LINGUIST 149 Final

I accidentally ended up writing this halfway through a final paper for a seminar on bilingualism. It’s not spoken word or anything, but I think some paragraphs are a lot better heard than seen, so I read it aloud. It’s indulgent and too long, but I think it’s truthful to a part of why I love language more than anything else in the world. I also want to note that my focus here is language, not being Asian-American, which I want to note because I’m so tired of Amy Tan and strange-lunch-food stories. Vietnamese the language and Vietnamese the ethnicity are undeniably, exasperatingly related for the hyphenated like me, but as much as possible, I’m intending to just talk about the former here.

I believe in facts. I believe in research and et al. and experimentation. But they don’t convince even my bones. For better or worse, I know a big factor in whether something is true to me, actually registers as true to me, is experience: it’s impossible to discard having been middle-school classmates with now-Trump supporters, or having been a child of immigrants. It’s anathema to me to broadly joke at the South’s expense and turn my back to a Texan childhood. It’s unimaginable to discount the importance of representation in media when I know how it feels to see Korra onscreen and Ali Wong onstage.

I know the disorientation and doubt and sadness — as well as the beauty and completeness and glory (“glory” because I’m a dramatic person who chooses dramatic words) — of having more than one language in my life. It’s really hard, though, to convince people that multilingualism matters, or that it matters beyond handwringing about China, beyond the sterile intellectualization of consuming foreign literatures in their original form (that is, for the pure ability to read Dostoyevsky in his own words, not for what your soul might gain beyond the cocktail party brag) — without pulling in the personal, without undressing under the fluorescent lights of language ideologies people don’t even know they hold, stripping to recollections of being

  • 4 and unable to tell your teacher you need to use the bathroom. Or
  • 7 and being retroactively transferred to an ESL class, thanks to your unJohnson unSmith unWilliams surname — despite that ESL class being taught in Spanish, not Vietnamese — despite already taking advanced ELA classes and already having skipped a grade and already having fallen head-over-third-grade-heels in love with English, unquestioningly trading away a birth language you never learned to write or emote in, for these exquisite new words you get praised for wielding so well, against a nation’s, a school administration’s expectations. At
  • 10, you’re all late for a flight that’s boarding NOW RIGHT NOW. The man at the counter glances at the two adults — yellow, aging, slant-eyed. Your father’s worked in the United States for more than thirty years and has no perceptible accent, if you only gave him the chance to speak. But this man doesn’t. He addresses you. You, 10. “Sweetheart, tell your parents — ” stains your identity with an indignity your anger can’t lend grace to. When you loudly repeat his instructions to your parents so he can hear, in chin-high English, as he should have respected them enough to do to begin with, you pray it feels invasive. You hope it scares him, the thought that “his” language might spring as comfortably from someone who looks like you, as much as the thought that someone who looks like you might speak anything other than English scares so many other people. (You know it probably doesn’t. This incident matters to 0.0 people aside from yourself.) Then you’re
  • 11 and talking about tampons with your already — imagine, 11 and already — estranged mother and literally everything that could go wrong when a cagey pre-teen has to talk about Her Changing Body, knowing neither the proper labels nor what is to be labeled, in any of her languages, goes wrong. Then
  • 14, and the grandfather who named you, blessed your infant forehead with two syllables that don’t exist in English — dies. You stopped minding the misspellings and mispronunciations years ago, because you understand that as hard as people try (and as much as the hypercarefully conscious albeit logically flawed probes warm your heart: No, if I can pronounce Tchaikovsky, I can call you by your proper name!), your name phonemically doesn’t exist in the language(s) their tongues can contort into. It’s fine; it’s totally, unresentfully fine. So your cappuccinos go to a Dawn, not Sớm-Mai, and sometimes your mail goes to a SOMMAI NGGYEN, not SOM-MAI NGUYEN. After years in a name, you truly do become “sumeye” as much as “Sớm-Mai,” but sometimes and increasingly seldom, you try the latter on again, and it fits like tight shoulders on a jacket you thought you’d never outgrow, and whether or not you mind, it’s sad. He dies, and you don’t understand the prayer service. Because there’s an asymptotic drop-off where your comprehension stops, at anything more abstract than laundry or the local news — and you feel like a too-early September leaf divorced of her family tree. Then you’re
  • 19 and it’s Thanksgiving, your senior year of college. You’re approaching presenting your postgrad plans to your parents with more trepidation than your first kiss, which God forbid you ever even have to allude to in their presence because any words tangential to non-familial love or feelings more complex than :D or :) or :/ or :( or >:( miscarry in your vocal tract, unworthy and imprecise and untrue. You talk at your mother and she talks at you, until you both give up and take up your own languages, and English sinks like your own bed after a restless Christmas in an old dusty twin, now in the wrong corner of what was once your childhood room. You retreat to with whichs and to what extents and codifys, reveling in your own cleverness and control, and it all reeks of 7, when you decided rhetoric, the name of which you didn’t yet even know, was the only way your small frame could get where it wanted to go. The faintest guilt sneaks into your chest when she can’t catch all the relative clauses, but your resentment carries you, because you’re as angry at her as at the nation-home that, to some awful degree you hadn’t believed three weeks prior, rejects you both. The electorate you belong to has spoken, but so has she, for longer, and her favorite dismissals have planted in your skin pockmarks as sour as the English monolinguals’: “Your Vietnamese is fine for someone who grew up here. You can’t use it as an excuse.” As though “fine” is fair, or “fine” is enough, but you can’t exactly level a charge of “linguistic gaslighting” against someone who lived through bombings, as clearly as you see the hypocrisy: “But your English is ‘fine’ for someone who moved here. Why don’t we ever argue in English?” And to think you’re one of the few who tried/s to keep, who falls asleep to BBC Tiếng Việt because there’s a question that aches, even if you can’t proclaim often enough how awful a mother you’d be, as though your current impatience for children is some permanent amulet against failing all the heritage that might end, barren in you, sewn deep in your womb, deep enough it can’t be shed on the month, because you’re so afraid of loss, you might rather never have: “Could you, now, talk to who you were at 3? Could she understand or love you?” To have nothing of your own first days to bequeath a hypothetical child you might not even want is a patently absurd problem to lose sleep over at 19, but what kind of a mother loses a lullaby? You tried as much as you did, you care as much as you do; still here you are with your tears over long-cooled tea, under your father’s concerned glances and mother’s hoarse silence, clumsy because you’ve been strangers for so much longer than the 9th-generation families who can’t understand why you hoard your đông phúc bích sounds so. It breaks my heart, it breaks my heart, it breaks my heart, and I am horrified that even in English, the only platitude I can throw up is “it breaks my heart,” and the only sentence I can put in the unshielded first person is this last one.

I don’t think you can convince people without getting naked. (These little anecdotes don’t include my weird brushes with French, Mandarin, and German.)

Originally posted in December 2016 on Tumblr, but finding a digital home is hard, okay.