freedom!

In the meantime, I was picking up all sorts of useful phrases thanks to Google Translate and my Vietnamese KOTO colleagues: no meat, vegetarian, turn right, turn left, stop here, good-bye, you’re handsome, you’re pretty, you’re beautiful, you are so kind, bill please, confused, traffic jam, short-cut, speak slowly, happy lunar new year, I’m sorry, good, not good, no, wait a minute, delicious, no problem, you’re welcome, iced coffee with condensed milk, toilet, hot, too expensive, a little, numbers 1-10, very, fish, chicken, tofu, rain, and a few pronouns.

I also know that Vietnamese would be almost impossible to learn if I were still in Australia. Here, in between my weekly lessons, I speak Vietnamese as much as possible, even when I could just as easily speak English.

I’ve now moved onto communication and I’ve just completed lesson 4: my Vietnamese friends (or in fact any Vietnamese I bump into when I’m out and who I get talking to in my limited Vietnamese) say that my Vietnamese is very good. I have inspired a few of my expat friends to sign up for lessons. My Vietnamese is certainly much better than it was six months ago, and I’m very proud of my progress. And my lessons include non text-book Vietnamese, which is super handy.

I’ll give you an example. Last weekend I had to go to Bangkok for a visa run. I was standing in the immigration queue in Noi Bai Airport. A young Vietnamese dude was standing in front of me. His mate decided to join him and jumped the queue and stood in front of me, next to his friend. I tapped him on the shoulder, looked at him, raised an eyebrow and said: Thật à? which translates to: Really? Are you serious? He looked at me, surprised, and moved back behind me.

And another: yesterday I caught a Grab motorcycle taxi into KOTO Restaurant from my apartment for a meeting. This dude was driving much too quickly to be safe. Em, I said, Đi chậm! That translates to: Young man, go slower! He slowed right down. Mission accomplished.

Now that’s empowerment!

Readers should note that I have never learned a language formally. I always pick up smatterings while I travel—a few words here, a few phrases there—and I attempted to learn Spanish via Duolingo, with some success. I have no idea whether I have an aptitude for foreign languages or not, because I have no benchmark against which to measure aforementioned aptitude: no high school French, Italian or Latin—that was what was on offer when I was in school. I do know that my brain tends to latch onto words and phrases that are non-text book. I have no idea why. Learning the days of the week, time of day, numbers, pronouns, prepositions, sentence structure is hard for me, but I can joke in Vietnamese, and talk in idioms and phrases, for example, shoot the breeze, kiss and make up, bullshit, piss off, how are you, and pardon me. I can even call myself a cougar, which results in raucous laughter, because it means a younger man has to be present for the joke to work.

I also know that Vietnamese would be almost impossible to learn if I were still in Australia. Here, in between my weekly lessons, I speak Vietnamese as much as possible, even when I could just as easily speak English. I get it wrong—all the time!—but people are kind and patient, and correct me gently. And I keep getting it wrong and repeating it until I get it right.

Given then I am in Vietnam indefinitely, I plan to keep on learning Vietnamese. Because how else do you understand a culture—and I mean really understand—other than through its language?


Photo credit: 漂泊的荷兰人 via VisualHunt / CC BY