Visiting another country can be eye-opening, and it is a great way to learn about other cultures. But if you don’t speak the local language, your understanding of the place and its people probably won’t be as good – even if everyone there speaks English to you. Luckily for a group of officers from the U.S. Air Force’s graduate school for strategists, one lieutenant was recently able to fill in the blanks.
As a participant in the Language Enabled Airman Program, 1st Lt. James To is part of a career-spanning program operated by the Air Force Culture and Language Center at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. LEAP sustains, enhances and helps the Air Force use the existing language skills of Airmen. In To’s case, he came to the program with a native speaker’s expertise in Vietnamese. The lieutenant was born and lived in Vietnam until he was 12 years old. This “local’s perspective” was just what was needed for a cultural immersion trip scheduled for students in the School for Advanced Air and Space Studies.
To was one of two Vietnamese-speaking officers selected to provide support during the trip. He accompanied the group on a fast-paced tour of Vietnam, with a focus on the Vietnam War. As a support officer, To provided language and cultural translation skills, and his knowledge opened a window into Vietnam for the students – one that they would have never even known was there had To not been a part of the trip.
Although many of the historical sites the group visited had signage and information in English as well as Vietnamese, To was able to point out the differences between the two translations. These differences could be subtle in tone, or they could take on widely different meanings in each language. “I was able to point out the differences and inconsistencies,” To said. “For example, the plaque could read ‘South Vietnamese’ or ‘the Saigon regime’ in English. But the words used in the Vietnamese version were ‘traitor,’ ‘America’s lackey,’ or ‘pawn.’”
In addition to translating and providing context at historical sights, To also expanded the group’s cultural knowledge through culinary excursions. At the end of a day’s work, To would ask the students if anyone wanted to go find authentic food for dinner. Authentic experiences meant food stalls and other venues where the locals ate. The other Americans got a sense of what real, every-day, Vietnamese life was like. It was more than just an opportunity to try new foods – it was a way to increase understanding, To said.
“When you’re working in another country, especially in Asian cultures, you may have meetings all day, but a lot of the real work happens later – at dinner or over drinks, when you get to know each other, and after the small talk – that’s when the real business gets done,” To said. “Being able to go into a host country and eat the same things, and drink the same things, it just makes conversation and trust easier between people.”
To’s family immigrated to the U.S. in 2003 when he was 12. Being able to come to the U.S. was a great thing, he said, and was part of the reason he joined the U.S. Air Force. “I wanted to serve my country, and I also, I felt like I was giving back to the country that helped me and my family.”
The AFCLC recently completed selections for the 2017 LEAP application cycle. Applications will be accepted and reviewed again in 2018. For more information on LEAP or the AFCLC, see http://culture.af.mil, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 334-953-7729.