Last week I was hit by a motorcycle and by a new language. I keep waiting to see if one of those will leave a mark. The bike accident wasn’t as bad as you would think, but I wish I could clearly remember what happened, where the guy came from. I’m paranoid that it was my fault and that after the driver flew off his bike and went head first into a tree and hopped right back up, helmet intact, he developed some terrible spinal injury and died, and now everyone in town knows I’m the stupid American woman who killed a young man. A couple of days later I was standing on my hotel room balcony and noticed a guy across the street taking pictures of the hotel, of me? I turned my back, but I could still see him there in the reflection of the glass, snapping away. I became convinced I was going to be called in for questioning, about the accident, about what I’m doing here. So far that hasn’t happened, but the worry lingers, long after the soreness in my back from the wreck has faded. I’m here on a tourist visa, which the local police know because they record the details from everyone’s passports. Research and journalism are not allowed on a tourist visa in Vietnam (little do they know that I’m pretty incompetent at both those things). In my worst moments, however, I worry about this a lot.
Details of the accident are fuzzy. I think he hit my front wheel and I flew off the bike backwards and landed flat on my back without a scrape. I managed to keep my head up and not let it slam into the pavement, causing minor neck soreness a few days later. My sunglasses traveled 15 feet. I anticipated huge blooming bruises on my back and hip, but for reasons I cannot explain none ever appeared. I did suffer from agonizing back spasms for several days, and endured the long, painful, sleepless first night when I was convinced I had some ghastly internal injury, like a ruptured spleen, wherever my spleen is. But, since there appeared to be no real harm done, I got back on the bike gingerly the next day, and I just gradually got less and less stiff and sore day by day. But I was scared and hurt and lonely. And that, too, got better day by day.
My collision with language, while less violent, has been no less emotional. To be precise, it’s not language I’m colliding with, it’s my own learning process, the painful, confounding experience of being dumb, of being an absolute beginner. I mean “dumb” not as in “stupid,” though I may be that, too, but as in “mute,” unable to speak, which is quite a pickle for an English professor with a chronic case of logorrhea and abnormally big quiver of vocabulary. And I don’t even know what I mean by “process.” That just popped out of my can of pedagogical jargon (which I, uh, keep in my quiver?). It’s conjuring, guess work, a jigsaw puzzle of the sky when every now and then someone comes by and kicks the table leg and the pieces slide off into a heap; it’s calling into a dark alley and no one answering. And, perhaps worst of all, it’s a horrifying journey through my own history as a student.
All of a sudden it’s algebra class and I haven’t done my homework. Quadratic what? What the hell does “f of x mean”? Oh, please god, don’t make me go up to the board and expose my back to the fragging ridicule of the class. Or it’s Latin and I keep insisting –as do the other 3 people in the class because we’ve collaborated on our translation – that somehow the dining couch is running along the beach, and Mr. Carr is intransigent, just staring at me until I come up with something better. And worst of all, it’s my sophomore year in college: ancient Greek, site of not just my most egregious academic failure (I got a C-, but deserved an F), but, worse, a character failure that haunts me to this day. I went under when we got to the chapter on the aorist (I still don’t know what that is – mood? tense?) and never resurfaced into the light of understanding. Worst of all, I chickened out, started skipping class, and never asked for help from the kindest professor I’ve ever known.
I was not just bad at Greek, in which there is no shame, I was a coward and a fraud, in which there is. So when one day last week I told my Vietnamese teacher I wanted to take a day off, I experienced that first thrill of escape you get by cutting class followed by, as always, a whole day of regret. I felt guilty and embarrassed, because the reason I wanted to skip class was that it was getting hard and I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. I could feel myself sliding down into the Tunnel of Fear: Greek, algebra, swim practice, an emotional carnival ride where ugly past selves jump out and mock you like mannequins in the Pirates of the Caribbean.
But I went back the next day, and every day after that, crossing the street very carefully at the scene of the accident, pedaling deliberately toward the less ballistic but more terrifying collision with my own limitations, trying to draw the strange words and sounds up to the surface like the bruises that never blossomed from the bike wreck.