Bilingual Friendships: Making Friends in Vietnamese and English

Last night was the first night that I felt a flicker of ‘home’ since being in Vietnam. No, there was no dramatic or symbolic event that culminated in an epiphany of epic proportions. It was a simple conversation, with old friends turned new friends turned real friends.

I met Van-Anh and Vu five years ago in Vietnam. Last night they took me out to dinner and we had coffee afterwards. Five years ago when I met Van-Anh and Vu, I had not yet formally studied Vietnamese and only communicated with them through the Vietnamese vocabulary that I was most familiar with at the time: salutations, food, hobbies. Their English was far better than my Vietnamese, so we often defaulted to English. Yet even though we spoke and connected, there was still some barrier between us that I wasn’t really aware of at the time. The words we uttered were translated, filtered, transformed. We shyly shared our interests, aspirations, and dreams. We fumbled over new vocabulary, nodded in strained and at times feigned comprehension of each other, and of course, smiled profusely.

Five years passed with barely a word exchanged. We’ve all inherently changed—loves lost and found, career paths derailed and remade, new meaning attributed to life and its mysteries. Over the years, our linguistic capability for expression in English and Vietnamese also drastically improved. And after five years of knowing Van-Anh and Vu, I’m actually starting to know them. Specifically, we’re getting to know each other in Vietnamese.

It’s difficult to explain, but it feels as if I have just met and made two new friends. As if I slipped through a wormhole into the mirror image of my previous world, but familiar actions, words, expressions carry a different, deeper meaning. Simple statements and a shift in tone of voice beg further inquiry—the weight of the unspoken finally recognized. Yet, this shift resembles nothing like putting on a new pair of glasses. It’s not as if I finally understand everything Van-Anh and Vu say and do. Linguistic barriers still hold us back in some way. (Although much of this feels more of my own than theirs). Sometimes I do in fact ‘think’ in Vietnamese, and words and expressions flow more naturally. But every so often my stories, confessions, and revelations are interspersed with untranslatable English—as if listening to a song only for someone to subtly change the radio station. The static is barely noticeable, but the song sounds strangely different—slightly muted, overlaid with another tune.

Yet regardless of the static in our conversation, I did feel some ineffable connection with Van-Anh and Vu. It was strangely familiar but excitingly new. But most of all this new-found friendship reminded me of ‘home’—a state of mind and emotion rather than simply a place. Home: warm. familiar. slight discomfort only to fade away into sepia toned nostalgia. Honest to the point of vulnerability, exposing the rough edges, static-ridden melodies, made more beautiful by its imperfections.

Saigon, July 2014