When you get right down to it, the best reason to learn Chinese – the best reason to learn anything – is that you want to. It doesn’t have to be any more specific than that; all that matters is that you want to do it, and (afterwards) that you keep wanting to do it. If you don’t love something, you can never be good at it.
I’ll admit to a streak of the obsessive.
Much of what’s sucked into its domain ends up a quick burn. Fevered reading, elaborate plans, sometimes ill-advised purchases. Then reality intrudes or indolence wins out, or some shiny new distraction usurps attention and the cycle begins anew.
Vietnam was different. I was introduced to Vietnam the way I guess many non-Vietnamese are introduced to Vietnam. The shadows cast by the infamous chapter of its past have been radically extended with the help of that inescapable quisling pop culture. Australian-Vietnamese worlds I encountered growing up around Melbourne’s suburb of Springvale were (kind of endearingly in hindsight) always just Australian to me. “Vietnam” was books and movies. But war, country, and region initially only combined to form an elaborate setpiece. Their documenters—the reporters and the photojournalists—those were my guys, the protagonists of the now mythic golden age of war correspondence.
I swallowed the Witnessing Humanity at its Best and Worst Glamour Pill with an embarrassing eagerness. As far as I was concerned they had it made. The everyday life and death drama. Adrenaline. Danger. A licence to explore beautiful, beguiling places. Being paid to write and ask questions and take photographs. I could pretend I was always moved by the plights of the people my heroes were describing but I think that only came later. They were characters in a truly great story I wished I’d been around to see and participate in myself. Too drunk on the romance of it all to seriously ponder its reality, disconnected by time, distance, and attitude. Just how far did this go?
I may or may not have bought a typewriter. Or three. In the early 2000s.
Read enough about the Michael Herrs, Horst Faases, Neil Davises, and Kate Webbs though, and eventually you crave some overarching context. Even a half-heartedly misanthropic teenager can suddenly rediscover his capacity for empathy. And when the more academic tomes get dry, you leap into the immediacy, humour, and horror of the best firsthand soldiers’ accounts. The whole recurrent “jungle ghosts” thing quickly grates, so you search for some balance in the harrowing personal stories from the other side. You can’t ignore the ruptures suffered by Vietnamese society as a whole, nor that for all its devastating impact, this conflict you’re investigating is only one light-monopolising facet of an incredibly rich and complex history, so you…well, you get the idea. Pretty soon following my unattenuated interest meant everything but the actual American war itself: the epic pre-colonial saga, the arrival of the French, the post-war developments, the diaspora, the literature, the art, the music, the food—sweet jesus, the food.
Christmas and New Year 2009-2010, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam: my first independent trip to pretty much anywhere. It was the latter that I’d wanted to see the most and that most resolutely confounded my expectations as well as what I’d been told. Admittedly I enjoyed perhaps the luckiest travel experience of all time. Didn’t really “click with” Hanoi so much as “clumsily stumble into, feel incredibly welcomed by, meet some of its friendliest people, and miraculously avoid bureaucratic or scam-based clashes with” it. I was aware I was really only seeing its flattering sides but it’s hard to ground yourself when you’re having the time of your life. The little over a month I spent going from Hanoi to HCMC and back up to Hanoi for Tet fed an inchoate delusion I’d begun to harbour. Maybe I could learn Vietnamese.
There’s a line in Timothy Mo’s Renegade or Halo2 about an expatriate’s daughter “trying not to look proud of that unusual accomplishment in the native English speaker—those arrogant and insular souls—a second language.” Some of us suffer from the converse monolingual shame. I’ve planned on addressing it, judged immersion my best chance of healing wicked high school LOTE scars, took longer through university to simultaneously work and save. A goal for five years at the very least. I can detect one of life’s rare openings here and I’m jamming my inconveniently long-legged frame through. I’m young, right? I can regret it later, when I’m wallowing in penury and have only nostalgia and a memorised list of noun classifiers for comfort.
Post-hoc rationalisations have been prepped to placate the concerned and the bemused. Asian century, opportunities, necessary skills blah blah blah. Not exactly total horseshit but enough of a hint of equine effluent to make me squirm. The way the “Asian century” is normally discussed echoes with wishful, vaguely desperate cash register cha-chings, as if merely acknowledging its arrival rings in some imagined jackpot. I’m sure the baffled looks would dissipate fast if I had headed to China. Everyone I know’s been dollar sign primed for China already. Only those who’ve never attempted to learn a language like Mandarin could believe that’s enough of an impetus to fuel the years of dedication it requires. Beijing-based writer and translator Brendan O’Kane said it eloquently a little while ago:
China intrigues and I try following it closely but a messy combination of factors has meant Vietnamese represents that want for me. And seriously, tones AND characters? Fuck that.
So Hanoi it is. The overabundance of personal pronouns won’t continue, I (give me a second) promise. [EDIT 16/3/2013: Well this quickly became an obvious lie. In true narcissistic fashion I appear to have underestimated my own self-absorption] It can’t. I’m essentially boring. This city, however, has powered the kind of long-term planning and sacrifice I’d always considered anathema. Something about its atmosphere, vibrancy, and edge has gotten its hooks in. And as I begin offending its residents and embarrassing myself by mangling its language, I hope to share a fraction of it.