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.


My dominant, working language of expression is English. Even though I grew up within a Vietnamese language environment and went through English as a Second Language (ESL) program throughout my early education, I learned to write, read, and express myself as an adult in English. Only within the past five years or so, have I dedicated myself to study Vietnamese language. This decision corresponded with my commitment to write, research, and share knowledge about Vietnam and its complex history—a history that is deeply tied to my own sense of self and my family’s personal narrative.

As I’ve written before, learning Vietnamese has been a journey of coming to terms with the familiarity of Vietnam, its culture, its language as well as its foreignness to me. Vietnamese is the foreign language that I always knew since I was a child. It was the language where I was taught about family values, morality, kinship, and also about food, tradition, and religion. But English was the language that I learned to express myself as an individual, to question and challenge those same traditions and values, and to communicate and explain who I am, what I want, and why.

My vocabulary for both languages is a product of this linguistic upbringing. Vietnamese Cindy speaks and uses words such as duty (bổn phận), to sacrifice (hy sinh), and to sin (phạm tội). English Cindy discusses her professional academic life, questions gender normative practices, and wonders why this, why that. Since Vietnamese is a relational based language with gendered kinship pronouns, Vietnamese Cindy only refers to herself “I/me” as “child (con)”, “niece (cháu)”, and “grandchild (cháu)”, because she only spoke to adults in Vietnamese. Vietnamese Cindy never knew how to refer to herself “I/me” as “older/younger sister (chị/em)”, “aunt (dì/cô)”, and definitely never as the relationally equal pronoun “tôi.”

This presentation of my academic work in Vietnamese was the first time I referred to myself as “tôi.” It was the first time where my two cultural-linguistic worlds came together in a formal setting. I introduced my intellectual work that had only existed in English, into Vietnamese–the language of family, ethics, and food. Thus, how do I translate abstract ideas of modernity, national and institutional histories, and subjectivity? How should I introduce myself—with my Vietnamese name or English name?

I decided to make this ‘professional’ situation, more informal, honest, and more like who I was—a cultural mélange who wanted to learn and improve her Vietnamese speaking. I briefly introduced my linguistic training and asked the audience to “thông cảm đi (have compassion” when I make language mistakes.) I would use English idioms and try to find Vietnamese comparisons. I would pause, look at several audience members and confirm if what I was explaining in Vietnamese made sense. Everyone was encouraging, attentive, and incredibly supportive.

And I realized that I was actually having a conversation rather than a presentation. Compared to so many presentations I have given and listened to, this multi-lingual, multi-cultural exchange offered something that other presentations did not: it made me the presenter, human.

My language ability in Vietnamese is finally at a point where Vietnamese Cindy and English Cindy can be one in the same. I can begin to express political and personal opinions and subtly joke in Vietnamese. At the same time, I still misuse relational pronouns, and am uncomfortable with calling myself this distant pronoun “tôi” in professional situations. But through this presentation, I was reminded that I could present myself as a fallible, imperfect human, with a unique backstory just like everyone else.

Read the tri-lingual slides (work in progress) from my presentation.

2 comments

  1. Hi, Cindy,

    I liked the article and found it very interesting. I have a friend who speaks English fairly well but I noticed that whenever she talked about a relative, even as close as a daughter, she took pains to refer to them in a ‘relational’ way, ie, “I took my second daughter to Walgreens.” It seemed like a long way to say something that is short to say in English. I had no idea she was trying to speak in English like she would in Vietnamese. Your article explained why she is speaking this way. Today when I called her she said I had to meet her husband’s brother’s second cousin for lunch! Now I get it.

    Best,

    Joe

    1. Thank you Joe for your comment! Yes, there is definitely a very specific way of referring to others and yourself in Vietnamese…I think a lot about how this small gesture of term references reaffirms kinship-relationships in a subtle everyday-way.

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