My Sometimes Vietnamese

— An Uong

I don’t think I have a personality in Vietnamese anymore, though I’m not convinced I ever did. There’s a way of sharing laughter and sadness in the language that escapes me. My Vietnamese is a limited arsenal of phrases and words communicated with fluency but not with intimacy. Speaking it is an act of contortion—one in which my body knows the shape but not how to become it. The tenderness it once held is buried deep in my childhood memories, ones of my mother telling me family stories, or of my father singing in the shower.

There is too much calculation now. Too much of a pause between thought and speech when I try to splice together pieces of a language I use dutifully to tell my mother I love her, and to tell my father to be safe. It is something I pull from awkwardly at family gatherings in America to address my aunts and uncles with respect, yet there is little of it to turn to when my cousins in Vietnam try to joke with me. The words once lived in a small apartment in Los Angeles shared by myself, my little brother, and my parents—but not much elsewhere. Families who shared our language were few and far between in our neighborhood, and the closest Vietnamese community was at least a three-hour bus ride away.

For some time after my family settled in America, my mother would do my elementary school homework with me. We were both starting from the bottom, she at thirty-five and myself at four. There was little to guide us beyond the colorful picture books that we borrowed from the library. Together we learned the curves and edges of English words. They came to shape the world we entered as strangers; the giant metal boxes on wheels we knew as xe hơi gained new identity as cars. The room in our apartment where my mother cooked aromatic dinners transformed from bếp to kitchen.

Vietnamese is a language that dances when it wants to and cuts when it has to. The words come forth from the back of the mouth, and must be formed with care. In a language where xe and have very different meanings because accent marks dictate whether one’s tone should rise, dip, or curve, the tongue has to navigate lithely.

The assignments from that time required repetition, and we would take turns practicing our letters and words. One afternoon I held my head in my small hands as the pairing of word to meaning escaped me. Learning a new language was learning a new life and I didn’t know how to leap over that chasm. My mother sat next to me while my brother napped, floating dust caught in a ray of sunlight above his head.

“I can’t do this,” I said to my mom. “I don’t know this word.” It was tower and I could not in my mind imagine its real-life contours, the absoluteness of brick and stone rising toward cloudless sky. My mother could not point to its meaning either. I pushed my papers away and looked at her with wet eyes.

“Are you doing homework for you or are you doing it for me?” she asked. Her Vietnamese is precise and cutting when she’s upset. She wields it in a way she will never wield English, yet to argue with her in Vietnamese is to be talked in circles toward inevitable defeat. Her dark eyes lingered on me, then she turned away to check on my brother.

“For you,” I said. “It’s for you.”

“No. It’s for yourself!” my mother snapped, head turning back so quickly that her short ponytail swung from side to side. “Why would it be for me? It’s for your future.”

I didn’t understand why she was so upset. I was learning English to serve my parents where they were not able to serve themselves. At the bank, the grocery store, the pharmacy—I was the little girl with the quivering voice standing between them and every counter in town. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother didn’t want that to be the case. She needed it, but she didn’t want it. My mother was ashamed of not being able to help her own daughter, and what was previously unspoken splayed itself before us in my confession that day.

I surpassed my mother in English as my schooling continued, and she fell back without resources to grow the knowledge she did have. I lived two lives throughout my years in school, returning home to a place where my words occupied a separate universe, one in which I bowed my head toward aunts and uncles at family gatherings, always making sure I addressed them correctly. A small slip could result in offense.

This is the same universe where my mother told us ghost stories during afternoons spent sitting by the front door, watching my father prepare for work. She told us of the girl who was bewitched by a spirit at the graveyard, and of the soldiers who bought cursed vegetables from streetside ghosts. During these hours leading up to sunset, Vietnamese held the warmth of my mother’s ringing laughter, a laugh that tilted her head back and shook her shoulders. In this world perched on the edge of our front door, Vietnamese was not something I was ashamed to speak.

