Duyen Learns English

Her front wheel wobbled the teeniest bit as she made the sharp turn off the dusty asphalt and onto the dirt path. The drop off was always the same – and it always caught her off guard. Her long white ao dai danced behind her as she hopped off the bike and scampered into her sister’s shop.

Surprisingly, the shop was full. Poor sister hadn’t seen a lot of customers lately. No one really knew why, as her skills with hair and nails were the best in the little village nestled just outside the bustling city of My Tho.

Duyen stopped short. These weren’t just any customers.

Sitting in the salon chairs – and waiting their turn – were not only two village residents, but also two very white foreigners. Duyen giggled, then stopped. One of the foreigners didn’t need to be sitting in the salon. He looked uncomfortable curled up in the little salon chair. Too tall to be sitting there, and too much a man to be participating in the manicures and pedicures, she wasn’t sure why he was there.

The other foreigner had the whitest skin and the bluest eyes Duyen had ever seen. She was talking with one of the villagers, laughing at some unknown joke. Duyen couldn’t tell just what. They were talking too fast for her to even catch any of the words she knew.

But one thing was clear: they were speaking English. No villager could speak English as well as that, and then – when the girl turned and spoke fluently in Vietnamese to explain what the foreigner wanted – Duyen was even more confused.

She walked away from the group, to the back of the shop where her sister kept an extra outfit for after school. Changing into the comfortable outfit, she grabbed her school book and went back to the shop.

Shoving her book in front of the blue eyed foreigner, she smiled as big as she knew how and jabbed a finger at the first sentence and started to read.

“Minh is a boy. He lives in a village with his mother and his father. Beside his home is a lake. Beside the lake is a pond. There are fish in the pond.”

She read it quickly, slurring through the words she didn’t know how to pronounce.

The foreigner grinned – so big, in fact, Duyen thought her cheeks might burst – and pointed to the next picture, inviting Duyen to read the story underneath.

Dear Minh: Thank you for the letter. I am glad you sent a picture of your family. Today I went to see my friend Hanh and we played with the chickens.

There was a burst of English words between the foreigners. The blue eyed girl laughed, asked another question, and then turned back to Duyen.

Together, they read the next story. And then another. And another. This time, the blue eyed girl would stop and repeat a word, correcting Duyem’s pronunciation. Over and over they’d repeat the same word back and forth. Blue eyed girl would shake her head, repeat the word, and then grin – nodding – when Duyen (finally) said it properly.

Then it was the alphabet. The blue eyes were patient as Duyen stumbled over the harsh sounds.

Then the girl started pointing at pictures, asking for the Vietnamese word. Duyen giggled. Words sounded so funny coming out of the white girl’s mouth. Completely wrong, actually, but Duyen wasn’t going to tell her that. She was trying so hard, never able to get it right, but making such an effort.

The blue eyes grew tired. They’d only worked on six words, but she held her head and groaned dramatically.

“So tired,” she said in English.

Duyen pretended to understand, then turned to ask for the translation.

“Co ay met roi!” said the other girl.

Duyen nodded.  That made two of them.


jennifer and duyem


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