The major difference is that, in the game, you’re almost perpetually physically alone – traveling, I’m only mentally isolated.

Let’s check out our hero’s #4 New Year’s Resolution

4. Be able to basically communicate what I need in Vietnamese 

My vietnamese is just terrible. Much of it is that I’m shy and hesitant to use it in the first place (and the fact that it’s just a difficult language, period), but I’ve come to recognize that, to put it simply, I’ve got to either use it or stay in the English bubble forever. Since the latter is not acceptable, I will start making more of a lingual connection to my environment.

Ha. Learning Vietnamese. I’d forgotten that I’d even made this resolution. Let me tell you a story.

It’s time to unpack that dusty box that has “VIETNAMESE – HOLY CRAP, LEARN ME ASAP” scrawled on the side in big, black marker…

I recently had coffee with my friend Erwin, where we discovered we both have a predilection for unique video games, and he recommended Journey (PS3). It’s a strange, solitary, question mark of a game. In it, you play a character that (per Erwin’s description) can only basically do three things: move, jump around a bit, and make a funny sound. When two players meet (the game introduces players to each other randomly), the result is a lot of presumably-purposeful jumping in circles, these repeated little sounds, and attempted non-verbal interaction (such as one character attempting to lead the other).

If it wasn’t obvious, I immediately took it to the logical extremes inhabited by teenage girls and obsessive pop music fans – this game is ABOUT ME! And I haven’t even played it yet! Or really know anything about it!

1. It features a character that is probably a human. I am ALSO probably a human.
3. The character is on a journey. …Now it’s getting personal.
2. That character occasionally meets other players on their own journeys within the universe of the game. This happens to ME, TOO.
3. The two characters can only communicate through jumping around each other, making a single, adorable sound, and non-verbally indicating. OMG JUST LIKE ME IN VIETNAM. OMG.


Visual map of VN tones. *EEP*, indeed!

Upon re-spawning in my own personal Journey, I was utterly stymied by communication and culture. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like uprooting my whole life and embarking on a new path get in my way, though. I wanted to own my time in Vietnam, and my crutch has always been language… but I was alone in a world where I couldn’t use my all-important language skills.

My first knee-jerk reaction was to say, Oh, of course. I’ll just learn Vietnamese, and then I’ll be fine. Piece of cake.”

Gloria Gaynor’s famous first lines sum it up nicely:

At first I was afraid — I was petrified. Kept thinkin’ I could never learn the language, but I tried….

…After several months, reality sunk in.

A) Most importantly, cake in Vietnam is unreliable. Nothing is easy as a piece of cake, because it turns out that making good cake is apparently really hard. And half the time it’s called cake but is actually baguette or green beans or tofu or rice buns or whatever. And forget about pie. Just… no.

B) Vietnamese is a hot mess of a language for foreigners to learn. It consists of one-syllable tonal words (6 tonal options in all), and, in the South, it’s standard to drop the last consonant of every word (which, for you following along at home, is ONE-THIRD of every single word!!). The Southern Vietnamese dialect is DIFFICULT, both to speak and to hear.

C) Finally, investing so much time and effort into a language that I wasn’t able to functionally use was a repeated blow. Pronunciation that was fine in the classroom was useless and confusing in the real world. Classes moved too fast for me to perfect the speech functions that I used every day. Discouragement resulted from trying to answer the simplest questions. Virtually every exchange ended in embarrassment for myself and probably the vendor, too. After all, losing face is a communal activity here.

What to do? These are three pretty big downers (seriously, cake, get it together).

I’m definitely in the Experimenting/Preparing phase of my Vietnam Arc – stay tuned!
Spoiler: Mastery will NOT be of the Vietnamese language. 

But Gloria’s next lines are the ones that hit it home:

…You know I spent so many nights thinkin’ how it did me wrong, and I grew strong: and I learned how to get along!

I ended up quitting my VN lessons and making myself more relaxed and happy in the process. I stopped convincing myself this was my one entry point into Vietnamese culture, and instead focused on learning to gradually satisfy my basic needs and wants by simply going out and tackling them head on, using the hell out of non-verbal communication and wielding my smile and foreignness like a glorious sledgehammer.

This isn’t to say I haven’t picked up some language. I can almost always speak to waitstaff, and if I have a moment to mentally prepare, I can say numbers and amounts… and I can almost always hear them correctly at this point. I consider both Major Victories – numbers, especially, were a pain in the ass! I am not good at numbers.

So what happened? Am I still jumping around a little, emitting adorable, funny sounds, attempting to communicate?

“Let’s *eep* over here,
New Friend! Follow me!!”

Totally. And you know what? It works.

I don’t get how, but it does. Many times a business owner will have a small vocabulary (like 5 or 6 words) of English related to their profession, which is always a relief. Other times we jump and *eep* around each other in a mystery dance, neither being able to comprehend or respond except to what we perceive to be happening. Just because most of the time I get what I want doesn’t mean the process doesn’t break down, but it’s the fastest way for me to make headway in understanding the culture and language, and the easiest way to provide a baseline or data point for my next interaction.

I have a vocabulary of a few dozen words and a half dozen phrases I can say with a smile. Every reply makes me feel better about my attempt to understand and use the language, but, more than that, it’s the human interaction that is the true reward. I continue to make mistakes (I’m SURE), but I no longer sweat them. It’s pointless.

At least it keeps it real – seeing what you’re handed after a conversational transaction is always an important lesson, and frequently hilarious. I’ve found it best to end every one in a smile and a “xin chau”!, hopefully leaving a good impression for foreigners to come. I learn something new and interesting virtually every single day, and I try to use my new knowledge whenever I can.

For the record, I haven’t yet played Journey. (Although this is not the first positive recommendation I’ve received.) I don’t have a console, and I’m almost glad – it would be tempting to live less and play more. Currently, however, we don’t even have a TV, so there’s that. I won’t lie – there are days when I miss my nintendo and the easy escape it provides.

In conclusion, thanks, but no thanks, Vietnamese language… we’re making headway on the most important vocab: food. I think we can agree that’s by far the most important point. I’ll still work at it, but I’m not going to let it get in my way any longer.

New Year’s Resolution Status: DEMOTED

Have you played Journey? Have you ever had a similar situation with a new language or culture? I really wanna play Journey now. Just tell me about your experiences with Journey.