Learning Vietnamese Culture
February 9, 2004 9:59 PM   Subscribe

Recommended sources for learning the Vietnamese language and culture, please?

My uncle married a lovely Vietnamese woman a few years ago, and on our last visit my family got the impression that we may have committed a cultural gaffe or two around the in-laws. (Specifically, her mother clearly disapproved of our chopsticks skills, though we've all lived in other Asian countries and thought we were pretty good with them...)

We also want to be able to communicate a little with the non-English-speaking members of the family when the bilingual members aren't available. So, in an effort to bridge the gap, we've decided as a family to learn some Vietnamese and brush up on culture before we do anything really dumb. I found some Pimsleur tapes at the library, but the library set didn't include any written materials, so we're finding it hard to follow along. Any suggestions?
posted by Soliloquy to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That's extraordinarily sweet and considerate of your whole family, and I'm sure your in-laws-once-removed will appreciate your efforts.

One thing, though: it's not particularly comme il faut to cast aspersions on something like chopsticking skills, especially if (as your uncle's wife's mother must understand) chopsticks are not something you were raised with. I commend your efforts to put your new familymates at ease, but that's just rude, and would be rude in any culture. So don't just assume that you're the barbarians blundering your way around: understanding is a two-way street.

For the most part, obvious sincerity and effort should get you most of the way there, no matter how many times you shoot peas across the room. Best of luck, and sorry I don't have more specific advice re: Vietnamese.
posted by adamgreenfield at 10:33 PM on February 9, 2004

Specifically, her mother clearly disapproved of our chopsticks skills...

I don't understand this either. Are you sure that was the cause of the disapproval? I mean, did she say "Stop trying to use those chopsticks, you're driving me crazy, you dumb foreigners?" Is it possible you're misinterpreting her? I've been in a number of Asian countries (not to mention restaurants here), and never had anyone express anything but appreciation for my chopstick skills (which, of course, vary with use).

As to your actual question, I don't have specific advice either, except to suggest you look through whatever books are available at the nearest bookstore with a decent foreign-language section and decide which one appeals most to you (with tapes if possible), make yourself practice every day, and (most important) speak it with Vietnamese as often as possible.
posted by languagehat at 8:10 AM on February 10, 2004

Though it may not be relevant to this particular situation, it's still good to know: I have been warned (by a person born in Vietnam) not to stick my chopsticks vertically into my food, since this is part of a funeral rite, and is also reminiscent of incense burned for the dead. Lay your chopsticks down instead.

While I'm on chopstick etiquette, a Japanese friend has also asked me not to pass food directly to another person's chopsticks at the table, since this is also reminiscent of a funereal custom.

Gaffes like this aren't the fault of the (presumably ignorant) person holding the chopsticks, but they can be offensive to people used to those customs. Funerals are a bad subject for the dinner table.
posted by hashashin at 10:37 AM on February 10, 2004

Odd. I think I handle chopsticks okay, (but obviously don't have the experience with them that someone using them 3 times/day every day has), and my experiences in Vietnam and South Korea were similar to languagehat's. No one raised an eyebrow at my chopstick use, with the exception of an occasional compliment. They'd often bring me a fork at a restaurant (especially at the little-tables-on-the-side-of-the-street kind), being hospitable, and would break out in big grins when I bypassed it and reached for the chopsticks. I found the Vietnamese in general to be quite warm, welcoming, and forgiving of the big white barbarian visiting their country. ;-)

I have next to zero affinity for learning languages, but I've heard that Vietnamese is extraordinarily difficult to learn because it's tonal. (almost sung rather than spoken.) Languagehat of course knows way more than I about these things, but I believe that every syllable can be pronounced in any of six different ways, each of which has a different meaning. (Thus the array of diacritical marks that are all over written Vietnamese.)

As far as Vietnamese culture goes, I'd just read as much as possible. Some books I've read and enjoyed are:

--The Tale of Kieu -- the epic poem that seems to inform a lot of the folklore. I'm told that just about every Vietnamese knows it;

--The House on Dream Street, by Dana Sachs -- an American woman visits Hanoi and writes (well) about it;

--Vietnam, Now: A Reporter Returns, by David Lamb -- the Los Angeles Times correspondent in Hanoi (and former war correspondent) writes about the country. I've traded e-mails with the guy before I visited Vietnam, and he was very encouraging and welcoming. Plus I kept running into friends of his when I was traveling around Hanoi;

--The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family by Duong Van Mai Elliott -- a densely-written but fascinating history of Vietnam through a very personal lens;

--Lonely Planet World Food: Vietnam by Richard Sterling -- a slim but great guidebook to Vietnamese cuisine, complete with interesting sidebars and restaurant recommendations.

And I haven't read these books, but I've heard good things about them or they just look interesting:

--Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Journey Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham;

--Pagodas, Gods and Spirits of Vietnam by Ann Helen Unger;

--Cultures and Customs of Vietnam, by Mark W. McLeod;

and Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam by Robert Templer.

No more specific advice to offer, alas, but good luck and have fun.
posted by Vidiot at 10:52 AM on February 10, 2004

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