Open Letter to My Vietnamese Friends

I am trying to be fluent in a language I never use. Because I’m tired of feeling like I speak in holes more than I speak in sentences. I want to speak my mother tongue so perfectly that there is never any doubt that it belongs to me. I want a diction so tight there is no room to suspect that I am not what I know I am.

There is a collection of poetry books on my dresser drawer that I want to read completely someday. There are things I want to say to my parents in a way they might understand. I want to ask my grandmother about her life and understand her answer. I want to learn to tell my daughter that I love her.

I should give myself more credit than I do. I speak enough to get around, enough to understand the gist if not the whole thing. I’ve been a translator in doctor’s offices and restaurants and at the front door since I was little. My mom sends her cover letters through me before she sends them to her job apps. But I am different. You would never call me a native speaker, regardless of it being the language I learned first, if we’re counting order. You would never call me Vietnamese. You can hear it: the small nuances in the way I speak that distinguish me as Viet-American.

I cannot run away from that which I am: Viet-American. And I am okay with being Viet-American. I have come to terms with it long ago. I told you at the beginning of the year that I was working on my Vietnamese, particularly my literacy, because I’m mostly illiterate. What literacy I do have is self taught. I read like a snail and spelling is a lost cause for me. But I’m a writer, so words are so important to me.

The other day I was at dinner. She asked me something in Vietnamese. I responded. And she announced, condescendingly, to the whole table, “I speak Vietnamese to Kimmie now”. As if she couldn’t before. And it was small, but I felt myself turning so red. I said nothing because I didn’t know how. Because I knew she would never say that to anyone else at the table. Because in that moment I knew she saw me as different.

Later in the day, I stopped by to hang out with everyone. As I walked in the door, she said, “Let’s speak English now. For Kimmie.” And I felt the same shame rising as through my cheeks, that somehow with my inadequacy, I was crashing something that was so perfect before I arrived. But then she pulled out a game and counted, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Okay, let’s play,” counting me out. Maybe she didn’t see me. Maybe it’s because she thought since the game was in Vietnamese I wouldn’t understand how to play. I just sat for a while, watching, and then excused myself and went home.

Another time, I was sitting outside a restaurant with a friend, waiting for another friend to arrive. When he came, my other friend saw him first and pointed him out. I turned, but didn’t recognize him right away because he was dressed differently than normal. So I told him so, in Vietnamese to which he responded, “Wow your Vietnamese is so good. Have you been practicing?” And later during the meal, he asked me if someone we mutually knew spoke Chinese. I responded that he didn’t really, to which he shot back, “Oh, so like you not really speaking Vietnamese.” I fought back tears and the desire to leave the whole meal.

I cannot blame you for these interactions. You simply cannot see how much work goes into every syllable. You cannot hear the sound of bloodshed and ocean waves lapping against my battered tongue. You just speak a language that was always a given for you, but a language that I have to traverse a whole sea to get to. All you see is a girl who isn’t enough to meet your definition and whose American-ness trumps your ability to see her as Viet. You might think these interactions are sweet nothings but these are the memories I have nightmares about, the small phrases that haunt my subconscious. Do you ever think that the things you say have the power to echo in my head a thousand times?

Basically all I’m asking is: could you just treat me like one if your own? Could you not single me out like this? Would you say these things to a native speaker? And is it so bad that I just don’t speak as well as you? Is it so bad that I’m different?

Kimberly Nguyen1 Comment