If you grew up speaking Vietnamese, like I did, there was probably a moment in your life when you realized the limitations of your vocabulary. So, a conversation with your mom went something like this:
“Vietnamese Vietnamese registration Vietnamese units Vietnamese Vietnamese credentialing.”
The word that comes to mind is “static.” Or maybe even “arrested.” So, as your life moved on to more complex topics such as Roth IRAs and escrow accounts, the conversations you had with your parents revolved around what you ate last, which of your cousins got pregnant recently, and how soon after they got married they got pregnant.
Look no further than a Vietnamese for Native Speakers class to see this in effect. I took one in college and the same kids who spent their days discussing molecular synthesis or Kristeva would patter about sounding like ten-year-olds at a backyard gathering.
I remember coming back home from college and being told by a family member that I sounded ngọng, which meant it sounded like I was speaking like a deaf person. For some older Viet folks, not being able to speak well is tantamount to having a disability.
Perhaps I should back up. I am a first-generation Vietnamese immigrant. My dad spent five and a half years in the “re-education camps” of post-war Vietnam, and that is why we were able to be here. I teach high school English. I sometimes get asked about why and how I became a teacher — and an English teacher, of all things. I suppose the answer can be found in a spot where history, family, and personal temperament intersect.
My students and community don’t often give me this impression, but occasionally there is a sense of novelty surrounding what I do in light of where I’ve come from. I was born nine years after the Vietnam War ended, but we know that the legacies of wars don’t end with the last chopper out of the country. But the Vietnamese person as victim of history is a tired trope sometimes. The question of why and how I came to do what I do, though, does tie itself to this trope, as common as it is.
I think I pursued English because of an arrested sense of cultural and political identity.
It’s not that I don’t have a connection to my Vietnamese-ness or that I’m some sort of self-hater in the Amy Tan sense. It’s that the Vietnam War kind of screwed everything up. It deprived us first-generation immigrants of a holistic awareness of our identities by denying us of historical continuity. There’s a line from the film Magnolia that goes something like, “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s true. It ain’t through with us, so it prevents us from having a streamlined sense of self.
I’m also an educator, and I don’t particularly agree that teaching is a noble profession. The phrase is used in a lot of tired ways: as a backhanded compliment, as a way to silence demands for better working conditions, as a pointless bromide. I don’t like the phrase because teaching for a lot of teachers is incredibly rewarding in a selfish way: you learn so much more than you think you can learn by watching young people think. And having a background in literature is handy because you get to be there to help them connect the dots from past to present to future.
Tam Hoang translates his father's release papers
Tam translates the documents for his father's release from a reeducation camp in Vietnam.
There are not a lot of current problems that can’t be held up to the light of a text from the past. In my classes, we read Art of War to appreciate the Spurs’ beautiful offense against the Heat in the NBA finals, discuss Snow White’s themes on love in relation to Taming of the Shrew, make Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling argue with Christopher Hitchens on whether or not women are funny. I suppose I try to offer my students a sense of what I lack: continuity and meaning.
Tam Hoang discusses his childhood in Vietnam
Tam Hoang shares memories, good and bad, from his impoverished youth in Communist-run Vietnam.
We have the luxury of living in a country that is not regularly confronted by history on a massive scale. We live in a nation of such diversity of experience that we can sometimes be selective about the historical happenings that matter to us. What’s more, we do history to other people. And I say this not in an accusatory way, but it is something I still deeply feel as a Vietnamese-American. Talk to Vietnamese people and you won’t often find a sense of grievance or of being victimized because of the war. But what you will sometimes find is a sense of loss not different from the Lost Generation of the First World War. The only difference is we don’t have a Hemingway to dramatize and explain this feeling to others.
In teaching, my students and I get to engage and unpack ideas, make sense of things. We ask questions and defend claims. We draw lines between things, or make them more visible. Teaching gives me continuity. Teaching makes things make sense. The same can’t really be said for the history of Vietnam, or in my family history.
