My teacher told me to watch American TV so I can learn English better. I told him I do, but I don’t understand what they are saying, “That’s okay, he said. “It still helps.”
I don’t know how staring at people’s mouths flapping up and down for hours at a time is going to help me when I don’t know the words coming out but I will keep on doing it. He also told me I needed to talk to white people everyday. I told him my next-door neighbor is a white guy, a nice guy too, and I talk to him sometimes, “You have to be talking to white people all day long,” he said. “It’s the only way you will learn.” He asked me if I was married.
“Does you’re wife speak English?”
“Not as good as me.”
“Do you have any kids?”
“Two, a boy and a girl.”
“And how is their English?”
“Oh very good.”
“And do you talk to them?”
“Not so much. They are busy with their own families.” I sometimes wonder if my teacher thinks I’m too old to learn English. He’s told me several times how children learn it much more easily. I get the feeling he would love to ask me why I even care.
“So how old are you again?” he said yesterday.
The workbooks we use in class have a lot of words that I don’t know and some that I do. When he asked me if it was hard I said, “So-so.” Then he looked at my answers. I got almost everything right. For the first three chapters I only missed two.
“How long did it take you to complete this?”
“About nine hours,” I said. He said that was a lot of time for the amount of work in each chapter. I told him I wanted to make sure I got it right.
After he said that he closed the book and looked at me and said, “How about we just talk for a little while.”
I wanted to ask him if he counted as the one white guy I needed to talk to everyday but I didn’t. Instead I just looked at the clock on the wall. The rest of the class was working while we sat there doing nothing. Then he said something kind of strange. He said, “Dzung, do you remember the war?”
“The Vietnam War.”
“Vietnam fight many wars.”
“The one we fought with you,” he said; I told him I remembered it.
My teacher said that when he was a kid he was worried he was going to have to fight in it too, but his mother told him that the war would be over by the time he was old enough to get drafted. I had to ask him what the word drafted meant. We didn’t have that word in Vietnam. Everyone got drafted. Pretty soon we were talking about 1975 and when Saigon fell and how when the American’s pulled out and the communists came in I got arrested like everybody else, “How long were you in prison?” he asked.
‘That’s a long time. How did you get out?”
“They let me go.”
“And then what did you do?”
“I worked at business.”
“Oh, what kind of business?”
“A printing business.”
“Did you like it?”
“Yes, I liked it very much. But it was no good, very bad.”
“What do you mean?”
“The government, they come in, take everything. Make me pay.”
“There is a word for that”
“There is? What is it? I want to know that word.”
“Can you write it down, please?” My teacher wrote the word down and when I saw it I think I knew what it meant but I wanted to be sure so I looked it up on my iPhone. “Ah, yes, I know this word. Corruption. Yes, in Vietnam, business have much corruption.”
‘The government was corrupt too, wasn’t it?”
“Ah yes. It still corrupt. That’s why I come here.”
“We have corruption in this country you know.”
“Not like Vietnam.”
“Its different here, the corruption.”
“Corruption everywhere.” For a moment I just sat at the table with my teacher thinking about all the corruption in the world. Then I started thinking about what happened to me in prison and how so many friends I knew never got out like I did and my stomach started hurting, screaming out from the inside and telling me to shove all those memories back down. I could feel my teacher looking at me so I just turned my face to him and smiled. Thank you for teaching me this new word,” I said.
Slightly bowing, which is a common gesture in my country, I was sure that we were done talking, but then he asked me to tell him more. More about what, I wondered. He pointed to a photo in the workbook that was open in front of us. It was on a page I hadn’t looked at yet, “Do you know who those guys are?” my teacher said.
I leaned in very close and squinted to see the picture better. I am an old man and my eyes are not so perfect. The four men in the picture had on matching suits and ties. They were smiling faced young men, boys, really. I said, “No, who are they?”
“Look very closely. They were in a rock-n-roll band back in the sixties.
They were from England.”
“Were they famous?”
“Yes. Very famous.”
I leaned in even closer. Maybe if the picture were in color I could see it better, but no, I didn’t know who those people were.”
“The Beatles,” said my teacher.
“Ah yes, yes, the Beatles. I know the Beatles;” I pointed at the picture, “That’s the Beatles?”
“Yes. When they were very young. My teacher picked up the workbook and held it close so we could see it better.
“My guess is that this was taken around ‘64, ‘65, somewhere around then.”
“Yes, of course. John Lennon,” I said.
“Yes, he said, pointing at one of the faces. “He’s that one there.”
“I see,” I said.
“And do you know this one’s name?” He pointed to another face.
“I never heard of him.”
“How about this one?”
“No. Who is he?
“That’s George Harrison. And this one here is Ringo.”
“Ah, Ringo. Yes, I know Ringo. He play the drums. I made a hand motion like I was banging on the drums and my teacher smiled; “That’s the Beatles. Yes of course I know the Beatles,” I said.
“It’s sad,” said my teacher.
“About John Lennon. How a crazy person assassinated him in New York City one night for no good reason.”
“What is that word?”
