Sucking Teeth

Sound is a constant in Vietnam. From the steady honks that bellow out of seemingly lawless roads to the early morning chorus of construction, here there is no place that sound does not find.

I’m mostly used to the new noise. The nasal whines of alleyway bread sellers have become music to my ears. The low bass jingles that come from cars in reverse have become comical. And the nonstop humming that comes from the mini-fan on my ceiling makes me feel not so alone in my new Can Tho home.

While most of the harmonies that piggyback their ways into my ears are interesting, and at the very least something new, there is one sound that I don’t think I will ever get used to. It is the sound of Vietnamese men who suck their teeth at foreigners.

Though not that common outside of Saturday morning cartoons, when we find someone attractive in the United States, we whistle. I have since childhood associated whistling with happy events, like the sight of a beautiful woman or the sunshine after the rain. To my American ears, whistling is absolutely beautiful.

On the contrary, sucking teeth sounds dreadfully unpleasant to me. Imagine a “Pssst!” in reverse or the sounds that we make while attempting to dislodge food from our teeth. This is exactly the sound that local men make when they find a foreign woman, or man, attractive.

I haven’t quite figured out why Vietnamese men suck their teeth at me. Surely they are not attracted to me in the same manner that they are attracted to Western women. Perhaps it is my size or my height. Or maybe they do find me handsome and want to make a verbal note of it.

Whatever the reason is for locals to make this sound, it doesn’t seem to keep the hairs on the back of my neck from standing upright every time that I hear it. Nonetheless, every local who I have asked about the sound of Vietnamese men sucking their teeth says that it’s a positive sound, one that is meant to at the very least compliment the listener. Sadly, I think that I will need to live in Vietnam a lot longer before I begin to hear this odd sound as music to my ears.

Author: Philip Arthur Moore

CEO at We Cobble. We build digital products for people.™

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