The shift went in both directions; as I learned the ways of American English I began to lose my Vietnamese, a language my mother holds so close that she whispers it in her sleep. “What’s the word for…” I started to say more often to her as I patch-worked together a meaning close to what I wanted. “Viện bảo tàng,” she said to me once when I asked for the Vietnamese equivalent of museum, except I said to her, “the word that means the place you visit to look at paintings.”

With that change came a loss of intimacy. Even in the most heated moments with my mother, I could never speak to her with agency and confidence, always leaving our arguments wishing they had taken place in English instead.

“What? What?” my mother would say to me as I stumbled through my words, trying to compete against her in Vietnamese.

Out there—in grocery stores, by bus stops, at school events—my mother’s Vietnamese made my stomach coil with the heat of embarrassment. Her loudness turned too many heads, quieted too many surrounding conversations. My teen-aged self saw our neighbors eyeing her with a condescension she was too boisterous to notice herself. While Vietnamese kept her from assimilating in America, English gave me a control I could use to shape my own life.

Dạ, pronounced “ya” with a descending tone, was always the word used most often with my parents. It means “yes,” but in a way that requires a slight bow of the head toward my mother and father, a quiet suppression of any disagreement that might exist. Throughout my childhood, I said it so often that aunts and uncles thought I could say nothing else. My English-soaked adolescence taught me the finite power of “no,” of shaking my head in a way I wasn’t allowed to with my family. In Vietnamese, I was dutiful. Never funny, never sassy. I’ve always wondered: How much of this was part of my personal identity as a soft-spoken human, and how much of it came from a lifetime of learning that as a young woman in Vietnamese culture, I had to follow social hierarchies woven together long before I was born?

My cousins in Vietnam spoke with quick exchanges that bounced from person to person, usually ending in a communal laughter I could only pretend to share. The one time I visited as a teenager, we sat on the black and white linoleum floor of my mother’s childhood home and my cousins asked me to repeat certain words in Vietnamese, ones they knew sounded funny coming from my unsure mouth. It was strange, they said, the way that my accent curved the wrong way sometimes, washing away the steep dip or slight twirl that was supposed to accompany those phrases.

Years later, during a stroll through the Milwaukee Art Museum, I approached a gallery docent to ask for a map of the building. “May I perchance have a map?” I asked her. There was a pause. A blink of her long-lashed blue eyes. Blond strands shifted on her shoulders as she turned to look at me. She scanned my face: Tan skin, straight black hair, eyes most passersby would label as “almond-shaped.” Maybe she wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint it exactly to Vietnamese, but by every measure of appearance, I am undeniably Asian. And apparently, that’s all she saw of me.

The docent finally responded, “I only have them in English here. Is that okay?”

I said yes and took the pamphlet, but wandered through the rest of the exhibits in a daze. I worked so hard, I thought to myself. Too hard to be asked if English is OK. Halfway through an undergraduate education at the time, I buried myself in 18th Century literature while slowly forgetting Vietnamese words I once was able to pull out smoothly.

When I left home for college in New York, the silence left by lack of Vietnamese was filled with conversations among friends and classmates from all over the world. I drank their words and only spoke Vietnamese when my mother called once a week. Sometimes, I caught Vietnamese on the subway, in the Manhattan crowds, or at Asian grocery stores. Most times I walked on, pretending not to hear, and other times I stood still and listened, soaking in every lilt and curl, admitting to myself a homesickness for a language I too often took for granted when I was younger.

Once, at a gift shop in Manhattan’s Chinatown, the owner looked at me and just knew. “Cháu muốn cái nào?” she asked me as I looked at her collection of rings, my nose inches away from the countertop. Which one would you like? “I’m sorry?” I responded in English instinctively, taken aback by her recognition and confidence. She looked a bit older than my mother, with similar wrinkles near her eyes and the same graying hair falling above her shoulders. Her smile faded slightly.

“Sorry, sorry,” she said in English, then picked up her newspaper.

