I had coffee with a fellow NGO peer earlier today and, as usual, our chat about work was diverted several times, and we traded amusing anecdotes about life in general.
Van has lived here for 7 years, having been brought up in the USA. Her Vietnamese is not too bad, but her passion for investing a career and a life in Saigon, where her parents and grandparents lived, like many returning here, is really notable.
This doesn’t mean that some of the quirkiness of living in Vietnam washes over Van: in fact at times it leaves her agog. Like the occasion when her newly appointed PR assistant (on hearing Van admit to being on a diet, and down the gym each morning) asked her bluntly in front of the team why it was then that Van was wearing “an outfit today which highlights your flabby tummy?”
The ‘openness’ and line of enquiry here is something I’ve written about before. Come to think of it, I’ve not been called “older’ or “fatter” at all lately by the cook who works in our office, which is progress on her part. Although on my part I still can’t quite pronounce her name right (even after 2.5 years) the daily end result being that the literal translation of my pronounced version of her name means “stupid” in Vietnamese. “Morning stupid” I holler over to her, as she deftly and loyally chops off the head of our lunchtime chicken. No wonder she calls me old and fat.
Anyway, Van came out with a great one-liner about the counter opposite to such openness, in reference to the British, and her past travels around the UK: “my friend used to live in London”, she explained, “and when I was first arriving there, she told me that you ‘need to be careful with the British, because although they may come across as extremely kind and polite, that doesn’t mean they necessarily want you in their house!'”
I liked the analogy. Particularly, when played back into the Vietnamese context, and a culture where being invited into someone’s home, or round someone’s kitchen table, is simply par for the course – however, be prepared to be asked your age, salary and the price of your apartment before you have even sat down and picked up your chop-sticks.
As usual, the world’s media is covering an eclectic mix of topics this week, and so it struck me rather tritely (not perhaps for the first time) that communications, and in particular the choice of words we use, are forever at the heart of some of the issues, debates and trigger points about which we read. The John Kerry “gaffe that averted a war” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/10/syria-gaffe-war-john-kerry headline today is perhaps an extension of this. And sticking with US politicians, I still chuckle at Romney’s “binders full of women” comment in the head-to-head debates with Obama in the elections a few years back (google images has some great plays on this particular faux pas.)
Cameron made a mini spectacle of himself at the G20 Summit last week, when responding to the notion posed by a Russian delegate that Britain is “just a small island” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23984730 and perhaps much of what he describes, in terms of one nation’s impressive contribution to the world, is linked to the characteristics and nuances about which the Brits so often get leg-pulled: whether it be about the British class system, our diminished ’empire”, our ironic wit, our supreme ability to put ourselves down, or indeed, the stiff upper lip and polite “excuse me, sorry” parlance to which we seem obsessed.
With this in mind, let me not miss an opportunity to post an amusing set of British-isms I also re-found today, designed to underscore (albeit in a rather late-in-the-evening-I’ve-started-so-I’ll-finish-despite-the-tenuous-link kind of way) the subtleties – or not – of Brit-speak.
Have a great evening when you get to yours, and enjoy* these in the meantime…
*by which I mean “I don’t really care if you do or you don’t”!