How to survive basic encounters when you can’t understand each other.
Nimrod was actually the name of the guy who tried to build the Tower of Babel. Nimrod is also a great word to call someone you don’t like- but I did not realize the depth of the implication.
For my secular pals who haven’t read much Old Testament, and to those that just prefer lighter reading material- The Tower of Babel is the origin of why humans are cursed with so many different languages. Apparently, we used to have just one. And everyone could talk to everyone, and it was great.
Then along comes this asshole, King Nimrod. He’s feeling real good, too good even and he decides that he is going to build a tower so tall that it reaches up to Heaven and he can be equal with God- or who/whatever you believe lives up there. Lots of humans agree that this is a great plan and that God probably has some pretty sweet digs up there that they would like to see so they start to build this tower.
And they build and build and it is all going cool until God notices that these little assholes are building a tower all the way to his front doorstep. He thinks, “Wow, I gave these guys a whole planet and it’s not enough? After they already ruined the nice garden I gave them too? Why can’t they understand that I am all powerful and they are not?”
God destroys the tower and the thing crumbles. Some dudes fall out of the sky. This is Old Testament so I would bet that the death toll was pretty high. Once the dust settles and everyone realizes that they just wasted a LOT of time on Nimrod’s idea, they all realize that they no longer understand each other- that God was so pissed that humans were so presumptuous that he cursed them to speak different languages so none of them could understand each other, so none of them could communicate on such a large scale as to do something so massively stupid ever again.
Ok, so I haven’t actually read that story in a very long time. But when I was in Krakow, Poland there was a set of tapestries that illustrated it. Chances are I am missing some really important details- or missing the moral but the point is that I think about Nimrod a LOT. I curse his name almost daily.
Calling someone a Nimrod is intense. You are implying that they are SO stupid, that they would try to build a tower to heaven, and they are so stupid that they think it would actually work. (Structurally, I believe this would be impossible, not to mention the moral implications.) It’s an insult I have added back into my repertoire.
But this guy really messed things up for us. Language is horrible. English is a terrible abomination where nothing makes sense, where words mean or don’t mean different things and every grammatical “rule” has a thousand exceptions for no reason, just ’cause.
Vietnamese is not really any easier, from what I can discern. There are four different intonations of the language, so even if you can write a word down or read it, chances are you are doing it wrong and you may have well not said anything at all. Both languages have certain sounds that we just don’t have in the other. And this means that we spend a lot of time just staring at each other, just trying to will the other to comprehend. Then I repeat myself in English, even though the coffee waitress still doesn’t speak English, and she will ask me something again in Vietnamese and I will stare at her because I still do not speak Vietnamese and we are at a verbal impasse.
But we are both determined to survive this.
Vinh City is not a tourist city. There is very little that is accessible in English and so, there are certain skills and preparation required for basic transactionry scenes.
1. Be brave.
Be ready to embarass yourself and accept that you may not get what you want.
2. Go slowly
Try and say the words you know, it probably won’t work. You might be really sure you said “pink” but the way you stumbled the pronunciation makes it mean “waist.”
3. Get ready to mime.
Go for it. Use every hand gesture you know. Use every context clue you can. This is full blast, high stakes charades- it might be embarrassing, but how bad do you want it? Do you REALLY need to know what time your train leaves? Probably. How much does it matter if you get a smoothie or juice? You decide.
My favorite instance of this goes to an extremely earnest restaurant owner in Kutna Hora, in the Czech Republic whom in an incredibly devoted attempt to get my boyfriend and I to understand that there were mashed potatoes on the menu, actually ran into the kitchen and returned with a potato and proceeded to make very emphatic mashing gestures upon said tuber.
4. Download an offline translator for the language onto your phone.
This is a last ditch effort and only works with a lot of context. Someone was trying to ask me if I liked spicy food and showed me their phone screen reading “Dancing Fire”, and if he hadn’t made hand gestures and mimed eating something spicy, I probably would have remained baffled.
5. If you like something, take a picture of it.
Everytime I go to a restaurant and find something I like, I photograph it. Chances are I did not order it and have no idea what it is actually called but next time, I can just show the photo and point emphatically until the food appears.
There’s this great moment though, between you and the other person, where you both think “AHA!” as though you have both unraveled what the other was trying to say. And boy, do you hope that you did. It is extremely satisfying knowing that you both managed to be committed enough to the scene you were performing to actually understand each other. You feel closer to that person, you’ve been through an ordeal with them.
Improvisors often recommend staying away from performing transactionary scenes, ie between a cashier and someone checking out, because people often get stuck in just going through the motions of what happens during a checkout lane and not making any emotional connection to the other actor.
I never need to see another transaction scene- the one’s I have had to perform here are so long and desperate and trying to order a coffee sometimes turns into a three act play, and its a sick combination of comedy and tragedy.
I have ended up with many different beverages that I did not intend to order, but I have no idea what any of them were, or what series of mouth utterances and gestures would be able to summon that specific beverage ever again.
You learn to roll with it.