I speak “Vietinglish.”
That’s Vietnamese and English. It’s not necessarily about being bilingual but in creating one language. I judge my Vietnamese speaking abilities as low-to-moderate—so I’m forced to supplement missing Vietnamese vocabulary for English. This makes it confusing for those who only understand Vietnamese—and awkward for those saying it. I imagine this is common among many second-generation Vietnamese Americans who were raised in the U.S. and speak Vietnamese sparingly. If Vietinglish were translated word-for-word into English—it would sound elementary, even primitive. Add cultural misunderstandings to the mix and Vietinglish has elicited interesting interactions over the years.
“Mom, I go late night. Boy. Dance. Need money,” I’d say in Vietinglish.
Well, how else do you explain prom to Vietnamese parents? Needless to say, I wasn’t going anywhere to “Dance. Need money.”
But it’s not all confused conversations. I can read and write in Vietnamese—there, I’m proficient. As children, my mom sat the three Ly kids down in the living room in front of an old green chalkboard and taught Vietnamese, one “ah, bey, sey” at a time.
Around 13 years old, my mother, I think weary from serving as language instructor to three unruly, inattentive kids, enrolled us into a Vietnamese language school at Everett Community College on Sundays. Later, I’d study at a Buddhist Temple on MLK Jr. Way and eventually at UW.
To this day, I appreciate moments I find myself reading Vietnamese store signs and restaurant menus in Little Saigon with ease.
But none of this mattered, I found. If I can’t communicate with others what’s important – in Vietinglish or otherwise – the relationship, the connection is lost. To me, it doesn’t matter if you can read and write, if you can’t connect somehow.
I’ve felt ashamed for many years that I rarely spoke to my husband’s mother. She’s a generous woman and always been supportive of me. I’ve admired her strength in holding the family together during challenging times: a wayward father, children running the streets and working ungodly hours to raise five children and one in Vietnam. She’s the family’s hero and a role model. The problem is, I’ve never told her any of this.
I feel nervous speaking to her. I get tongue-tied, even to express the simplest things. I fear I’ll embarrass myself with my Vietinglish. It’s like speaking to any hero. You want to talk to them, ask them questions, feel a connection, but think you might say something dumb and shatter what confidence you had in approaching them.
My moment came this past Mother’s Day. The whole extended family gathered in a circle on the backyard deck of my sister-in-law’s house. We have a tradition during holidays to each share what we are appreciative of. That day, my mother-in-law sat while we stood surrounding her, each expressing our love.
“Thank you mom for taking care of all of us.”
“Thank you for bringing us to America.”
“Thank you for cooking for me.”
“Thank you for making me pretty.” (That was my sister-in-law, Julie. She’s confident.)
I was last. I thought about it and decided to keep it simple. I started in Vietnamese.
“Cam on (“thank you”) for always being kind to me.” Hesitation. Proceeding in Vietinglish: “And, supporting me and our relationship, when others didn’t. And being there for me…” A lump in my throat made me stop. My voice cracked. My vision blurred from tears. I wanted to tell her everything—how I appreciated that she welcomed me into the family with no questions, no judgment. She loved her son, and if he loved me, so did she. It was that simple—and so was her gesture after I stopped talking. She knew what I was trying to say, rose from her seat, and said, “Ah, con (“child” in Vietnamese),” and hugged me.
At that moment and since said then, I learned regardless of what your abilities are—whether you’re an eloquent speaker or stumble in Vietinglish—what matters is connecting to others. Like my mother-in-law, they’ll understand the rest.