Music and Smiles: The Shared Languages of the World

Read all the exciting things our scholars have been up to!

Walking through the streets, I see smiling faces. So many sounds fill my ears. Motorbikes beeping, chatter amongst friends, stepping in puddles, and music of all sorts. From traditional Vietnamese music, to Despacito (especially Despacito), music is everywhere in the streets, homes, and cafes of Saigon.

Music brings people together from all walks of the earth, and is a form through which people communicate when common language is not an option. That, and a big smile.

I have now been taking Vietnamese Language for around two weeks, and though I do not know much, I definitely feel more confident going out on my own and speaking with local people. Today, my VLS teacher brought our class to the university near by so that we could speak with students and practice our Vietnamese. The young woman that I met is studying English at her university, so it worked out nicely that we could practice together! We also spoke about music, and connected with both of our favorite genres being indie.

I find that when language is a barrier to a situation, whether it be in a restaurant or communicating with someone on the street, smiles always help. If you are not sure whether you are correct, you can always just smile and nod. These have become my secret weapons through which I navigate Vietnam: smiles & music.

Part of my experience here in Saigon has been studying đàn bầu with Phuong Bao Music. I have taken four lessons with my instructor, who is a professional musician. Since I do not know much Vietnamese, and she also has limited English, we enjoy each other’s company and communicate mostly through playing music together. 

When I play a wrong note, she very clearly says “không (no)”, or if I do something correct, she says “đúng rồi! (correct!)”. However, when it comes to explaining how to do new things, she sits in the chair, plays the instrument with ease, and always smiles at me with encouragement. I sit in the chair and surely do things incorrectly the first time. But she continuously pushes me forward by singing the tune while I play. Sometimes, she will play đàn tranh while I play đàn bầu, and we sit there with big grins enjoying the harmonies we create. 

This past weekend, we took a trip to the Mekong Delta. It was filled with new experiences, delicious food, and wise people. My favorite part of the whole weekend, however, was when local musicians visited our homestay to perform for us.

Though the performance was not in English, we could feel the passion of the music (and our guide nicely explained to us before each song what we could expect the next one to be about). Above and below you can see two of the musicians who joined us that night. There was also two women and another man, however we did not have power for much of the performance so I do not have many photos to share with you all. 

Finally, last night I had the incredible opportunity to perform with my good friend, Stephen, at a charity event for Vietnamese Language Studies, which raised money for a Mid-Autumn Charity Trip for underprivileged children. At this event, people came together for a good cause through music. People sang in English, Vietnamese, and Korean. In this atmosphere, music was the glue that brought us all together. Endless smiles, laughs, and joys were shared.

I find that many people whose first language is English find it difficult to try to communicate in any other form, myself included. Learning another language is difficult, but going at it with a combination of humility and confidence can help so much.

It is now my third week here, and I have so much on my mind, so I apologize if this post is somewhat rambling. My main point is that when all else fails, just smile (and maybe play a little tune).

Thank you for reading! Until next week. :)