Viet weekends were something I didn’t get to experience. I went to preschool since I was probably 4 and during my school years I would go to a daycare or tutoring center. On weekends, I would do my homework and study. My single mother always had to work and take care of the house which meant she didn’t have any time to take me and my siblings to places like Viet school. She wanted me to assimilate in the world as soon as possible. At a young age, I spoke English more than I did Vietnamese. It was more useful for me. I remember having a hard time communicating with my grandma. Seeing her for only the second half of the day, I could only ask her for milk or rice, speaking a mix of some Vietnamese words with English. Growing older, now, I can’t speak Vietnamese. I understand some basic phrases that my relatives would bombard me with at social gatherings, but I always responded in English. It was the usual “What grade are you in?” or “How old are you?”. Sometimes, I wouldn’t be able to understand and instead gave them a puzzled expression. They then responded in broken English. I felt bad not being able to talk to them back in our cultural language. Every family gathering I would relive these experiences. I felt very alienated not being able to communicate with my relatives. My sister knew more Vietnamese than me so I felt even more alone.
As I’ve gotten older, my mom tried to get me to learn Vietnamese on my own. I didn’t really feel like trying however. My schedule was always busy and I couldn’t find time as well. It frustrated me a bit because of how my mom nagged at me to learn. On top of everything else she wanted me to do, I felt too anxious to learn. Sometimes I think about what has been holding me back in trying to learn Vietnamese. I’ve made a lot of excuses and there are many easy rebuttals to them now that I think about it. Maybe I’m scared. Scared of failure and disappointment. Learning a language is not an easy task, especially one that has a significant tie to your culture. I keep seeing two possible outcomes. One where I end up being successfully fluent and another where I absolutely fail at retaining the information and stress myself out even more. I’ve been leaning towards the latter. The pressure is already overwhelming. What if I don’t have the accent to speak Vietnamese well? Will I be looked down upon more?
I see myself having a constant fear of the aftermath where I can’t bring myself to learn Vietnamese. I don’t have any enjoyable memories speaking Vietnamese with kids my age either. I now want to try, but it also feels like stepping back and forth between a line. It must have felt nice to go to Vietnamese school on the weekends. They’ve built a stronger community between their friends and family. They also can easily speak and communicate. The logical side of my brain tells me I shouldn’t feel ashamed about not being able to speak Vietnamese, but I do. I know many other Asian-Americans share the same struggle. It’s like there’s a connotation that not being able to speak your own language means you aren’t fully part of that culture. I have to remind myself that this is an issue that is bigger than just me and that my feelings are valid. So now, what should I do? Do I continue the road of carrying on with my life or will I break out of my self-created bubble and challenge the Vietnamese language?.. I’ve come to the conclusion that I will accept the challenge. The outcome cannot diminish the hard effort and work I put in for myself and growth comes along with the journey.
Thi Bui Note: The following are reconstructed memories, based on a conversation I had with my friend Christine Pham…
This comic inspired my self reflection.