I grew up in a village in Vietnam called Lam Son, a small backwater south of Saigon (if you’re speaking to a Vietnamese-American, don’t even think about calling it Ho Chi Minh City. Because communism. Because, sore losers.) It had no running water or electricity, and separating the village from the market was a two-lane freeway that people crossed at their peril every day.
Church was a big part of our lives. We went to mass at least five days a week, more if there were special masses like the one celebrating the Assumption of Mary or if it was a family member’s patron saint’s mass. I didn’t really mind it, and neither did the people in the village. There was, after all, only one TV. Also, the masses let me keep track of where we were in the year. Free popcorn and Ben-Hur projected onto a blanket meant that it must be Christmas. Wake up all alone in the morning and it’s probably Easter because your parents went to early mass.
I suppose my appreciation for violence and suffering as a way to experience and confront reality came from this early Catholic upbringing. Vietnamese Catholicism lags behind the Catholic Church the way the Catholic Church lags behind contemporary culture. So a lot of the iconography I grew up with was brutal. Our Jesus had all the lurid wounds a Renaissance Jesus was supposed to have as a reminder of sin. Our Mary was not just the Virgin, but a mother to a violently murdered son. This iconography spoke to us because it was life writ large.
The stories I read, too, weren’t exactly Goodnight Moon or Everybody Poops. The first books I read were religious ones, comic books based on Bible stories that were surprisingly graphic — people had their arms cut off and got stabbed pretty regularly in those panels. I also remember my next door neighbor teaching me to read the Bible, and it was through the brutal and dramatic Old Testament stories that I began to make sense of the world. The world was an arbitrarily cruel place, governed by an unpredictable God. It didn’t scare me, not really. Expecting life to be arbitrarily cruel can be comforting when it proves you right.
Lots of events in the Old Testament didn’t make sense, but they were told in a “Well, this is is stuff that just happened” sort of way. This clicked with me at a young age. For example: this man named Onan gets killed by God for exercising the pull-out method during coitus because he didn’t want to impregnate his dead brother’s wife, who he had to marry, because their offspring wouldn’t officially be his heirs.
God, after telling Moses that he was going to be his messenger, waits for him at a roadside inn to kill him. And his wife sees this, so she circumcises her son and touches the foreskin to Moses in order to ritually connect him to the God of the Hebrews.
The things my family has seen, by Vietnamese standards, are pretty common. Ask any Vietnamese-American their family story and you’ll get a novel’s worth of material. Like the Old Testament, crazy stuff happened. For example: after my brother died, my mom received offers from people offering their children to pretend to be him so that their child can come to America with us. She obviously declined those offers, but not without being accused of being uppity for a poor person.
My dad saw our neighbor get clubbed to death after refusing to pay his bar tab.
My grandfather had three wives at the same time. He also had dozens of kids, and when he died we had to wear color-coded mourning headbands to keep track of who our grandmother was.
My neighbor’s son hanged himself on our mango tree after a fight with his dad. His brother was the guy that was clubbed to death a few years before.
Our neighbor left her family to try and leave the country by boat. I saw her daughter plead with her as she left, and a few years later the mother returned, pregnant with another man’s child.
I carry my obsession with these types of stories into my instruction, too. I had a student’s parent tell me once, not in a hectoring sort of way, but as a way of observation that I had really, really depressing texts for students to read. It somehow didn’t occur to me that happy texts were something people wanted to read.
There’s this Vietnamese oldies song that goes, “I have loved the language of my country/ From the day I came into the world.” The song is typically Vietnamese in tone: sentimental and unironic. I am also sentimentally unironic about how enamoured I am with my native language.
Vietnamese is tonal, so in order to make meaning with words you do stuff with your throat, chest, and belly, moving up and down the minor pentatonic scale. In English, the emphasis is on your throat, tongue, and mouth. This is why I don’t always insist that people pronounce my name the way it’s meant to be pronounced: it’s just a different set of muscles. I rarely see a Vietnamese person speak the language accentuating their mouth and baring their teeth. When I do, that person seems shady, as if they’re over-enunciating to hide something. It’s probably fitting that Vietnamese is a belly language, because the belly is an important place on a person. Whenever a person has good intentions, they are called “good-bellied.” When my mom tells me a story and she is recounting a thought, she goes, “So I was thinking in my belly that….”
