In Other Words

We Australians like to think we speak the same language - to each other, at least. Except of course, when it comes to bathers or togs. We all seem to agree on chooks and the footy, though words like boozer, schooner, yobbo, dag, dunny and chunder seem to have died with Barry McKenzie.

But, for me anyway, those words are still in the distant past and, when I'm back home, I always hear a few words of slang. It's comforting really when, here in Asia, the height of sophistication seems to be to assume an American accent and to use Oprah and MTV speak "Well ... girl .. whadya thank about that" or "like, like yeah cool" or "are you done yet?".

Even back home in Australia, I cringe when I read (read read - I hate that pretentious bit of journalist posing) and hear the MTV-ing of our culture. After so many years, it's hard to believe Australians still feel the need to ape every bit of cultural waste that America throws our way. But, here in Asia, where everything American seems to be revered, whole cultures are being MTV-ed or V-Tved (the carbon copy Asian equivalent).

Perhaps I've always just been a dag (and proudly so). The other day an acquaintance from the southern states of the US asked me if I was a dag. "Mostly, I said." She thought it was a compliment. Another Australian friend present explained that a dag was the ugly bits around a sheep's rear. "But I've been reading this book about Australia and it said ..." she was crimson by now, as we broke up laughing.

Another American friend asks me if I'm a sheila (ahhhhh!). I explain that people really don't use those words anymore, not since Johnny O'Keefe was Shouting and girls wore squash heels and white lipstick.

Now my 11-year old son, who talks with an American accent after four years at school overseas, talks about dags all the time. Well dagging actually. You see, if you didn't already know, dagging is what the youngsters call it when they wear those great baggy jeans down around their thighs, doing goodness knows what damage to their nether regions as the weight of heavy denim hangs low. As one American commented: "It looks like they are carrying a load."

My son doesn't think I'm a dag - not cool enough you see. But he has learnt how to fit in with the look and linguistic camouflage. The American accent is easier here in the Philippines when a sentence spoken in an Australian accent often has to be repeated a few times before it is understood. Spend a couple of years repeating everything you say and you start to go slightly bonkers.

Before we came overseas, I tried to study Vietnamese in Perth. The teacher was from Saigon, the language difficult. I got to Hanoi and tried to use what I had learnt. But in Vietnam's north, so long isolated, the language was subtlety different. It was easier to be understood in English. The six tones of the Vietnamese language were impossible for someone tone deaf and the language without the lilt was never understood.

We took Vietnamese lessons locally, taught by the extremely polite and gracious Miss Tam, who spent the rest of her time as a guide at a Hanoi museum. Tam worked hard, mostly trying to teach us ancient Vietnamese proverbs. Another Australian friend and I shared the lesson, struggling. In the end, Tam gave up before we did, but not before we could get through a day doing all the basic chores around the city without speaking English.

Not that it mattered much because everyone else we met wanted to practise their English. Most Vietnamese I met could speak English, many spoke French, still others Russian and German and Japanese. A few friends spoke all of these and it was daunting to be in their company when they swung from one language to another.

I once worked for a magazine in Hanoi where the Editor in Chief only spoke French. He was a wonderful man, always smiling. He would greet me with a handshake, a smile and a small bow then talk to me in soft French. I had absolutely no idea what he was saying. The editor of the same magazine was a wonderfully erudite Vietnamese woman who would always remind the editorial room to "Please speak English". And most of them did. After all, it was an English language publication.

The editorial room was an unusual mix. Vietnamese reporters speaking and writing in Vietnamese and often stilted Oxford dictionary technical English, translations taking place, the editor in chief wandering in every now and again speaking in French, a couple of expats trying out their Vietnamese, the editor imploring everyone to speak English.

But it all seemed to work quite well. My driver back then was a 30-ish man misnamed Mr Kham. With alarming regularity, he would stop the car, get out and punch someone. Usually it was a motorcyclist or a cyclo driver who had the misfortune to get in our way or look at Mr Kham menacingly. If the traffic stopped and the offender was still within reach, Mr K would exact revenge. And when it was all over he would casually get back into the car, smile at me and say: "Crazy".

I don't know who was "crazier", him or the offending commuters. You see Mr Kham knew only about 10 words of English. The one he used most was "Fancy", which meant anything good. Oh, and "Crazy," which meant anything bad. But I learnt a lot of Vietnamese from him, mostly words to describe people who were crazy or fancy - and I was never really game to use what I'd learnt in mixed company. Mostly, though Mr Kham would communicate with me through a series of head and eye rolls, shrugs and smiles. It really depended what sort of mood he was in at the time. If he was sitting low in the front seat and rolled his head when I got into the car, I knew I'd probably see a bit of commuter abuse during our drive. If he was smiling, I might just get a commentary, in Vietnamese, of the life we saw along the way. Once, on the way to Halong Bay for a weekend, I shouted at Mr Kham in Vietnamese to "slow down or you'll kill us all." at which he would smile and sing out "No problem, good driver." My husband would just sink lower in the seat and say "Well, I'd really like to live a bit longer." You see, we didn't want to antagonise Mr Kham. So, when Mr Kham decided he could teach me Vietnamese, I didn't argue, though language lessons at 8am in the morning, trapped in a car with a driver with a hair-trigger temper was a little more than I could take. And, it worked, at least I learnt the equivalent of "Get out of the way you bloody idiot." "Scratch my car and I'll kill you." "That's too bloody much to pay for parking." "I didn't see the car coming." "The bicycle got in the way." "The other driver was drunk, stupid, crazy or a combination of all three." "I'll pay any fine you want, just don't take away my license."

Now, here in the Philippines, I miss those lessons and the teacher slumped in the front seat, a three day growth on his chin and a jaunty leather jacket around the big chip on his shoulders. Here, in Manila everyone just wants to be American. If I'm with Filipinos, they will speak English always. In the local media the language swings from Tagalog to English, but it is always fairly easy to follow.

Maybe one day I'll learn Tagalog. I already know a few words, but I doubt it would be as much fun as Vietnamese. Perhaps there's a Filipino driver out there just waiting to teach a daggy foreign women a few choice words when we are stuck in Manila traffic.

Judy Bryant