I could have reached out in Vietnamese. Instead I walked away with a mix of guilt and sadness in my chest, knowing that she was looking for a moment of community, and that my Vietnamese was too cold for bantering. “Yes ma’am” I would have replied. “Thank you ma’am,” I would have continued, and “goodbye ma’am,” I would have said eventually. It didn’t matter that I knew more words than that. It mattered that I would not have known how to use them.

Vietnamese is a language both integral and strange to me. It is integral in the way that it roots me to a calendar of my family’s cultural rituals, each holding the same magic from my mother’s afternoon ghost stories. Every late January or early February, firecrackers bursts into gray swirls along the streets. “Chúc mừng năm mới!” I say to my parents over the phone. Happy New Year. By the time April arrives with the anniversary of Saigon’s fall in 1975, my thoughts are caught in my mother’s stories—tales of not seeing her own father for months at a time. “Xin lôi,” I say as I hear her voice lower during our call. I’m sorry. September brings with it the chill of a fiery sunset, followed by a glowing moon above treetops. “Chúc mừng trung thu,” I say to my parents’ pixelated faces on the computer screen as we video chat. Happy Mid-Autumn Festival. They wish me the same as they hold up their mooncakes, already cut into fourths to share.

I held Vietnamese at arm’s length in my adolescence, but the distance between myself and the home where I have spoken it most has reminded me to become reacquainted with it. In the Vietnamese community where I work today, the language is shared between high school students walking home from school or middle-aged men sipping coffees. Their conversations remind me of my cousins in Vietnam and the summer in high school spent deciphering their inside jokes.

During my first week in the neighborhood, I visited a nearby Vietnamese bakery with hopes of breaking away from my tongue-tying nerves. As I approached Chau’s Bakery, I practiced my order: “dạ, cho con một ổ bánh mì.” I repeated it to myself as my feet carried me toward the store’s yellow awning. Please, may I have a sandwich. Please, may I have a sandwich.

Inside, the pressed tin ceiling hovered high above the display case and kitchen beyond. Foot-long French loaves were stacked behind glass and the enveloping smell of baking bread held a warmth to it. To the left of the entrance, a refrigerator with a glass door housed containers of pickled leeks, sausages wrapped in banana leaves, and packages of tofu. I pretended to scan these items as I tried to figure out how I should address the cashier.

She didn’t look older than sixty, which meant I couldn’t call her bác—older aunt—for risk of insulting her age, but the lines under her cheekbones and slight wrinkles at the edges of her eyes ruled out the use of chị—sister—which would be disrespectful. I settled for cô—slightly older aunt.

“Chào cô,” I said to her. Hello, (slightly older) aunt. A moment of hesitation, then: “dạ, cho con một ổ bánh mì.” I asked for the sandwich but it feels alien to speak Vietnamese with a stranger.

“Thịt nguội hay thịt nướng?” she asked, a little too quickly. Cold meat or barbecued beef?

I was not prepared for this question, a disruption to the script in my head. I was also not prepared for her thick northern Vietnamese accent, which bent her words into tones I never heard in my southern Vietnamese household.

“Thịt nguội hay thịt nướng?” She repeated the question with an emphasis on each word.

“Thịt nướng,” I said. As she began to put my sandwich together, I tried to think of questions to ask her. How long have you been here? What region of northern Vietnam are you from? Anything to replicate the smalltalk I heard elsewhere in the neighborhood. Somewhere between my brain and my mouth, the words stalled themselves.

A customer came into the store with a list of requests before I was able to say anything else. Recognition of familiarity between the two women was instantaneous; a back-and-forth followed, one in which they traded family stories and recent life developments. By the time my sandwich was done, their words were moving with such speed that it became difficult for me to cling onto the meaning of their sentences.

I paid, whispered “thank you,” and walked away. As I left the bakery, the two women continued their banter. One laughed loudly, high-pitched and staggered. My Vietnamese existed in this way, somewhere outside of their world. Disjointed by a childhood of isolated use geared toward respect and duty, it floated around as I tried to anchor it in my being.

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