Vietnamese: The foregn language I’ve always known

I’ve been in Saigon for around three weeks, brought here by a small fellowship to study Vietnamese and familiarize myself with the lay of the land of archival research in Vietnam. I knew before I came that this experience would be difficult, confusing, frustrating, and rarely ever reaffirming. Not one day passes without someone reminding me that I both don’t and never will belong, but still should try. Yet the preventative measures that I’ve set up to shield myself from others’ criticisms and curious looks have not prepared me to tackle my own self-criticism. From language learning and research to meeting long lost relatives, basic everyday challenges have somehow thrown me into spirals of existential dilemmas on my identity. These cycles are intensified further by my presence in Vietnam which inherently blurs the lines between my personal and academic identity.

I’ve spent many a frustrating hour late at night lamenting the progress of my language learning particularly after a day of fumbling over phrases, unable to truly communicate and express myself. Of course, these challenges are all part of language learning. Nevertheless, I’ve been trying to figure out why learning a ‘foreign’ language as a ‘heritage learner’ (Vietnamese American learning Vietnamese) for me, has become an unbearingly humiliating experience.

I’ve come to realize that every time I can’t remember the right Vietnamese word, awkwardly transpose English grammar into Vietnamese, or remain silent and unable to express my ideas, it triggers something deep inside. I’m somehow a little less ‘Vietnamese’, which translates into, ‘Then who and what am I?’ Even further, I’ve learned the majority of my morals and values in Vietnamese, from my Vietnamese parents; somehow that has resulted in the direct connection between my Vietnamese-ness and how good of a daughter I am, how good of a person I am.

Language learning has been difficult as well when others assume that since I grew up in a Vietnamese language environment, certain things should come ‘naturally.’ But what is still quite unnatural is the forced unlearning of the linguistic and cultural logic that I’ve creatively built up in my head. I grew up yelling to my brother, stop being so “vô duyên” (inappropriate) but don’t know what that actually meant except as my defensive jeer for him to stop teasing me. I know so many Vietnamese words related to Chinese dynastic dramas, the Catholic faith, and Confucian social expectations of females because I was raised by a Catholic Vietnamese mother who escaped reality through movies and prayer. But I can’t for the life of me explain what I do for a living: I’m a Ph.D. student researching modern Vietnamese history and the development of knowledge institutions (schools, libraries, research institutes).

I thought at first that I needed to unlearn my linguistic and cultural logic in order to improve my Vietnamese, but then I realized that it didn’t have to be that way. I didn’t necessarily have to surrender that part of myself that creatively understood Vietnamese through associations with the tone of my parents’ voice. As I continue studying Vietnamese, I recognize that standard modern Vietnamese really is such a foreign language to me. Sure it can look and somewhat sound like what I speak, but it’s somehow empty of the emotions, stories, and history associated with my ‘weird’ concoction of a language. And more and more, I’ve learned to love the Vietnamese that I’ve created. I love that I speak a pre-1975 Vietnamese, from a 1954 Northern Catholic family who moved to South Vietnam, and who have lived in Little Saigon for over 20 years. This is what I speak and who I am.

Saigon, July 2014