Knowing the Words

As a coda to my recent pilgrimage to Vietnam I now have a pen-pal of sorts, a friend-of-a-friend named Yen who lives in Saigon. We send emails back and forth a couple of times a week, discussing the differences between west Michigan and south Vietnam. Often there are photos, too.

Finding the right words for the conversation can be challenging. She knows some English, but is not fluent. I don’t know any Chinese or Vietnamese at all. We began corresponding back in early November, just before the first major snowstorm of the year. When she saw the photos Yen had a lot of questions. She had never seen snow before, or even been outside of the tropics. Of course she knew what snow was, and winter, and all of those concepts, but there are a hundred small details which go along with winter which I found myself explaining. Like, for instance, why all of the photos were so dark. And where all the people were.

The quick answer was “Because it’s winter.” But that doesn’t explain things to someone who has never seen winter. So then I explained how little daylight we have in the winter, and that the photo with the sun low on the horizon was actually taken in the middle of the day, not 8:00 in the morning. And the trees aren’t all dead; they’re dormant. And that everyone is inside because today the air temperature is -20C. And that the wind chill made things feel even colder. And then I need to explain wind chill.

Yen isn’t unschooled about these things. She has family here in the US, out west and down south. Sometimes it seemed that every other person we encountered in District 5 had been to the United States or Canada at one point. And of course there is the internet. The concepts were not unfamiliar, but the explanations – finding the right words in the right context – are not easy.

Another example. There are more people in Ho Chi Minh City than in all of Michigan. Even the most crowded downtown event will not have as many people as a similarly-sized neighborhood in HCMC on any random day. So no matter where or when I take photos an appropriate response would be “where are all the people”?

Yen thinks the photos of snow are beautiful and hopes to travel here one day to experience winter.  I would like to tell her that some days Michigan is colder than anything in southern Vietnam outside of a cryogenics facility.

And right now the challenge is to find the right words to explain the emotional impact, after five months of gray and brown and white, of seeing the green spears of newly-sprouted crocuses peeking up through the grass.