The Slow Undoing of Velcro Shoes

My mom speaks a particular linguistic formula of Vietnamese.

Take two generations of refugees,
Multiply it by memory, nostalgia, and fierce loyalty,
Subtract contemporary Vietnamese đổi mới economic changes and internet slang,
Add some Catholic guilt, the weekly Penny Saver free section, and just enough American English to avoid jury duty.

And as a result, we have the language of 1990’s Little Saigon, California:

We just moved here. = Tôi mới ‘mu’ (move) đây.
You have a duty to your family. = Con có ‘bổn phận’ (antiquated Sino-Vietnamese to mean obligation, citizen’s official liabilities) với gia đình.
The market has a sale. 5 pounds of apples for 1 buck. = “Chợ đang có ‘seo.’ Năm ‘paon’ táo cho một ‘bức.’

It’s a familial language of living history.
It’s a parental language to instill morality and gratitude.
It’s a mother’s language of survival.

And it was the language that I was raised on. Before I found my time structured by recess, arts and crafts, and English grammar, I absorbed the world around me. I helped my mom cut away the loose threads of her day’s garment work. I watched Vietnamese children’s karaoke and learned about sweeping the house, playing with fireworks, and cooking for your grandparents. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I traced my mom’s handwriting of my name, Nguyễn Thị Kim Anh.

Utterances of sacrifice, duty, and reputation inserted themselves between meals and commercial breaks. These were the Vietnamese words that guided my everyday. But then I started to learn a new language at school. This language had other rules, speech patterns, and ideals. It was unlike the religious creeds my grandmother whispered, or the ethics of family forever first.

New authority figures who did not look like my parents told me,
“Good job!”
“You can be whoever you want to be.”
“Everyone is different. Cindy has a flat nose.”
“You plagiarized. Your English essay is too good.”

And classmates who were supposed to be something called ‘peers’ told me,
“You are a Communist.”
And I would say, ”No I’m not. I came to America on a boat.”

And then everyone would laugh.

A different set of pronouns and names governed my existence.

At school I was the neutral pronoun “I” and the newly chosen name “Cindy Nguyen,” (“Cin-dy Win,” I would enunciate slowly each day during roll call. Yes, it’s okay, you don’t need to bother with my real name.)

At home I was a child (con) and the affectionate term of endearment “little one” (bé). But more often than not, you would find me in trouble—a disappointment to my entire family, kneeling in the corner and thinking about all of my sins. At that time my parents called me by my Vietnamese name, “Kim Anh”. Or on worse days, they called me, “someone else’s child” (con nhà ai).

I never questioned if I was ‘fluent’ in English or Vietnamese. Until that stale suburban afternoon during my third grade parent-teacher conference, when my mom screeched “My children talk English good! She not ESL. She do good job in school.”

I remember it very clearly as a screech because all the little hairs along the back of my neck stood on end. I replayed in my head not what my mother said, but how she said it. I wanted her to stop speaking, because it resembled the scratching of distorted static—the slow undoing of velcro shoes (something I yearned for) during Catholic confession (something I feared). She sounded foreign, bizarre, comedic even. That day I learned that the English language could be something called ‘broken.’ And for the first time I was embarrassed of my mom.

And day by day, the Vietnamese language that I was raised on turned into a secret language. Take my mother’s version of Vietnamese, then

Multiply by 12 years of American public school peer pressure,
Subtract the ability to read and write Vietnamese,
Add some creative misunderstandings, unspoken teenage resentment, and dreams of the American sitcom family.

And as a result, we have the language of my Vietn-America. This language was contained within the perimeter of

The five apartments we lived in during my childhood,
The fifty person weekly reunions with extended family,
The five o’clock afternoon routine of sleepy Sunday mass.

My version of Vietnamese mechanically activates after I enter these spaces. Automatically, my head tilts downwards, my shoulders hunch, and the weight of loss, sacrifice, and misguided hope force my arms to cross over each other.

I lose the ability to look at someone in the eye.
I lose a vocabulary of expression, of empowerment, of individuality.
I lose the pronoun “I.”

