The first time I made my grandparents laugh on purpose was when I was in my 20s. We sat on Da Lat’s outdoor patio with the emerald mountains of the Vietnamese plateau behind us, and the breeze shuffled the café’s napkins into moonflower shapes. We had hủ tiếu, a rice noodle dish that is often served for breakfast. It was completely different from the granola bars I usually eat in America. But it was also the sixth morning in a row that I ate it. I moaned and said a throwaway line in Vietnamese that I couldn’t remember. My grandparents stared at me for a moment and then started laughing. I tried to hide my laughter. I have never heard such a pleasant sound.
I’ve always loved good puns. This wordplay feels acrobatic, tongue-in-cheek, and intimate. But you can’t make really clever puns if you’re not fluent in the language. It requires vocabulary proficiency and the ability to jump from one context to the next. I had never been able to speak Vietnamese fluently before, so when I finally learned to crack jokes in my native language, I felt like I had reached a milestone in my adult life.
Being able to find restaurants or pay for small items in your language is another matter.But if I could make someone smile In that language – yes, that’s the core of communication. Jokes cross borders, even the impossible borders between families.
For years I was the only one laughed at and: I mispronounced words and didn’t understand how to address elders correctly. Even though I was not good at Vietnamese, I could understand it well, so it felt like I was trapped in a glass box. I could feel what was going on around me, but I couldn’t influence it.
My parents would apologize to anyone who had the misfortune to hear me say, “She’s speechless.” Mất tiếng Việt. They used the word “lost” as if the language were misplaced objects or abandoned roads. I was ashamed of not being able to choose my own path, and I imagined myself wandering through the woods, not knowing which path to take next.
Looking back, I think their words came out of their own discomfort with raising a child who seemed so different from them. Since moving to America, my isolation may have hurt them, as I regularly escaped to books they couldn’t read or TV sitcoms they didn’t watch. They may have taken my rudimentary Vietnamese as a symbol of everything this country has failed them with. But hearing their laughter scared me to communicate any further.
Trying to pinpoint the moment I stopped speaking Vietnamese reminds me of my early laughter. But her mother tells a different story. In first grade, a year after we moved to America, my teacher was worried about my lack of understanding of English, she said. I wasn’t making friends or attending classes. Most of the time, I sat quietly, staring blankly at my face. She said I was not ready to read like her colleagues. Her mother, sitting in a small wooden chair in her classroom, when her daughter had none of her work or worksheets to complete, at that moment she wondered what her own failures were. Tell me how you felt. My family came to America to give me a future, but the door to that future was blocked by language. She knew things had to change.
From that day on, my mother forbade me to speak Vietnamese in the house. If you want a particular food, you have to call out the English word. My television time, which was previously limited, is now unmoderated. I watched until my eyes crossed. My mother assumed that I would be able to catch up if she kept watching TV shows endlessly. It was a matter of course. By the end of the school year, I was learning to read, participating in a gifted program, and receiving compliments from teachers instead of the familiar scowl. By all appearances, the American school system finally declared me well integrated. But how much does it cost?
My mother lifted the ban on speaking Vietnamese, but by then I was starting to feel taboo, like food stuck in my throat. Having barely spoken Vietnamese for almost a year, the language felt awkward. They lived low in my chest, not in the mouth where the British lived. I could hardly choke them.
At the end of the day, I don’t think it matters when I lost my way back to Vietnamese. What matters is how you found your way home.
The language ban started again before I was a teenager. My mother married an English-speaking stepfather, and we moved out of my grandparents’ house into a ranch house with a white stucco exterior. When I try to speak to her mother in Vietnamese, she demands, “In English!” I know what it feels like to be excluded or question someone else’s intentions, so now that I’m an adult, I understand that he wanted opportunities to participate in conversations.
Even so, negotiating in English and Vietnamese gave me a headache. What words should I use? In what context am I living? I was a visitor in both languages. neither nationality.
I was still speaking in Vietnamese with my grandparents who barely understood English, but time stood still. My vocabulary was childish. My accent is uncertain. They talked to me like I was six years old and I was endlessly annoyed, but in retrospect why didn’t they? They only knew me as a child. Because that was all I could express. I had no words to speak of my ambitions, my fears, our complicated relationship. In other words, we existed in love, but without the contours and shadows that would sing that love in nuance.
When I started writing novels, banyan moonI wanted one of the threads in the story to come from a determined matriarch who survived the Vietnam War. To live in her world, I read the stories of Vietnamese authors. I watched shows and documentaries. I talked to my family and listened to them the same way I would sell snacks. But most importantly, I started taking Vietnamese lessons through an online app. I wanted to portray language as an integral part of the novel, as fluid as the ocean in which most of the story takes place. And I think I wanted my family to see the brilliance of myself reflected in my heart book. The only way I could do it was to bring myself closer to the Vietnamese.
The more I learned about the language, the more I learned about my family. They always thought my accent was a little confusing. After all, I’m speaking in the regional rhythm of my father’s hometown of North Vietnam, using a pointed v instead of the y sound that other members of my family were using. They have a way of omitting certain words and colloquializing slang that other Vietnamese families might use more formal words. They were from the countryside and, while very dignified, they were free to use crude jokes, imitations and, of course, puns. My favorite finding was that their speeches blossomed with their peculiar endearing jargon, a testament to the often borderless relationship we have with each other.
These discoveries positioned me not only as a Vietnamese, but as part of my own family system, in its intricate intrigues and its extraordinary love.
I started using phonetic symbols when writing notes to my mother and aunt. I understood how important it is to express words accurately. A single hook or tilde can make a big difference. My own pronunciation has become more accurate in phone conversations. When speaking in Vietnamese, I felt like I was pulling threads of meaning out of the air rather than shuffling flashcards in my head. We’re probably still trying, but we’re more fluid than we used to be.
They didn’t say anything about these small changes, but later I asked my mother. “What’s happening to her?” asked her aunt.
“She’s learning,” your mother might say. “She’s finding her way home.”
Over the years, my tongue starts to loosen whenever I visit Vietnam or my grandparents’ house for an extended period of time. By the third or fourth day, the tension subsides and I’m back on that abandoned road again. I remember an old part of myself too. Children who got off the plane listening to unfamiliar sounds, children who were taken to a temple on weekends, and children who sang folk songs. When I teach my daughter Vietnamese, I feel like I am taking her to a quieter, more sacred place than the places we have visited.
If language is a series of roads, I am lucky to be able to travel several roads now. In addition to English and Vietnamese, I also studied a little French and Spanish from the beginning of university. In some cases, the roads are mixed. When talking to my mother, I often weave the two languages together, finding meaning between them.in a way it is our Language, this beautiful negotiation between every space of our mind.
What I have discovered is that language is never really lost. You have an eternal invitation to find your way back. And the imperfect, difficult, and valiant attempt to communicate is the whole point.
Tao Tai works as a writer and editor in Ohio where she lives with her husband and daughter. her debut novel, banyan moon, will go on sale tomorrow (!!!) June 27th.you can order here If it is ok. Tao also writes in Cup of Jo about absentee fathers, mother styles, selfies and physical affection.You can subscribe to her newsletter here.
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