“Yes, very good. Assassinated. It’s the past tense verb of assassinate, which means to kill a very important person.”
I wrote it down. Then I told him how I had two Uncles, a brother, and a best friend who got themselves assassinated by the Red Army, but he told me that that wasn’t exactly right.
So I told him how the communists lined them up along a cement wall and how they had to stand there looking straight into a rifle barrel until a soldier yelled fire and just like that they all had holes inside there head, but still he said that this was not assassinated like in the way John Lennon was assassinated, which was the correct usage of the term.
But then, after pausing for a moment, my teacher said, “You know Dzung, I never could understand why people say John Lennon was assassinated and yet when regular folks get shot for no good reason people just say they got murdered as if they weren’t the most important person in the world to someone, right?”
I nodded my head.
“But English is like that isn’t it? Not always so cut and dry.”
“What you mean by cut and dry?”
“Cut and dry. It’s an idiom.”
“Yes, of course. I know about idioms.” I wrote down cut and dry and told myself to Google it later. At the moment, I was enjoying talking with my teacher. I had already learned three new words in the short time we’d been sitting there. I think he was enjoying it too because he kept right on talking. He wanted to know if I had listened to the Beatles when the war was going on. I told him that I couldn’t remember. He said that when he was a kid he always listened to the Beatles because their songs where always about peace, which is why whoever made this workbook for Vietnamese people to study English in had probably used a photo of the Beatles, thinking, perhaps, that Vietnamese people would like it. I told him there was peace in Vietnam.
“Yes, of course. Now there is.”
“But it’s not safe.”
“No. Say, you want to go there?”
“Okay, I will tell you all the beautiful places to go in Vietnam, so many beautiful places.” I took out my iPhone to show him pictures. First I showed him Ha Long Bay.
“That’s in Vietnam?”
“Yes, very beautiful,” He asked me if there were any waves in Ha Long Bay.
“What you mean by waves?”
“You know, waves, like for surfing.” He stuck his arms out by his side. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I asked him to explain.
“Waves,” he said. He made his hand go up and down, like a snake; “You know, waves…surfing… like at the beach.”
“Oh, you mean swimming?”
“No, surfing.” He took my iPhone. He punched the word surfing into Google images. I saw the picture.
“Ah, surfing,” I said; “No, there’s no surfing in Vietnam.” And then I knew what he meant by waves; “No wave in Ha long Bay.”
“Are there any waves anywhere in Vietnam?” my teacher asked.
“No,” I said.
“There must be waves somewhere.”
“I don’t think so. I never saw one.”
He squinted his eyes and cocked his head. “Do you know what I mean by waves, Dzung?”
“Yes, wave,” I said. I made my hand go up and down like snake; “California have big wave, vey big wave.”
“Yes,” he said.
“You like surfing?” I said.
“Yes, I do.”
“When you go surfing?”
“Usually in the morning, before I come to work;” What a life, surfing, then go to work, I thought. Then I remembered the way they used to march us around the prison camp, our arms twisted behind our backs, raggedy clothes falling off, every morning, for an hour or so, before the long, long, wait for death and then I knew what cut and dry meant. Nothing cut and dry. Nothing; “The water, it so very cold, no?”
“Not with a wetsuit.”
“A wet suit. You know.” He made a gesture with his hands, brushing them along his arms and legs. “It’s black. It keeps the water out.”
“Oh, yes, yes. How you say it?”
“Yes, wetsuit. I see them sometimes. My neighbor’s boy. He wake up very early and walk outside in wetsuit. He must go surfing like you. A lot of people go surfing?”
“Yes, they do.” He told me that I should try it but I told him I was way too old. Maybe if I had been young and living in America, who knows. There are probably many things I would have done.
He asked me if I was getting enough exercise. I told him that I walk one-hour everyday before I come to school, “No wonder you look so fit.” I smiled. I had never heard that word before, but I knew what he had meant. “Yes, very fit,” I said. I put up my fists like I was ready.
He smiled and said, “Dzung, you are well on your way.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. My teacher stood up. I was the only student left inside the room. I could see he wanted to go home. I bowed again and thanked him for his time. As he was putting all his stuff away, he looked at me and said, “You know Dzung, there really is no hurry.”
“I know,” I said.
“It takes years to become fluent in English. You know that word, fluent?”
“Yes. I know what fluent means.”
“It could be seven years.”
“I take my time,” I said.
“Good,” he said.
“I talk to you tomorrow.”
“Yes, of course.”
When walking home I noticed that the jacaranda trees were all in bloom, reaching out across the sidewalk, making a shady route for me to stroll along. I felt myself sway from side to side with the purple and white pedals that dropped so softly and floated to the ground. It felt like I was right where I was supposed to be, so far from everything I’ve ever known, but heading in the right direction. I made a promise to myself to watch a movie on TV that evening. I felt so happy to be in America, so grateful for how much more there was to learn. I remembered how in Vietnam, even inside the camp, the cherry blossoms came and went, came and went. I stood there in the shade and watched this all again, the opening buds, the falling away.