The language is also weirdly precise: there’s a word for the smell of urine; there is a word for spoiled rice. It also uses precision in order to express generalities. My mom would sometimes say a phrase that translates to “thirty-nine thousand” to call something bullshit. She would also say “tomorrow or the day after next” to mean, “maybe never.”
Just like English, Vietnamese can at times be a mongrel language that hints at periods of colonialism and conflict. There are Chinese words, French words, English words. The slang for “gay” is the same in French: pédé. For all the rancor surrounding the French and their colonized subjects, at least they both can agree on bigotry.
And, like any language out there, there are prejudices and stereotypes associated with each dialect. Northerners like myself have a mostly flat accent that can seem overly formal or slick. Southerners have a melismatic twang — imagine the bends in blues music — that connote conviviality and warmth, but also redneck provincialism. People from the central region have a heavy accent in every sense of the word; they sound like they’re carrying a really heavy backpack when they speak. This is why sometimes they’re perceived as being difficult or demanding. It probably has to do with the fact they they lived in one of the most politically volatile regions in the country.
When I travel abroad, I tell people I’m American. And when I say that I also mean I am American in the political as well as cultural sense of the word. But when I say I’m Vietnamese I am so culturally but not politically, or even in a historical sense. When I was growing up and attending Vietnamese school or church scout group, we would sing the national anthem of the Republic of Vietnam. This was the regime that was toppled by the communists in 1975. April 30th was always understood as a dark day in our history, the day that the North overran the South.
This attachment to a state that no longer existed is bizarre sometimes. If you go to Little Saigon in Orange County, you used to be able to sometimes see guys walk around with their Republic of Vietnam military uniforms. I remember during elementary school my teacher produced a play that recounted folktales from around the world. Each country was introduced by students walking across the stage holding its flag. When the other Vietnamese students and I saw the red flag with yellow star for Vietnam, we intervened and told our teacher that the flag was actually the yellow flag with three red stripes, the flag for South Vietnam, which officially no longer existed. This is akin to some Southerners’ sentimental attachment to the Confederate flag. Well, at least without the racism.
I still have relatives who refuse to go back to Vietnam as long as there is a communist government, not because they feared some sort of retribution, but to make a political statement. It used to be the norm to slip a five- or ten-dollar bill into your passport at customs going into Vietnam, and I recall a relative telling me that doing so was a traitorous act, or, more precisely, “an act of betrayal against the fatherland.” I know. Heavy stuff.
So, it’s only natural then that my truncated relationship with Vietnam led to my interest and eventual investment in English and the Western tradition. Vietnam and I had a past, but I didn’t feel any more connections to its present or future. Heck, I didn’t even know the Vietnamese word for internet until a few years ago. Vietnam had moved on without me, too.
Even as a kid in Lam Son, I’ve associated the English language with power. But this may be in some way a type of biographical revisionism — I am not always quite sure how memories I have reinterpreted or reshuffled in order to conform my experiences to my current self-conception.
That said, I remember the first time I heard English in person. I was about five or six and we were in Saigon doing an interview with an immigration official. We sat in a dark office and the American sat behind a desk. To his right was a translator, who negotiated the questions between him and my parents. This was a Very Big Deal moment because of the body language and tone of everyone in the room. There was my dad with hat literally in hand, answering questions and avoiding direct eye contact. The translator spoke to the official with a hushed deference. I don’t particularly recall my impressions about the language upon hearing it, but it registered with me that it was the language used to talk about important things.
When my family came to the U.S. in 1991, I was in the second grade. I knew three sentences that I strung together as a stock response: “How are you? I’m fine. I’m from Vietnam.”
