In his final column for AsiaLIFE, Walter Pearson discusses how his knowledge of the Vietnamese language has opened doors he never knew existed — ultimately leading to his happiness.
As I was chatting with my wife while watching the fireflies skit around the ceiling, I reflected on two things. First, that this column would be one of my saddest. Second, the key to my happiness has been the Vietnamese language.
Because the Australian Defence Force trained me as a Vietnamese linguist, I gained entry into the Asian Studies Faculty at the Australian National University. That led me into radio announcing, then journalism on national TV and radio.
So among many other things, I ended up confiding with cabinet ministers, interviewing judges, listening to a middle-aged woman tell me the secrets of her life, and regularly flying in helicopters down one of the world’s most beautiful harbours.
I never really acknowledged my connection with Vietnam or Asia after I left university. I never yearned to be a foreign correspondent in Hanoi or Beijing. I guess I was sick of it. Additionally, it was the beginning of the 1980s. The military, and a connection with it, was not a thing to be proud of. A fellow journalist once accused me of being a source for the “Australian Intelligence Services”, because as a linguist I had held a posting that was nominally “intelligence”. Very suspicious.
One time that I did appreciate having knowledge of Asia and Asian languages was in 1989 when my news director called me into his office and told me I was to cover a story in Vietnam. It was full circle. Vietnamese language brought me to journalism. Journalism brought me back to Vietnam.
Because of my language skill, I had gone from the working class to the middle class. I was leading an amazingly privileged and exciting life. But I was yet to realise how important my Vietnamese language would be to my ultimate happiness.
After a couple of trips in the 1990s, I came to Vietnam for the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in 2000. Old journos who had been here during the war returned. Nick Ut, famous for the Pulitzer Prize photo of the naked girl running down the road at Trang Bang, was here with a coterie of photography students. Matt Lauer hosted the Today Show from outside the Rex Hotel.
I went with the four-time wounded photography legend Tim Page and a bunch of others to my old army base near Ba Ria. Later, I was invited to become involved in doing tours — mainly for veterans — back to the old base and the region near it. Now my military connection had some value and my language skills were starting to open doors. Just as well because, like most veterans, I had hit the wall: PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.
I was unable to work so the tourism thing diverted me from the depression. Bringing other veterans back to Vietnam brought me into contact with others experiencing similar problems. I was helping them and they were helping me.
I then became involved in the search for the unrecovered remains of the six — yes only six — Australians who had gone missing during the war. Again, because of my language skills. This also brought me into contact with Vietnamese veterans who were experiencing the same problems as our veterans.
Later I was the best man for a mate travelling into the countryside for the “girl’s day”. That’s where I met my now wife and my language skills really paid off. When I was a reporter on national TV and radio, hanging around with big shots and having strong opinions about everything, I never thought I would marry a peasant woman with a sixth-grade education and be happy. Yet that is what has happened.
We did it all in the right order. Got married, built a house and had a baby. Regular readers of this column will no doubt know I lead a wonderfully satisfying and engaging life in the bush. In addition to my loving (young-ish) wife, her two kids and our adorable son, the Vietnamese with whom I live have made my life extremely enjoyable. I said to my wife just a short time ago that I have never been happier. That is why this column is so sad.
Unfortunately, this is my last ‘This Country Life’. For the sake of the kids’ futures we have to move to Australia. I don’t want to go and neither does my wife. But I do want my son to know the country his father comes from, and I hope I will be able to keep him connected with the country his mother comes from.
I hope the columns have been useful in showing foreign city dwellers a little about what life is like in the countryside among Vietnamese. The key to any insights I might have, again, has been the language. I know how hard it is to learn to speak well and I marvel at some of the young foreigners I see on TV speaking so eloquently and fluently in Vietnamese (albeit with a northern accent).
Every day I am extremely grateful for what the language has given me. I hope if you are trying to learn Vietnamese, you will persist. The rewards far outweigh the effort needed to master it.
Walter Pearson is an Australian expat, tour guide, former journalist and war veteran. He lives with his family in the small town of Binh Long.