I’ll never forget my first experience abroad, which was this semester. Exiting the plane for the first time, as I stepped into Hanoi, Vietnam, it was as if I had been transported to a whole new universe. Looking around me, I was mesmerized by all the signs in Vietnamese. Continuing on to a restaurant for dinner after the flight, I couldn’t help but notice that, for the first time, English was not the dominant language flooding my ears. Instead, I was in a crowded buffet room with people yelling syllables to me that resembled an old voice-over cartoon. The letters of the signs surrounding me were strung together in indecipherable units, although they were supposed to be words. Clearly, these units did not add any clarity to the situation.
As my time in Vietnam continued, it became clear that communicating with others was not going to hold the same meaning as it did in the United States. The first few days, when I needed to know where to get off the bus, I had to rapidly point at an address I had written and hope that someone would know my destination and nod at me when to get off. During lunch, I could only yell “an chay” (vegetarian) at the street vendor, and wait for my food to arrive with no idea what dish would be placed in front of me.
At first, I was terrified in Vietnam. Since I didn’t know the language, I felt like disaster could happen so easily. All I had to do was take the bus stop one street too far and find myself completely lost. All I had to do was misunderstand a social cue and I would find myself offending someone. If disaster occurred, I would have no idea how to remedy the situation since I had always relied on my voice.
But as time continued, I learned to navigate the city and realized just how powerful social connections and interactions could become, even without a common language. There’s something beautiful about living in a place where words suddenly begin to fail and observation becomes the greatest tool for understanding one’s surroundings. It’s as if the pressure of continuously asking questions or searching for a social connection through voice suddenly ceases. Instead of talking and diverting attention away from the physical environment, one is forced to simply observe and take in all that is happening around them.
There is so much beauty that can be missed if one is not paying full attention. For example, watching people on the bus every day, I realized that it is custom for younger people to stand up and give their seats away to elders. Not only did I find this such a beautifully nuanced and important part of the culture, but I also found myself able to replicate this norm on the bus because I had watched others do the same. Through observation in Vietnam, I counterintuitively started to feel more like I belonged. I learned to walk on the side of the road since the sidewalk is needed for motorbike parking and to use chopsticks with my right hand even though I am left-handed, because in Vietnam, using the left hand is just strange.
But beyond creating a new way of belonging, the loss of common language created whole new types of relationships for me, which I had never before had the honor of experiencing. For example, I lived with my host family who could speak limited English. We could not speak deeply about family history, values, or beliefs. Yet my best memories in Vietnam are those with my host mom and sister. I looked forward to meals together every night as my host mom would prepare an “an chay” dish she’d be excited for us to try, and we’d all enjoy each other’s company at the table, laughing over facial expressions or bonding over how much we truly appreciated the food.
Looking back, it is impossible to capture how strong of a relationship I formed with my host family and how much I learned from Vietnam because of—rather than in spite of— not knowing the language. It is as if a whole new perspective of the world is gained through less talking and more observing, listening, and embracing. And this lesson shapes my view of academics on campus as well.
At Swarthmore, it is easy to get lost in attempting to speak the most in seminars or talking over people who have a different perspective. Yet perhaps the beauty of not communicating verbally is entering what is typically deemed the “introvert” world. As Susan Cain discusses in her book “Quiet,” there is “zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” While it can feel natural to want to speak the most or fill the empty spaces in class discussions, space must be made for embracing the silence, observing the dance of everyday life, and listening to the sounds beyond the words. As I have discovered through not having the ability to speak my thoughts, often more can be learned from watching and listening than from anything I could articulate myself.
Now in Buenos Aires for the final aspect of my adventure, I am in a country where I don’t quite understand all of the language, yet I am also not completely lost. While I am happy to be able to communicate with those around me, I think I’ll also continue to embrace the lost part of myself a little more. By listening and observing before speaking, individuals can gain more perspectives and learn new insights.