Once, during my semester abroad in Rome, while seated on the passenger side of il taxi, sparking up animated conversation with my driver, I was asked this question:
"Allora, bella...di dove sei in italia?"
This short, stubby man, trying to protect his obviously balding head with a too-tiny beret, had just asked me where in italia I was from. Can you believe that?! My romano language skills had gotten so good (in three weeks time, no less) that he actually believed I was one of his peoples!
Smiling widely, I answered back, saying, "Grazie, signore, ma non sono di italia...sono di New York."
He did a quick double take, turning the right side of his body almost completely toward me, before he (thankfully) averted his eyes back to la strada, noticeably distracted by what I just told him.
"Non e' vero, bella!" he said, proclaiming that what I just confessed must have been false.
This man, needless to say, made my evening.
Skip two years and seven months down the line. Can Tho, Vietnam. I am getting an "egg sandwich" for breakfast, accompanied with thinly sliced cucumber, cut up carrots and onions, a chili paste and...other stuff. Since meat is an option as well, which I don't want, I point to the eggs, resting on a glass shelf, encased in the little glass vending stand, and then point to the flakey loaves of bread. The woman selling these wonderful breakfast delights nods and says, "Hai?"- I think about it and decide that "hai" eggs is better than "mawt" egg, so I agree and nod for two instead of one.
I'm fussing about with my i-Pod when I look up and see that my sandwich is ready, wrapped up in deli paper, secured with a rubberband, sitting in a pink plastic bag, waiting to be devoured. But she doesn't give it to me. Instead, she proceeds to crack another egg in her little frying pan, and smiles.
So she thought I wanted two sandwiches, not two eggs on one sandwich, I think to myself, kind of embarassed that she now believes me to have the appetite of a growing teenage boy. I don't mind paying the extra 5,000 VND for the unwanted grinder, because it's equivalent to only twenty-five cents. Still, I now feel foolish. And once again, what I had originally wanted was lost in translation.
I have unwillingly come to accept the fact that my linguistic skills in Vietnam will never come close to those I had possessed in Italy. The language is simply too difficult for me, and I can not wrap my confused little brain around it. I try to tell the taxi drivers where I live, time and time again, abusing a thousand different pronunciations of the phrase "khu mawt", which means "campus one" in English. And time and time again, they fail to understand me.
Yesterday, exhausted and suffering from heat stroke, a Dutch friend of mine asked me this:
"I ate crap here the other day. Have you eaten it yet? Crap?"
I looked at him, horrified and perplexed.
"Uhh...what?" And then I realized.
"Ohhh, you mean crab!"
He nodded and said, "Yes, what I just said."
Only one word comes to mind when I am reminded of the fact that I don't think anyone will ever understand what I say, or I them, in Vietnam: crap.
*** Side Note: The pronunciation of the word "khu" in Vietnamese is closely related to the the word for "penis" - I can't even imagine what these motorbike taxi drivers must be thinking when I ask them to take me home to "Penis 1..."