Humour and the Ông Tây
One night this past December Jon and I met up with a group of friends at a cafe. We sat on the floor around a low table nursing coffees and juices. The conversation was entirely in Vietnamese except when one of the guys would take pity on us and fill us in a bit. After a while Jon turned to me with a wry smile and said, "I'm at a loss. What on earth is going on." "Welcome to my Hanoi life," I said. And welcome to the other side. Here we're in the minority.
Despite our almost complete incomprehension, it wasn't boring for a moment. Somehow humour communicates across a linguistic divide. We had no idea what anyone was saying, but it was infectious anyway.
But sometimes the humour doesn't translate. Vietnamese is rich in puns based on differences in tones, reversals in meaning (something means its opposite), changes in word order, etc. A friend once tried to explain some joke that had been made in an internet cafe the other day, a joke he'd been laughing about ever since. It wasn't just the subtlety or delivery that was lost in translation - the combination of linguistic turns and cultural references was completely opaque to me even when carefully translated.
Despite the linguistic challenges to the cross-cultural understanding of humour, I still find that a person's "sense of humour", as a personal quality, is able to communicate. And I can vouch that the Vietnamese often have a wicked sense of humour. There are still incidents from my time in Hanoi that continue to crack me up. Key to this sense of humour is the fact that the Vietnamese generally do not take themselves too seriously. Nor are they beyond gentle teasing.
Speaking of gentle teasing, I offer my nickname as an example. It began with just a few little jokes, and gradually developed into the following list of monikers: Ông Tây nhà quê, Maria, háu ăn, đuểnh đoảng, buôn chuyện, hải ly.
I am proud that I was deemed worthy of such a long nickname, even if the individual elements of the name may seem less than flattering. I guess I don't take myself too seriously either...
Ông Tây: literally, Mr. Westerner. Thinh gave me this name one night and it stuck. To tell the truth he was one of the few whose sense of humour confused me at first. Thinh speaks no English whatsoever. Apparently he is hysterically funny, even if sometimes he has a bitchy edge. The first time he called me Ông Tây we were eating noodles on the street with a group of friends late one night. Whatever he was saying was followed by gales of laughter. Initially I was not amused. The term Tây can on occasion have a slight edge and I mistakenly assumed I was the butt of some joke. Later Viet reassured that his quips were completely inoccuous. In fact Viet insisted that the group would never allow anyone to diss me in public.
Nhà quê: village; country. I can find no exact equivalent in English. Country bumpkin is too goofy. Hick is too harsh. In some contexts it can actually have a real edge so you have to watch where you use it. Amongst friends though it suggests a naivety or lack of sophistication. I blogged earlier about the irony of my status as Tây nhà quê: although I may be from the urban West, I still come off as somehow parochial and awkward. I might as well have come from some village just up the river. Why? First of all, I knew nothing of the urban ways of Hanoi, at least initially; and second, given the choice I always preferred to go local, sit on the little plastic sidewalk stools, drink coffee in ancient little cafes, and go to my chaotic gym in Bach Khoa. I mostly eshewed the slick new Westernized hangouts that had such appeal to some of my more upwardly mobile Vietnamese friends.
Maria - Hung came up with this one. Back it the 90s it seems there was a very popular South American television series in syndication in Vietnam. The series featured Maria, a country girl transplanted to the city who makes it big climbing up the corporate ladder in the fashion industry. (Sounds like one of the many versions of Betty La Fea, which eventually became the American Ugly Betty. The only incarnation of this character I can find named Maria was a Greek remake.) Okay, so why the hell am I Maria? Something to do with my nhà quê status (like the Maria/Betty before her metamorphosis?), and the fact that at least to Vietnamese ears my name sounds a lot like Maria. I feared to ask whether they thought my fashion sense was like Maria before or after her rise in the fashion world. Hmm.
Háu ăn - Viet slapped this one on to my ever lengthening name during our trip to Bangkok last year. It means something like greedy eater. Anyone even slightly familiar with this blog will understand that I have a bit of an obsession with food, and especially street food. Our trip to Bangkok consisted largely of Viet stopping at every stall to bargain for clothes, knock-off watches, and CDs, and me stopping at every cart to fill my piehole with every manner of street offerings.
đuểnh đoảng - Another Hanoi slang expression with no exact equivalent in English. Somewhere between spacey, absent-minded and happy-go-lucky? It's supposed to be a very endearing term, so I prefer to think it's closer to absent-minded, which I will admit is a sometimes accurate description of yours truly. This quality was also excerbated by the fact that I often didn't really know the score, and was sometimes helpless in such a new context. Similar rationale to nhà quê above I guess.
Buôn chuyện - Literally it means "wholesale talk" or "gossip by the bulk". It seems I don't just chat a little; when I talk it's by the yard. In fact I think I earned this not because I sit around gossipping or can't shut up, but because I know a lot of people in Hanoi. Viet could not fathom how I might be so well connected at a place like Apo. This relates mostly to Western social patterns of mixing, mingling, introducing and being introduced. It didn't take me long to build up a network beyond the scope of my Vietnamese friends.
Hải ly - Viet Anh is to blame for this one. Apparently I resemble either an otter or a seal.
The translations don't even quite do it. I know I am missing much of the nuance of my own nickname. Despite the barrage of jokes though I know it's all good-natured. I've vetted the name with disinterested Vietnamese friends who all assure me as much.