I met “Thuy” when I traveled to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 3 years ago. She was introduced to me by her Vietnamese sister-in-law, who is a former colleague. It was that short but meaningful meeting that compelled Thuy not to seek the help of an established tour agency when she visited Manila a few days ago. She knew that I would assist her so when she asked for my help, I did not think twice. I agreed to host her.
My family and I have hosted foreigners before. But my experience with Thuy was quite different.
First of all, I was alone in the endeavor because my parents are in Bacolod City at the moment and my siblings have homes of their own. Second, Thuy only knows less than a hundred (or even less than 50) English words. Unlike other foreigners I’ve met / hosted, she can’t speak in straight English sentences. She only knows the basic ones such as “Hello”, “Yes”, “No”, “Today”, “Tomorrow”, “You”, “Me” and “Okay”.
“Good morning” doesn’t exist in her vocabulary. Even the question, “want to eat?” is hard for her to grasp without the hand gestures.
The language barrier made my time with her very difficult…and I mean, VERY VERY Difficult.
However, I consider the entire time hosting her – someone who couldn’t understand English 98% of the time – as a learning experience.
1. I learned to be patient – My patience was tested when Thuy encountered a little problem at the airport. I was about to leave the airport when my phone rang. It was her and she said many things that I could not understand. Despite my very bad headache, I had to go back inside to ask her what the problem was. It turned out that she didn’t have enough money to pay the terminal fee so I had to take her to a nearby bank to have her money exchanged. I was already exhausted but it wasn’t right to yell at her or even get mad at her. I had to be very patient because she needed help and I was the only one who could help her.
Even explaining something to her turned out to be very difficult. I had to use signs, gestures, and even draw pictures. And it took a lot of patience on my part because I had to do it more than once.
2. I learned to listen – Thuy tries her best (I’m sure) to speak English but she just can’t. She can speak two or three basic English words. Most of the time, she mispronounces the word (eg. she says “MO-CHA” as in cha cha for “mocha”) or combines an English word with her own language.
At one point, she told me that it was “too late”. And I said, “no we’re on time” (at the airport). But I found out later on that she wanted to go to the toilet.
I usually ask her to repeat what she’s saying and whenever she does, I shut everything around me so I could understand what she’s trying to tell me.
3. I had to accept her for who she is – Thuy has her way of dealing with things. I may never understand the Vietnamese culture but I had to accept it. There were times when I wanted to tell her how to deal with a situation but I realized that I just had to let her be (except when safety is involved of course) because it’s the “Vietnamese” way.
4. Friendship has no language barrier – Thuy and I may never have understood everything we wanted to say to each other. But what I’m happy about is the fact that we became “good” friends. I had a hard time, my patience was tested, but somehow, we managed to get through it all. And now she’s back in Vietnam, knowing that she has a Filipino friend whom she can trust.
To end this, I’d like to share what she told me while we were on our way to the airport:
“Me go back to Vietnam…you Rica, miss you. Thank you.”
Ditto, my friend.