So That’s Why!

I tried my hardest.  Really.  Getting the meaning and words correct was important to me to be sure I got the results I wanted.  My efforts began my second day in Saigon, right after I settled into Room 618 with Tom at the St George Hotel.  At first, like most GIs all over the Republic, I used a US Army-developed and issued Vietnamese phrase book.  Of course, such a book did contain much of the vocabulary I was seeking.

So, I enlisted the guidance of my Vietnamese English language students at Tan Son Nhut School to write simple sentences.  Then I’d practice with them to get the pronunciation just right, even with all the tonal nuances that can change a single written word such as “ma” into five very different words depending on the tone of the vowel indicated by that diacritical mark over or under it.

All I got from her the first few days were blank stares, a warm smile that went from ear to ear on her cherubic face, then a giggle, all followed by laughter with her friends.  Regardless of whatever I used as words, phrases or full sentences, I got about the same reactions.  I always got serviced wonderfully with the routine stuff, but if I had a question of how, more or less, or wanted something special I got that eager smile, but the same results.

Oh, those results were great, no doubt about that.  You could never even hope for those services, much less at those prices, back home in the US.  Like a lot of GIs, I had a great deal going.  Quickly, I got spoiled.  If I could have figured out a way to get her home to America to provide those services, I’d be set for life.  What else could a single guy ask for?

Nevertheless, I could not break through on the language front.  Things became pretty routine, but I was happy with that routine.  Then, one day at school in an advanced language class, the students started a conversation with me about how GIs lived in South Viet Nam compared to how they lived in the US.  They knew the food was different, but they wanted to know about our daily activities.  What was the biggest difference?

We bantered about the idea that US GIs didn’t wear uniforms while off duty at home (Vietnamese GIs wore uniforms on and off duty).  Most of us had cars and TVs in the US, but neither was available to us here.  Of course, they asked about what we did for recreation and I was surprised about my replies because it dawned on me that despite a few activities here and there, most men in their twenties in the US spent time thinking about getting dates on Friday and Saturday.  You know what?  Those twenty year old Vietnamese GIs had the same weekend goals.

The conversation turned again to me.  Those ten students eagerly said they could help me, but I’d need to learn the Vietnamese language.  I told them I was trying to speak to one woman, but I couldn’t make her understand me.  Wow, that got ‘em interested.

I told them the vocabulary, phrases and sentences other students had given me and drilled with me.  These guys understood me, just like the earlier students!  So, we started to assess the situation.  Soon, they started laughing.  Really laughing.  Embarrassed a bit, I broke into their conversation I knew was about me and this woman.  What was so darn funny?

Our hotel/BEQ was in Cho Lon, the Chinatown of Saigon.  My maid must be Chinese!  Older Chinese women (maybe 45 or 50 years of age or more) who provided laundry, shoe polishing and room services would not have gone to any real school and would not speak Vietnamese.  Most likely, they never even would leave Cho Lon.  Cho Lon was not a ghetto, but it was an enclave where Vietnamese residents went to eat, but where Chinese tended to live their whole lives.  My very limited, task–specific perfect Vietnamese was all in vain.  The very nice older lady who served me, Tom and GIs in several adjacent rooms on the sixth floor was Chinese.

Open your world view Rod.  The world ain’ what it seems!

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