A couple weeks ago, I was helping my mom get ready for a Super Bowl party. She was making guacamole, and she asked me in Vietnamese to get her two tomatoes.
When I handed her two oranges, she gave me her usual look of disappointment. She might have been mad that I was handing her oranges when she was working on guacamole. But I think it was more that despite my 20 years of living in a Vietnamese-speaking household, I still can’t tell cà chua from trái cấm.
This happens almost every day. And every time I feel guilty that I don’t really speak the language of my heritage. But how much of that is my fault?
Like the majority of the 38,726 Vietnamese people living in King County, I am here as a result of the Vietnam War. Born in Renton, WA to parents who fled Vietnam in the war’s aftermath, I am a first generation Vietnamese-American. Growing up, the odds seemed to indicate that I would learn Vietnamese just as well as (or even better than) English.
We spoke Vietnamese at home, and I was frequently immersed in Seattle’s prominent Vietnamese culture. Nearly every weekend, my parents took me to a Vietnamese festival or restaurant. Most of my extended family rarely spoke English. I even went to a Vietnamese language school in Seattle for a year.
Yet, my inner Vietnamese still hears “tomato” and thinks “orange.”
It wasn’t until I went to Saigon for a month when I was 13 that I truly realized how inadequate my Vietnamese was. Beyond basic phrases like “please” and “thank you,” I couldn’t communicate with my family and the locals at all. I would get this blank stare from everyone. It was embarrassing, and it made me question whether or not I could truly call myself Vietnamese.
It seemed I was constantly surrounded by Vietnamese language and culture, but I still wasn’t learning the language.
Maybe there’s a simple explanation. Let’s put this into perspective: 13 years of primary education, an average of 34 gigabytes per day of media consumed, and of course the daily conversations necessary to be a functioning member of society here. All of this is in English.
The few hours I am exposed to Vietnamese per week are overwhelmed by the constant English immersion that comes with living in America. So I, along with all the other first generation (insert ethnicity)-Americans here are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to retaining the language of our heritage.
Despite this, I know there are many first-gens who are fluent in both English and their respective “family” language.
Trina Buiquy, who studies political science at the UW, rates her Vietnamese fluency as “80 percent.” Although not perfect, her fluency allows her to speak in Vietnamese with family and others; leaps and bounds above what I’m able to do with the language. I got in touch with her to see if her experience might help me figure out my own story.
Like me, Buiquy was exposed to Vietnamese at home from a young age. But where we differ is our level of involvement with the Vietnamese communities that we grew up in.
Said Buiquy, “I grew up being very active within the Vietnamese community, and being able to spend a lot of time interacting with Vietnamese speakers has helped me utilize the language regularly.”
She was active with her local Vietnamese church. Not to mention a minor pop star: Buiquy was a contestant on V Star, a popular singing competition that’s produced entirely in Vietnamese.
Although I have also been involved with the Vietnamese community, most of it has been passive in comparison to Trina’s experiences. In other words, I haven’t really had to speak (and thus learn) Vietnamese in order to participate.
Talking with Trina made me realize that if I want to become fluent, I am going to have to fight for opportunities to use Vietnamese. Unfortunately I don’t think I can make it as a Vietnamese-American pop star.
My goal of becoming fluent has nothing to do with saving the language from dying: Vietnamese is the sixth most spoken language in the U.S.
Ultimately, I feel it’s important because learning the language is the easiest way for me to bolster my self-identity as Vietnamese.
I’d like to be able to communicate with my extended family and Seattle’s lively Vietnamese community after 20 years of being stuck as a unilingual. Eventually, I wish to return to Vietnam and do the same.
And of course, I’d like to be able to tell the difference between tomatoes and oranges.