I can speak Vietnamese at level 10 in the Berlitz system. The Berlitz system goes to level 12. When I’m there, in Vietnam, I’m very comfortable not using English. I mostly speak northern, but occasionally a bit of southern twang creeps in – a reminder of my early days as a debonair young staffer down in the Mekong Delta. At the end of the period when I lived there full time, I could – with proper prep – give speeches in Vietnamese. I could sometimes pass as Vietnamese on the telephone. It was my job to occasionally spend days, sometimes weeks in remote parts of the country with no contact with another foreigner. During those times I would eat, breathe, sleep Vietnamese language and culture. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into understanding Vietnam and it’s people.
But of course I am not Vietnamese. You only have to take one look at me to know this. Despite my knowledge of it’s language, culture and history I would never presume to speak for Vietnam or on behalf of Vietnamese people.
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I speak Michigan fluently. Both standard and redneck. Michigan is where I was born and it’s the language I grew up hearing. I can pass myself off as a native in Ohio or Illinois, but not Indiana. I can understand New York and New Jersey fairly easily, but I have to concentrate to catch what people from Massachusetts (especially Boston) are trying to say. I’m told that I do a pretty good “Virginia” impersonation, but by the time I get as far south as the Carolinas, people know I’m faking it. Georgia takes some effort, and I’m completely lost, linguistically and culturally, in Florida, rural Mississippi, and Louisiana.
I’m American. I’m as legitimately “from here” as any other fourth generation, white, non-Native American person. And yet there are places – Idaho, Oregon, Utah… – where I am most definitely an outsider. The culture is different; I talk funny and use different words for things. If you get very far away from interstate highways and chain restaurants, even the food is different. In a specific local sense, I am not “from there.”
I would be as hesitant to speak for the residents of Texas or Minnesota as I would be to speak for the residents of An Giang or Tuyen Quang.
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I know from repeated personal experience as an aid worker, working internationally and cross-culturally the disadvantages of being an outsider. Whether it’s a conversation about program design or strategy with local colleagues, or a focus group with disaster survivors as part of an evaluation survey, I am keenly aware that there are elements I will not understand. Why? Quite simply, because I am not them and I am not from there.
I remain also keenly aware that anything I may say about a place or people, as an outsider, can at any time be called into question on the basis of the fact that I am not from there. Perhaps I misunderstood what I saw or heard. Perhaps my own biases, whether as an American male or as an aid worker, skewed my judgment and I was, unknowingly or not, predisposed to reach particular inaccurate conclusions.
But there are other settings where being an outsider has it’s advantages, too. There have been times where beneficiaries have been more open with me than with my local colleagues. Sometimes it is because they perceive – accurately – that local people also have their biases. Just as I have my own preconceived notions about what people are like in Missouri or Maine, so do my colleagues from Baku or from Jakarta have sometimes inaccurate preconceptions about people living Minqechivir or Nias. And so, as an outsider, I am more likely to be immune to those local prejudices – basically, more sympathetic – than someone who may look like them and even speak their language, but who is not really from there.
Someone who, like me, is also an outsider.