True Stories: The Best of Intentions

It was 1979.  I was teaching ESL (English as a Second Language).  Most of my students spoke Spanish.  Their parents were migrant farm workers working in the pear orchards.  Around November, a local church member enrolled our first Vietnamese family.  There were three children:  Tong (age 9), Binh (age 7) and Tu Anh (age 5).  They had suffered terribly in the refugee camps before emigrating to the US and Tong was particularly traumatized.  The children were beautiful and smart but difficult to console.  They spoke no French and I spoke no Vietnamese.

Though my ESL class was run in English, I switched to Spanish in response to tears or fears and greeted the children in the morning in their native language.  It bothered me that I couldn't do the same for my Vietnamese students, particularly since they were having difficulty adjusting and sometimes withdrew from us.  So I determined to study their language.

I borrowed some Vietnamese language cassettes from the library and played them on my long commute and while driving between schools.  I practiced phrases to myself in the car for about a month.  By the end of the month, I was ready to greet my new charges in their language.  You can't imagine my excitement!  I just knew they would be delighted to hear me speaking their language and would respond immediately.  I was at least half right.

On my debut morning, I waited with great anticipation at the classroom door.  As my Spanish speaking students filed in, I greeted them as usual.  Tong, Binh and Tu Anh were right behind.  I was tingling with excitement.  As they crossed the threshold, the three children were lined up tallest to smallest.  I delivered my well-practiced phrases in Vietnamese "Good Morning.  I am happy to see you.  Please hang up your coat."  I didn't have to wait long for their reaction.

Tong, the 9-year old, had a look of horror on his face.  Tu Anh, the 5-year old, was grinning and couldn't suppress her giggles.  Binh, the 7-year old, looked back and forth between his older brother and younger sister, unclear which was the proper response.  I was sure I'd said all the right words and couldn't understand their reaction.

A week later, I was at a session about Southeast Asian culture presented by a Vietnamese-American woman.  During the break, I approached her and described my experience.  She asked me to repeat my phrases, which I did.  Her broad grin told me I'd mangled something.  She asked if I had any experience with tonal languages and of course I did not.  She then explained that my Vietnamese phrases were actually pretty good and that I'd done well right up until the word for "coat".  It seems that the word for coat means "overwear" and the same sounds in a different tone mean "underwear". 

So poor Tong thought I was a pervert, Tu Anh that I was silly and Binh perhaps to this day wonders about me.  Actually, the children's English improved rapidly and they grew much more comfortable with me, their classmates and their new home.  All turned out well.  I never again tried to speak Vietnamese.