If you can’t say it, don’t eat it

I have a policy about food when I’m living in a foreign country. It isn’t about being scared of new foods. Quite the opposite. Actually it’s about not wanting to look like an idiot. If you’re only in a country for a week or two, it’s perfectly acceptable to walk up to a food stall in the street and think “Mmmm that looks good” and just point at something random when the seller asks you what you want and then hold up a few fingers to indicate how many you want. But if you LIVE there for more than a year or two and you do that, you’re a bit of a douche.

So my policy is:

“If you can’t say it. Don’t eat it”

I mean, at the supermarket I don’t have to worry because I just choose what I want and most (but not all) things tend to have at least some English on the packaging. You use this so you know what it is, and then you read the local language to yourself so that you try and remember the local name next time.

My wife looks at me sometimes when I fumble through asking local street vendors for spring rolls, sandwiches and other things and says “You know she can speak English ? Why you talk Vietnamese ?” … well because I’d never learn it otherwise, would I ?

But tonal languages like Vietnamese can be a nightmare, because Google Translate is virtually no help whatsoever I assure you. You have to HEAR someone else speak it. I needed some minced garlic and chilli for dinner last night. I know what the word for “chilli” looks like: “ớt” but I wasn’t sure how to say it, so on the way down the alley last night I asked my friend Toan “Hey. How do you say chilli in Tieng Viet ? I don’t know how to pronounce it.” “Ot” he replied “But with a very short o sound like a short u”.

So I stopped at my local alley stall and smiled at the old woman. She knows that nine times out of ten I’m just there to buy rum and coke (she does a roaring trade on this thanks to me because it’s cheaper from her than anyone else in the area and I suspect since I started buying it she’s had to have a carton delivered each week) but last night I stopped and smiled and said “một tỏi cắt và một ớt cắt và hai chai nước lạnh”. Now I know that “cắt” is not really a good translation of “minced”, but asking for “cut garlic” is good enough that anyone will understand you. For what it’s worth, a small bag of minced garlic and another one of minced chillis cost me approximately 9 cents for the pair.

It’s not about showing off or fitting in. It’s just about feeling confident and relaxed about buying things. To be able to rattle off a small list of groceries to a woman in Vietnamese makes you feel so much more confident and at home living here. You might not be perfect at it, but that’s no reason not to try and it makes you feel pretty good when people understand you. And you never know when you might be in the depths of the countryside and need to say “Arrghh.. no more chilli please ! Give me some water !”

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