The deepest gratitude toward Thầy Độ - my Vietnamese language teacher
In August 1995, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher traveled to Hanoi to cut the ribbon on a new U.S. embassy, I began learning Vietnamese. It is a hard language. While the grammar is straightforward, pronunciation is exceedingly difficult. Most words have a single syllable, pronounced staccato fashion, with two-syllable compounds that are difficult to identify as words unless you already know their meaning. In the north, the language has six tones, while in the south it has five, and there are regional dialects all over the country that are almost mutually unintelligible. Vowels come in more than one form, so you must listen very carefully for subtle differences. Distinguishing between the tones, the strange vowels, and the slight variations between words that sound almost exactly alike can be a real challenge.
I struggled for months to have the language make sense, and then I experienced two breakthroughs. The first was in early 1996, when my Vietnamese language teachers, Cô Hiền, Thầy Độ, and Thầy Duy (from the south, north, and center of Vietnam, respectively) taught our small group of students to appreciate the significance of Tết—Vietnam’s lunar new year celebration, which is like Christmas, Easter, and Hanukkah all wrapped into one holiday -- and especially its food. Members of the Vietnamese diaspora, no matter where they lived, celebrated Tết, even if they couldn’t visit the graves of their ancestors.
The second breakthrough occurred when I visited Vietnam for the first time in the spring of 1996 for a two-week immersion tour. Another language student and I would park ourselves in a club in Hồ Chí Minh City, where bar girls would chat with us, happy to be paid for doing nothing more than talking. Being able to ask a question and understand the answer from a hotel clerk or cyclo (pedicab) driver felt like a miracle.
I still feel the deepest gratitude toward Thầy Độ, the most exacting of our three teachers. He sought precision in our tones and pronunciation, not an easy task with distracted Foreign Service Officers. So I was very pleased when I saw him last week, and I thanked him for enriching my life by teaching me Vietnamese. Thầy Độ is now retired, but I was happy to learn that he had pre-ordered Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam. As it shipped last week, he’ll receive his copy this week.
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