I remember being bombarded with questions from well-meaning teachers and I would respond, in rapid fire, those three sentences, no matter the situation. So, conversations probably sounded something like this:
“Hey, check out my rad marble collection!”
“How are you? I’m fine. I’m from Vietnam.”
“I can tell those twins from Full House are gonna grow up to be just fine!”
“How are you? I’m fine. I’m from Vietnam.”
My first day of school also had a scene that was so powerful to me that I used it in my job interview to explain why I became an English teacher. My uncle Frank, who was in the Air Force, was American. By the way, when Vietnamese people say “American,” they always mean “white.” He had married and brought over my aunt from Vietnam. On that first day of school, he walked my dad and me into my classroom.
I stood in a corner and watched the scene in front of me, and again, I saw just how much of a difference knowing English made. My uncle was comfortable, in control, conversing with his hands. My dad stood to the side, hands still, smiling a sheepish grin.
I don’t think people always realize how important language mastery is when it comes to basic things like receiving dignified treatment from others. Both my parents are smart, passionate, complicated people who have smart, passionate, complicated thoughts. But when I sometimes see them engage with the English-speaking world, or see the way they sometimes fret over an opaquely worded policy, I see a look of helplessness.
What I mean by this is that sometimes when they’re in a store or asking a question, or getting seated in a restaurant, and they open their mouth to speak to take the time to come up with the word they mean, there is a look in the listener’s eyes that tell me my mom or dad is at this moment a subhuman. I know this sounds dramatic. But it’s something that bothers me all the time. We don’t, as a culture, validate people based on who they are, but their perceived intelligence in our language.
This helplessness translates into the way my parents engage with the world, too. I’ve seen them fearful of advocating for themselves at work because they were terrified of losing their jobs. My mom used to work in a computer-chip factory and had developed carpal tunnel as a result of repeatedly squeezing a nozzle. She used to come home in tears sometimes, but she sucked it up and fought through the pain. I remember once when I was 12 or 13 hearing my dad leave his boss a voice message asking if he could take the next day off. The servility in his voice, the pleading, the struggling to get out words, was painful to hear.
So, I was motivated at an early age to get proficient at English. My uncle Frank was a vital part of it. He taught me how to count and introduced me to American things like birthday gifts and helped me with difficult sounds like the “th” sound in “father.” Even when I got better at English, I still affectionately called him “Uncle Frank” but maintained my original Vietnamese pronunciation that sounded like “Unco Fann.” He used to thank me with the honorific ông, which meant “sir.” He used to take me to Moffett Field golf course and introduce me to his buddies. He used to compliment me on my Calvin and Hobbes illustrations even though he knew I traced them from a book. So when he died of cancer when I was in elementary school I had not only lost a great friend but also an interpreter of American culture.
TV was also a big part of my early cultural education. I sometimes have a drawl in my speech I swear comes from Michelangelo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I also watched Batman reruns from the ’60s, and the part that I loved most about the show was that it featured a man who became something by adopting a persona that represented a projected ideal of himself. We also watched a lot of Family Channel shows like Big Brother Jake and nightly news, and sometimes I catch myself during class talking like an over-enunciating newscaster. You know what I mean: the voice that people of color do when they imitate white people. That voice.
So, naturally, once I picked up the English language the thing to do was to get into the literature. I remember the moment I became aware of my language proficiency. In sixth grade, after testing out of English as a Second Language, I had an assignment where we had to write an alliteration accompanied by a drawing. Mine was: “An azure-attired Ares ate an apple on an ass.” I can recreate the drawing upon request. There was a tan-colored donkey, with Ares kind of standing on its back because I didn’t know how to draw him in a seated position. He had a cleft chin (of course), and was holding an apple while frowning.
I started with the Greek myths and was hooked from there. The struggle between human endeavor and fate had the ring of the Old Testament to it, and the gods’ unpredictability meshed well with my Old Testament God. And so my interest in literature came from synthesizing the narratives I was accustomed to with the new traditions I saw in school.
