Babel-ed by it All: a Retrospective

(Another post from Vietnam as part of my holiday retrospective.  The piece below, written in the summer of 2009, describes my cultural and linguistic confusion soon after arriving in Saigon.)

I haven’t posted in over a week—not because I have nothing to say—but because I have too much.  I’m overwhelmed with stimuli.  Each time I try to write what comes out sounds silly or clichéd.  I’ve drafted but gotten nowhere—several starts.  Perhaps, I’ll post the pieces—these nudges toward nothing I can name.  I’d also like to post a few of the photos I’ve taken—several of Saigon—many of my trip South to volunteer with a building project for the poor–a good hour and a half drive into the country from Rach Gia.  It seems I’m struck most by the faces of children—the eyes of cows and water buffalo grazing.

children playing in sand at volunteer build site

the children's existing housing

squat toilet at build site--common in Southeast Asia

water buffalo grazing in rice patties

We carried bricks from where we parked, to the build site—balancing on narrow paths through the rice patties—shouldering heavy sacks—so god-awful hot we sauna-ed even in the shade.

rice patties at build site

carrying bags of bricks through rice patties to build site

 Sara seems stressed—works ridiculous hours—well into evening—early mornings—weekends.  I don’t see how she does it all—so many people, places, programs—details out the ass—the bulging bigness of it all.  It’s clear why she rarely shares with friends or family what she does.  You have to live it to understand, to appreciate the enormity of the task.

Like Sara, I have trouble pronouncing people’s names—so many sound the same to me–probably because my ear is unaccustomed to the tones—so many combinations of vowels—the words for watermelon and several other fruits differing only in the dipping, the sinking of the sound—or rising at the end.  I used to think I had an ear for languages but not anymore.  I can do European sounds—but the tones of Asia—it’s like I’m deaf to them—can’t hold them in my head.  I’m muted by a Babel I can’t untangle for the life of me.

I know next to nothing about Vietnam.  Only that I am pleased to be here—curious, eager to learn more, saddened by my own ignorance of the place.  I do know, though, that I feel a stirring in me, a creative impulse to make—what?  I don’t yet know—only aware that it’s there, nosing again my consciousness, like a cat marking territory, putting down its scent.

And it rains here every day this time of year, sunny in the morning with clouds thickening toward afternoon—the air heavy even in the early hours—first hints of light just after five, full sun by six.  It’s just now begun to drizzle again, the rainy season soon a downpour. 

I try to go out in the mornings when it’s still dry, before the heat intensifies, boils over into wet, one that doesn’t help to tame humidity.  It sucks all oxygen from the air well into evening, when I hear our landlady pull the garage door down, signaling a close of shop—a metal rattle rumbling our small stack of flats.

10 thoughts on “Babel-ed by it All: a Retrospective

  1. Thanks, Kathy, for sharing more information about a part of the world I know very little about…I suspect I share your “deafness” for Asian languages…I tend to “see” words in my head as they would be written…



  2. What adventures you have had/are having/are choosing/are living/are being!
    me likey likey you.
    blessings, as you continue to journey forth!


    • That’s really cool–how long did it take to bike that distance–I think it’s around 1,000 or 1,100 miles. Have you ever read Andrew X. Pham’s “Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam?” If you haven’t read it and you’ve biked Vietnam, you simply must get your hands on Pham’s memoir–stunning and powerful writing.


    • I understand your issues with the climate–it can be miserable. However, Hanoi in the winter (Dec-Feb) can be perfect, if you can’t tolerate heat. Northern Vietnam actually would not get hotter than 15-20 Celcius that time of year (though it does rain a lot). In July and August, however, it’s truly infernal–as close to hell on earth as you can imagine.


  3. That picture if the children playing in the sand is wonderful. I think I fell in love with their smiles a little bit! Love the perspective of feeling “deaf” to a language or culture despite your best efforts to delve right into it. Very cool!


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