Beating the System: How to Live in a Foreign Country and Avoid Learning the Language

This piece is part of a series written by Chris Blackwood, Washington, D.C.-based stand-up comic and co-founder of Grassroots Comedy DC, while he is on assignment in Vietnam.

Beating the System: How to Live in a Foreign Country and Avoid Learning the Language

By Chris Blackwood

Living in a foreign country can be a daunting feat with many obstacles to overcome: different food, different cultural norms, no Chipotle, and in many cases, a different language. While adapting to most of these differences is unavoidable, it turns out that there are some loopholes in the system that allow anyone with a creative mind and ambitious lethargy to avoid the time and effort of having to deal with some of them.

In particular, I’m talking about language. As a current resident of a small city in Vietnam, I am the only native English speaker in town. While there are a handful of locals who have learned English in school, most of them don’t speak beyond an intermediate level. There is also a larger proportion of people who have studied English, but never made it much farther than “hello”, “what’s your name?” and “are you married?” Thus, my initial interactions here consisted primarily of intermediate English exchanges with the select few who can engage in such, many borderline aggressive shouts of “HELLO!” everywhere I went, and incessant awkward interactions involving body language, laughing (because I’m hilarious) and giving up on communicating whatever it was I initially wanted.

Of course, the seemingly obvious solution to this is to learn Vietnamese (if that is, in fact, what they are speaking). However, learning a language takes a lot of time, patience, practice, and short-term memory skills that I quite frankly don’t have the capacity for at the moment. Luckily, I have invented some loopholes that have allowed me to overcome the language barrier and cruise by at a completely tolerable level of assimilation.

Here’s my three-part strategy on how to do it:

  1. Repeat words that you hear locals use: Sure, I usually have no idea what the word means. But there is no easier way to feel like you’re a part of a conversation in a different language than by taking one of the words just said and repeating it confidently, or perhaps in a funny voice.

Example:

Vietnamese person to her friend: “I hate carrots”

Me: “CARROTS!” 

Sometimes it gets a laugh, sometimes it gets confused looks, but all the time it gets attention and makes me feel like I’m a part of the action.

  1. Pretend to be deaf: This is a tactic that requires more dedication, yet if you can pull it off it’s typically 99% effective. You may say, “but Chris, sign language exists in Vietnamese too. Won’t you be judged just as much for not learning Vietnamese sign language as you are for not learning the spoken language?” Great point. Luckily there’s an easy solution: just avoid all people who are actually deaf.
  1. Pretend to be Chinese: While this may not always be the best nationality to pretend to be when avoiding learning the local tongue, it is for me given that China is just a 30-minute drive from my city. If pulled off successfully, this allows me to draw less attention for being a foreigner (people are far less interested in a foreigner from a neighboring country) and appear less lazy for not learning Vietnamese (why would I need to learn it if I can just hop across the border and speak in my native Chinese tongue?). Of course, as someone who doesn’t look nor speak Chinese even a little bit, this can be a tricky dance to pull off. Yet if done well it works like a charm (or, like a white person dancing, you can certainty convince yourself it does).

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