Literature was always there at all the important moments in my life. In middle school, I got rejected pretty badly by a new girl in my English class. I told my teacher Mr. Haughey about it and I remember the next day he made a photocopy of a poem about taking chances in life. He had marked it up and said it made him think of my situation. I don’t remember the poem, but the feeling it gave me was what made me want to teach English. It wasn’t the poem, it was the way the poem negotiated communication and empathy between two human beings. I wanted to keep being able to reproduce that feeling in my life.
Having taken Post-colonial Lit, I am aware of this tension in my being so invested in Western literature. Is my consumption of the Western literary tradition just another example of servile colonial admiration for Western culture, the same way some Indians have a love for whiskey and Anthony Trollope? Or is it a sort of reverse co-opting?
Sometimes, though, I feel my knowledge of the Western literary tradition serves as a “Hey, I may not be one of you, but I sort of get you” tactic. This sort of Uncle Tom syndrome is actually something I’ve been accused of before. In my grad program for education, we had an exercise meant to demonstrate how learning can feel for English Language Learner students. Our instructor, knowing it was California, knew that not a lot of people would speak French; Spanish was the usual preferred second language. So, she had an exercise where she asked if anyone spoke French. I raised my hand. She gave me a French story to read out loud. I read it, and then we began to converse in French about the story. The experience did what it was supposed to do. Some students were confused, some checked out. This Vietnamese guy in the back of the room shouted, “Oh, man, you speak that oppressor language like it’s your business!”
So, I carry that feeling with me, of being the servile colonial subject eager to impress. But I think I could be more generous with myself. Maybe I’m the Reverse Co-opter of Western Literature. Some of you probably had that one friend in school who was really, really into Asian stuff. Import cars. Anime. Snacks. Asian girls. The kind of guy who would try to order his ramen in Japanese,or who would get a kanji for the word “power” on his forearm, draped by an Asian dragon. That dude. I want to be the reverse of that dude. You got Orientalism? I got Occidentalism. I will make the Celtic cross my own. I will find Queen Victoria exotic and sexy. I want to have a misspelled Greek word tattooed onto my forearm.
If I sound like I have a chip on my shoulder, I probably do. I think that for every sonnet I can write, every obscure neoclassical reference I catch, every unpacking of a poetic verse un-does one moment of linguistic inadequacy from the past. But by embracing this tradition, I further remove myself from the Vietnamese language and culture I love. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. I live in America, after all. This is the home of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too. The home of losing weight by eating what you want, the home of the name it and claim it gospel.
Other cultures have words for people who live in these culturally liminal spaces. Mexicans have the word pocho, for example, for Spanglish speakers or assimilated Mexicans. While I suppose I could feel some sense of shame and denigration for living in the in-between, I actually relish it. Being neither-nor helps me to be fluid, to defy and define expectations, to build myself based on my own terms. I’ve realized that in order to free myself from the historical victim trope I should relish living in the in-between. And if this means offering narratives that challenge my present environment or prove to be uncomfortable to my audience, so be it.
So, what’s the so-what? I think throughout my life I’ve struggled with being an in-betweener. My in-betweenness was brought out by specific policies that led to a specific political outcome that displaced me into a specific country. I’ve been in between cultures and personalities; political views and priorities. And I’m sure a lot of people struggle with that, too. And though the past may not be through with us, it is present to remind us of where we came from, and to shape our priorities about who we want to be.
I think I know now what my parents’ generation’s ultimate sacrifice was. It wasn’t just braving the open seas to escape a totalitarian state. It wasn’t just taking on menial jobs in restaurants or beauty salons to send their kids to school. In some ways, my parents and those of their generation subsumed their need to be a part of a historical narrative so that we, their kids, could have the freedom to define ourselves on our own terms.
I’m reminded of what Brutus said in Julius Caesar when I think about what it means to be a first-generation immigrant: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves or lose our ventures.” We came here on a wave, for sure, but I never knew how much my parents knew they were going to be in the shallows. I suppose the only thing to do is to take the current.