School was good. = “Gút”
I’m sorry mom, I made you sad. = “Xin lỗi mẹ, con làm mẹ buồn.”
Thank you Mom and Dad, for taking care of us kids. = “Cảm ơn bố mẹ đã “trông sóc”… (Apparently this is not actually a word, as confirmed by the Vietnamese dictionary, but a creative combination of “trông nom” + “chăm sóc.”)
Your bittermelon soup was delicious! (I love you.) = “Canh khổ qua mẹ nấu ngon lắm!”

It’s a familial language of food (and love).
It’s a child’s language to ask for forgiveness.
It’s a girl’s language of broken translations and dreams.

Hanoi, February 2017

See my other essays in Portfolio

Texts as Data—Data as Texts

 

Rather than get lost in the semantic battle of defining disciplines (What is/are the digital humanities?), this presentation explores how we as humanists can use data to help us think through our humanities questions, evidence, and argument. Drawing from ‘digital’ and ‘data science’ methods of experimental design and operationalizing, I shared my data science project on the library of congress collection of Vietnamese materials.

Slides

Video of presentation

This talk was part of the “Texts as Data—Data as Texts” Seminar and Workshop at Yonsei University in Seoul on January 12, 2017.

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Dissertation Research & Methods Presentation: Lịch sử thư viện Việt nam 1887-1986 – Phương pháp tiếp cận nghiên cứu của đại học Hoa kỳ

black-white-presentation

If you google ‘Vietnam,’ what are the results? Vietnam War, Vietnamese food, tourism

I recently had the opportunty to present my research and research methods at my Fulbright host institution, Vietnam National University – Social Sciences & Humanities University (Đại học Quốc gia Hà Nội – Trường Đại học Khoa học Xã hội và Nhân văn). The audience included professors, lecturers, researchers, and students from the department of history and libraries and information, senior professors on libraries, and a few archives personnel from the Hán-Nom research institute (Viện nghiên cứu Hán nôm).

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A Humanist Does Data Science: ‘Deconstructing’ Libraries Project

Library of Congress Main Reading Room

Library of Congress Main Reading Room

Spring of 2016 I enrolled in my first ever graduate level data science course at the School of Information at UC Berkeley. The course ‘Deconstrucing Data Science’ investigated quantitative methods of machine learning and data analysis. Coming from a humanist background, the course challenged me to think in drastically different ways about evidence, data, and argument. In the process of learning new data science methods, we reflected on experimental design and challenged the underlying assumptions of empirical methods. These critical reflections resonated with similar debates around the ‘scientific’ character of history and the social sciences to draw informed conclusions about the past and society.

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Presenting my work and Presenting myself in Vietnamese

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Recently I was invited to speak and present my research at the Institute of Social Sciences Information (Viện thông tin khoa học xã hội). The presentation was the first of many firsts, where I shared
  • my dissertation topic, “Creating the Library: Builders and Users of Vietnamese Libraries 1887-1986”
  • my research findings in Hanoi thus far
  • observations on libraries to library staff (rather than an academic history audience)
  • and the most challenging part of all this, was that it was the first time that I presented anything in Vietnamese.

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(Digital) Humanities: It’s all one in the same in my research

The map interface for searching materials. The Vietnam Project MSU Archive

Introduction

While writing about my data science course at the School of Information in the spring of 2016, I realized that I needed a long preface to explain why it was that a historian of Vietnam was using computational methods in their research. My long engagement with the world of ‘tech’ has become less of a dabbling and more of a blurry (exciting) amalgamation where all of my work in history, digital humanities, quantitative methods, data science, and information science have converged.

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How I Gamed the Academy: Quantifying my Academic Labor

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My character ‘cindyanguyen’ in Habitica

Quantifying Labor: an Introduction

Graduate school perpetuates a nebulous concept of ‘work.’ In the academy we are always working—from research to teaching, grant writing to meetings, emails to professional networking. But for me, this concept of always working weighs me down. It is easy for me to forget why I’m doing this whole academy thing, and what it is I’m actually doing at the moment.

Thus, for the past two years of graduate school, I have quantified my labor. It started as a personal challenge if I could maintain a ’40-hour work week’ and have some resemblance to work-life balance. But over the years, I found that quantifying my labor was both personally revelatory and an affirmation of my work. Much like the ‘quantified-self movement,’ I wanted to know what I do with my time, so that I could more efficiently use my time. But most importantly, quantifying my labor reminded me why I was pursuing a Ph.D. in Vietnamese history.

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