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Reconnecting with the loose strings of my mother tongue

This past weekend I woke up to my dad telling me, “Chú Chu muốn nói chuyện với con. Lâu lắm chú không thấy mặt con.” Uncle Chu wants to talk to you. It’s been awhile since he’s seen you.

As he tells me this, the phone is already in my hands and trying to connect to the other side of the world.

To be honest, I freaked out a little bit. Ever since I moved away for college, I didn’t speak Vietnamese on a daily basis anymore and could feel it slipping between my fingers. While I waited for my uncle to pick up my dad’s call, I vividly remembered a phone call I had with my mom last summer. I wanted to tell her that I was finally learning how to ride a bike. For some reason I couldn’t come up with the word “xe đạp” during our phone call and instead told her that I was riding a motorbike…without a motor.

At this point if I can just survive this conversation, I’d be set.

Once the lines connected, I saw my uncle for the first time in 13 years. Even though it’s been so long, I can still recognize uncle Chu. He greets me with a warm smile and tells me that I’ve grown so much. I smile back and tell him that I still remember him.

Uncle Chu graciously guided our conversation, asking how school was, my plans after graduating college, and so on. He was surprised to find out that I was cooking my own food while I was studying, and at the fact that PhD programs pay you to get a degree. As the conversation went on, I was relieved that even though my Vietnamese wasn’t the best, I knew enough to still share important snippets of my life with my relatives. It felt nice to connect with my uncles despite the amount of time that passed.

There were definitely points in the conversation where I would try my best to translate answers that I had in English into Vietnamese…which were poorly executed. Uncle Lãm, who was also on the call, wanted to know what type of chemistry I do at school, to which I vaguely answered, “I try to find different ways to make chemicals that people already make better, or in other words, without making more trash during that the process”. Not wrong, but not the best.

After a few hours of them learning more about my life as a student and me learning about the strict educational system in Vietnam, my uncles head off to sleep and wish me the best in school. I thank them and wish them a good night.

When I hung up the call, I realized that my fear of speaking with my relatives was more trivial than I thought. Despite the amount of time that passed, my relatives were more than happy to see me in good health and vice versa. Even though I can’t connect with them at a deeper level because of my limited vocabulary, I think our genuine love and care to stay connected with our family despite the physical separation transcends language.

I’m incredibly grateful that my Vietnamese is enough for me to communicate on a basic level and to kind of read and write, but I always wonder what it’s like to actually talk with your parents. What’s it like to be close to your relatives, and to have them physically present during important milestones in your life? Generally speaking, I know a lot of Vietnamese college students who can’t speak their native tongue at all or confidently. In contrast, I also know a lot of people who are bilingual but come from other ethnicities.

My experience growing up in America was dramatically influenced by my coming from an immigrant family impacted by war. My family’s survival mindset, adopted from war, emphasized the need to assimilate to American culture and values. This led to me only taking classes in English despite being offered a bilingual option in the first grade. If I spoke in English without an accent, I’d probably be judged less by the rest of society and fit it, therefore increasing my chances of succeeding…right? If Kim watches television in English, that would also help. Kim should focus on reading books in English. It’s okay if she knows enough Vietnamese to talk to us, so long as she can fit in with society and succeed. Knowing how to read and write Vietnamese is optional, but not important.

The choices that my parents made for me as I was growing up made sense from a practical standpoint, but because of it I feel less connected to my Vietnamese identity. We still celebrated holidays like Tết (Lunar New Year), but now we also celebrate American holidays. We still ate phở and bún riêu, but we also ate burgers. Those decisions made me become a foreigner to my own culture and left me clueless about my sense of belonging. In an effort to stay connected to my culture, I still celebrate Vietnamese holidays and am still active with the Vietnamese community on campus. I’ll occasionally practice my Vietnamese using Duo Lingo (not sponsored by the way). But at the same time, I don’t feel confident speaking Vietnamese and feel very much disconnected to my relatives who still live in Vietnam.

Deep down I’m very proud to be a Vietnamese American, though I always wonder how different my life would be like had I learned how to speak Vietnamese fluently, or even grow up in Vietnam. I guess the trade off of a chance at the “American Dream” was worth it enough to leave a piece of your culture behind, but is it really? Is it really worth it if you can’t even speak to your own parents and family comfortably in your native language? I still don’t know how to navigate this to this day, but I hope that I can continue making an effort to reach out to my relatives more and spend more time with my family whenever I’m home. For the folks out there who share similar experiences, how do you navigate your relationship with your family’s native tongue? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Aside: thanks again for reading another non-craft-related post. The topics for each of my posts have been pretty all over the place so at this point I won’t guarantee that my blog will have a cohesive theme, but I do plan to post more knitting/crafting in the future. Thanks again and hope you have a wonderful day!

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