I started kindergarten not knowing a single word of English. All I remember was a blur of hand gestures, voices that sounded like the parents on Charlie Brown, and lots of pointing at things while loudly saying English words. In response, I would either be silent or say the respectable Vietnamese affirmative word “Dạ.”
One day, a girl sat next to me. She had a blonde bob that whooshed through the air as she turned her head to me to ask, “Hey, do you like Pokemon?”
“Pokemon?” I responded. It was the only word I heard in the midst of her rapid-fire English.
“Yeah, Pokemon. Pikachu and stuff? There’s these Pokemon trainers who have these little animals that fight each other. It’s cool. It’s on Cartoon Network.”
“Cartoon Network?” Again, I repeated the only words I heard.
I went home that day and flipped through the channels until I landed on Cartoon Network. It was during a commercial break and I had just caught the end of it
“…on Cartoon Network,” the voice announced, as I saw the black and white blocks appear on the TV screen. I recognized the same pattern of sounds she had mentioned in class. I don’t remember how, but I managed to find out when Pokemon would be on, then dutifully tuned in every time for a new episode.
Pokemon taught me English, forever trapping my Vietnamese in a five-year-old’s body. I didn’t learn any new Việt vocabulary words past this point. Can you imagine if you stopped learning English in kindergarten? That’s what my Vietnamese sounded like.
I remember visiting Vietnam when I was twelve years old and having all my relatives say, “Your Vietnamese is like a baby American’s — it’s so cute!” I didn’t know what to say to that. I hadn’t given my Vietnamese much thought before.
The only people I spoke Vietnamese to daily were my parents and my great-grandmother. Once my younger sisters started school and learned English, then we no longer spoke Vietnamese to each other. English had planted its roots so far and wide, by the time it started sprouting, it had already taken over my home.
The way I spoke marked me as being different, as being someone who could be taken advantage of. The moment I spoke out loud in Vietnam, beggars would swarm me and my family, hoping that we were rich and generous Americans. Vendors would tell people one price, then look at me and tell me a higher price for the same goods. My parents had to keep a close eye on me, lest I actually fall for anyone’s tricks.
It wasn’t just my accent that gave me away — it was in how I addressed others, too. Vietnamese pronouns are all relative; there are many different ways of saying I, you, she, he, they and all their respective forms, and it all depends on who you’re speaking to. Their age, their status, your level of familiarity with them — these all play a role in how you address other people.
Because I only ever spoke Vietnamese to my parents and great-grandma, I’ve only ever referred to myself as “con,” which means “child.” No matter how old you are, it’s a good rule of thumb to address yourself as “con” when talking to someone who’s the same age as your parents.
You can imagine how awkward this got when I spoke to people around my own age. I remember meeting my cousins in Vietnam for the first time and introducing myself.
“Con tên là Linh.” My name is Linh.
“Con?!” my younger cousin laughed at me. “‘Chi tên là Linh,’” she corrected me. Chi means “older sister,” usually used to refer to an older girl or woman who could theoretically be your sibling. Referring to myself as “child” in relation to younger children made them bust into a fit of giggles. I felt my face turn tomato red as I hid behind my mom.
I wasn’t kidding when I said my Vietnamese was trapped in a five-year-old’s body.
After that, I became painfully aware of my Vietnamese upon returning to the US. When speaking in public before, whether that was to family, at a family friend’s party, or in a Vietnamese restaurant, I’d be proud whenever someone called my Vietnamese “cute.” Now it was just a reminder of how underdeveloped my skills were. They made me feel like I was less Vietnamese than anyone else. Cute wasn’t a compliment anymore. It felt diminutive.
I would get so anxious whenever I met a new Vietnamese-American person. The other day, I was in an Uber with an older Vietnamese man. He noticed the spelling of my name and asked, “Are you Vietnamese?”
I looked at him, and for a split second, I considered answering, “Dạ.” But anxiety clouded my thoughts. Instead, I decided to answer with a firm, “Yes, I am.” I was so embarrassed that I would rather pass as a Vietnamese-American that doesn’t know Vietnamese than a Vietnamese-American with imperfect Vietnamese. For some reason, I thought there was more power in completely rejecting my first language. I didn’t want people to think I tried to learn and failed. I wanted them to think I never tried to learn at all.
But I realize now that my identity isn’t any less valid than a Vietnamese person who knows Việt fluently. I’m as much a Vietnamese-American as anyone else. My speaking skills might never have progressed passed the kindergarten level, but that shouldn’t stop me from practicing every chance I get despite the giggles from judging people.
In fact, I had enough courage the other day to speak full Việt to a different Uber driver, who was also an older Vietnamese man. Lots of Uber drivers in this part of the Silicon Valley are older and retired people, many of them Vietnamese.
“Are you Vietnamese?”
“Dạ, chú.” Yes, sir.
We continue to talk. I find out he has a son a bit younger than me and who currently goes to UC Berkeley, my alma mater. He tells me he worries about his son’s graduation and employment. I find out he’s a computer science major, so I tell him not to worry and that there’s plenty of jobs for people in that industry, especially in San Jose.
“Computer science khó lam. Con trai của chú là thông minh.” Computer science is really hard. Your son is smart. I kicked myself internally and thought, Geez, my wording is so awkward.
“Wow, your Vietnamese is really good,” he laughs and answers in English, “My son is smart, but I wish he spoke Vietnamese like you.”
And with that I realized that the Vietnamese of a five-year-old is better than no Vietnamese at all. I might sound a little funny, but speaking Vietnamese allows me to connect with people in a way that English can’t. Vietnamese is a bridge to my people, my culture, and my past. It’s a wobbly bridge that I seldom find the courage to walk on, but every time I do, I fix another piece of it. If I keep practicing, I hope that one day I’ll be able to fix the entire bridge and walk across with confidence.