Vietnamese is my second language. I was raised as an American with my grandfather’s culture sparsely scattered upon my childhood. I was fed Vietnamese food, mainly by my paternal grandmother, ba noi, who had a natural talent for cooking but mostly everything else was either completely American or a mixture of Vietnamese and American and so the term “Vietnamese-American” really is something I embrace, live and am.
I am ashamed to admit that I can not sit around a table with my peers and have a natural conversation in Vietnamese and I cannot sit and watch the news in Vietnamese and understand anything more than, “Xinh kinh chao quy vi.” I only know that one phrase because I had heard it so many times when I was younger while my grandmother watched the news and had asked her to translate that one line for me. As a young child, I only spoke English and it was a natural thing since my family was so Americanized that even my grandparents spoke English to me to ensure my understanding of what they were telling me. Since Vietnamese is my second language and I learned from my ba noi, the only dialect I understand is tieng Hue—the rest are as foreign to me as any other language of which I have never had the chance to learn.
Why did I start this piece by sharing such a shameful secret to an entire community? It is an open and honest answer to hopefully gain your trust before I share a story that may be unbelievable. After all, how can a Vietnamese girl barely understand Vietnamese?
I speak broken Vietnamese with an American accent mixed with a Hue accent and living in Orange County with such a large Vietnamese population, I often get odd looks from strangers who approach me or just listen to me while I try to order food in a Vietnamese restaurant.
When I was a child, I had often been asked, “What are you?” How do I respond to that? What does that mean, “What are you?” When I was seven or eight years old, I would stare at the adults in the Vietnamese community oddly not understanding what they meant by that question. My parents are full-blooded Vietnamese, I look Vietnamese and if they were confused, it was only because I looked it, but I spoke English so well, it was nearly impossible for me to be fully Vietnamese. After over twenty years of being asked such, I have learned to automatically reply, “I am Vietnamese.” A few times, they responded by saying to me, “Are you sure?” Of course, I am sure! Naturally, after such awkward experiences, I abandoned my native language altogether.
Years of not speaking a word of Vietnamese passed before one day when I sat and analyzed the question of who I am. I am Vietnamese, but I barely know or remember the language. I replayed tapes of myself as a young child on vacation with my ba noi asking her questions in Vietnamese. I thought to myself, my Vietnamese wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t too difficult to understand. My insecurity had almost led me to losing something that was so important in shaping who I am.
I turned to my parents and asked them for advice on how to begin speaking and understanding fluently again. They told me to just practice and that they would help, but just hours later they’d forget and we’d go back to speaking English in our home like we usually do. The bit of Vietnamese I do know are only a few simple phrases such as “da co,” “da khong,” “chao” and “cam on.”
It wasn’t until years later when I would start teaching myself to speak Vietnamese again—not only speak but also to read. I didn’t wake up one day inspired and energized to enroll myself into a class to learn Vietnamese. I don’t think I really had a choice but to learn. One day my grandmother became sick and was admitted to the hospital. I raced home from school to be by her side and to soon learn that she had pancreatic cancer and at such an old age, she would be there for quite awhile.
Everyday, I raced home from school to be by my grandmother’s side until late each night just to hold her hand. There was a recording always playing softly in the background in her room singing, “ah-ri-rang, ah-ri-rang, ah-ri-rang-ooo.” It reminded me of a song I learned once when I was younger and singing in a choir, “ah-ri-rang, ah-ri-rang, ah-ri-rang. Happiness awaits you on ah-ri-rang hill. Onward, onward we walk to our destiny, onward we walk to ah-ri rang hill.” Why would they play this peaceful sounding hymn to her unless they were sure she wouldn’t make it? I mostly held my grandmother’s hand, fluffed her pillow to make sure she was comfortable and try to take care of her as much as possible, even though I know it could never compare to the twenty years she had spent taking care of me.
Every now and then a monk from her temple would come and see her and one day I asked him what I could do to help. He gave me a book of prayers and chants to read and even sing to my grandmother to help keep her soul calm and at peace. I didn’t know how to read Vietnamese. I could barely speak it, but I took the book determined to be by my grandmother’s side.
I was never at the hospital alone with grandmother. Usually, I was with my dad, or an aunt or uncle and so they would read the prayers aloud to my grandmother and I would follow along as best I could. Pretty soon, I was able to read the Vietnamese prayers on my own, and I was sure that it was not something I had just memorized from repeating it so much. I was proud of myself.
I was surprised how much of the language had come back to me after years of not speaking it. I was able to understand Vietnamese words in sentences because it helped me connect the meanings of them together. Because of my effort, even my Vietnamese, a Hue dialect tangled with an American accent, comforted my grandmother—because she knew it was me.
I would have never been able to pick the language back up so quickly if I hadn’t known it once before in my life. Though I had suppressed the language for years and lost the majority of it, it was never really all gone. It was as if I had only torn the leaves off of a tree and left it bare thinking that would cause it to cease to exist, but I had forgotten that the roots are still there, and when I opened up my heart and mind and watered it with effort and hope, it strived.
My story may seem to have taken a romanticized turn, but I know of no other way to describe it than exactly what I had felt at that moment. I am still not fluent in Vietnamese, I feel as if I still have an awkward accent, and I know that if I ever visited Vietnam, the people there would understand my English better than my Vietnamese, but it is only the beginning for me.
I hope that my child will have the opportunity to learn Vietnamese from a young age so that he or she can be confident enough to utilize it in the future, to continue passing it on and understanding that just because we are born as Americans, doesn’t mean that we should ever forget that we are Vietnamese.