By Anh Dinh (
[CC-BY-2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
My friend Erin used to say that there was really nowhere more noiseless than a city where you don’t speak the language. I’m learning what that means now.
Obviously, she didn’t mean “noiseless” as in, an absence of noise. Rather, she meant “comprehensible noise”-less. I didn’t really understand that until yesterday afternoon.
Let’s get one thing pretty clear: if I’m not in my room or a common area of the house, I’m basically constantly surrounded by people, and half of them are trying to sell me something in Vietnamese. As recently as last year, this would have FREAKED ME OUT. I’m a dude that needs his alone time, after all! I had always used that time to do much-needed Thinking. I like Thinking, and I need to be alone to do it. It seemed like a simple equation: being alone/quiet time = Thinking. That equation has become more flexible than I ever thought it could.
For one thing, I’ve discovered that it doesn’t MATTER if there are people around. And when most people around you couldn’t understand you, even if they cared to understand your strange, unnatural customs and oddities, they don’t. They’re going/coming to work, getting fed, feeding others, or just being busy not caring about you beyond the usual/mandatory “oh hey look a white guy DON’T FORGET TO STARE AT HIM” way. (It’s even worse for my German friend. They don’t believe his hair is really so blond and keep touching it. Um, No? No, thank you?)
For another, even when there are people everywhere (again, basically all the time), they’re all talking another language, too. Nothing that THEY say makes sense to YOU, either! You try to keep your ears open for the sounds you’re learning in your Vietnamese lessons, to the few words and phrases you know and can respond to, but the vast, vast majority of what you hear is useless to you – too heavily accented, too fast. It all sinks to the bottom. It exists on the same plane as the interminable whine of moped motors and the honking of horns. It becomes the background music of Life Abroad.
I miss places like this, but the constant burble of people…
actually doesn’t even come close to making up for it.

And, just like lazing in the grass near a burbling river, you slowly relax and learn to let the meaningless sound waves carry your brain where it will, to ebb and flow around the corners of your mind and carry your inner monologue upon the surface, touching down every few minutes to shun a xe om or order some street food. Once I get a firmer grasp on the language I expect this to suddenly become much more of a headache as I try to piece together everything I hear into meaning. As of right now I can read the alphabet and piece together words, but I lack any idea of what the words I’m saying mean.

Occasionally when I’m out and about, or more often when I’m in my room and have the windows open, I’ll be doing something unrelated (as in, not actively listening) when I look up suddenly, sure that I’ve just heard some common English words from the world outside. I retroactively try to piece them together, imagining what they might be. A mother talking to a child is the sound that I most often think I hear, or a conversation between neighbors – jokes or gossip. I don’t think there was any English spoken (certainly not unaccented, full sentences that my brain is convinced it can piece together!) but it’s interesting to watch my passively observing brain struggle to understand.

For the time being, at least, I inhabit a noiseless city. It’s a useful concept, Erin – thank you!
I get a lot of thinking done.