The first time I made my grandparents laugh on purpose, I was in my twenties. We were sitting on an outdoor patio in Đà Lạt, the emerald mountains of Việt Nam’s highlands behind us, a breeze shuffling the café napkins into moonflower formations. We were eating hủ tiếu, a rice noodle dish often served for breakfast. It was a far cry from my usual granola bar in the States. But it was also the sixth morning in a row we’d eaten it. I groaned and made some throwaway pun in Vietnamese that I can’t remember. My grandparents stared at me for a second, then burst into laughter. I tried to hide my own grin. I’d never heard a sound so gratifying.
I’ve always loved a good pun. The wordplay feels acrobatic, tongue-twisting, intimate. But you can’t really make a clever pun unless you’re fluent in a language. They require proficiency of vocabulary, along with an ability to jump from one context to the next. I’d never been close to fluent in Vietnamese, so when I was finally able to make a joke in my native language, I felt like I’d reached a milestone of adult life.
It’s one thing to be able to find a restaurant or pay for a trinket in a language. But when you can make someone laugh in that language — well, that gets at the heart of communicating. A joke manages to transcend borders, even the impossible ones between family members.
For years, I was the one being laughed at: for my tonal mispronunciations of words, my inability to figure out the correct way to address an elder. I’ve always understood Vietnamese well, even though I spoke it poorly, so the sensation was a little like being trapped in a glass box. You could sense what was happening around you, but you couldn’t have any impact.
My parents would apologize to anyone with the ill fortune to have to listen to me: “She’s lost her language.” Mất tiếng Việt. They used that word — lost — as if language were an object misplaced or a road abandoned. I pictured myself wandering through the woods, unsure of which path to set my foot on next, ashamed that I could not determine the way on my own.
In retrospect, I think their words came from their own discomfort at raising a child who seemed so separate from them. After we moved to the U.S., I regularly escaped into books they couldn’t read and television sitcoms they never watched, and my isolation likely hurt them. They might have seen my rudimentary Vietnamese as a symbol of all the ways this country had failed them. But their laughter made me afraid to try to communicate any further.
If I try to pinpoint the moment when I stopped speaking Vietnamese, I think of that early laughter. But my mom tells a different story. She said that in first grade, a year after we moved to the States, my teacher worried about my inability to grasp English. I wasn’t making friends or participating in class; mostly, I sat silently with a blank stare on my face. She said I was nowhere near ready to read like my peers. My mother talks about how she felt her own failure in that moment, sitting on a small wooden chair in a classroom surrounded by artwork and worksheets, none completed by her daughter. My family had come to America to give me a future, and now the doors to that future were deadlocked by language. She knew things had to change.
From that day on, my mom forbade me from speaking Vietnamese in our home. If I wanted a certain food, I’d have to summon the English word. My television time, formerly restricted, was now unmoderated. I’d watch until my eyes crossed. My mom guessed — rightly, it turns out — that I could catch up by watching endless television shows. By the end of the school year, I’d learned to read, joined a gifted program, and earned praise from my teachers, rather than the frowns I was accustomed to. For all intents and purposes, the American school system finally declared me well integrated. But at what cost?
Mom lifted the prohibition on speaking Vietnamese, but by then, I’d begun to feel the taboo, like a piece of food lodged in my throat. After speaking so little Vietnamese for almost a year, the words felt clunky. They resided low in my chest, rather than in the mouth, where English lived. I could hardly choke them out.
I guess it doesn’t matter when exactly I lost my way back to Vietnamese, in the end. What matters is how I found my way back.
By the time I was a preteen, there came another prohibition of language — my mother had married my stepfather, an English-speaking man, and we moved out of my grandparents’ house into a ranch home with a white stucco exterior. If I tried to speak with Mom in Vietnamese, he’d demand, “In English!” I know what it feels like to be excluded and suspicious of others’ intentions, so now, as an adult, I understand that he wanted a chance to be a part of the conversation.
And yet, my head ached with all the negotiations I made between English and Vietnamese. Which word to use? Which context am I living in? I was a visitor in both languages; a citizen of neither.
Even though I still spoke Vietnamese with my grandparents, who understood little English, it was frozen in time. My vocabulary was childish; my accent uncertain. They talked to me like I was six, to my unending annoyance, but in retrospect, how could they not have? They only knew me as a child, because that was all I could express. I didn’t have the language to talk about my ambitions, my fears, our complicated relationship. So, we existed in love, but without the contours and shadows that would have made that love sing with nuance.
When I began writing my novel, Banyan Moon, I knew I wanted one of the story threads to come from a determined matriarch who’d survived the Việt Nam War. In order to inhabit her world, I read stories from Vietnamese writers. I watched shows and documentaries. I talked to my family, wheedling stories out of them the way I used to wheedle snacks. But most crucially, I began to take Vietnamese lessons through an online app. I wanted to portray the language as an integral part of the novel, as fluid as the ocean where much of the story takes place. And I suppose I wanted my family to see glimmers of themselves reflected in the book of my heart. The only way I could do this was to bring myself closer to Vietnamese.
The more I learned about the language, the more I learned about my family. They’d always found my accent a little confusing. It turns out, I speak with a slight regional cadence of North Việt Nam, where my father came from, with pointed v’s in place of the y sounds the rest of my family used. They have a way of dropping certain words, making slangy colloquialisms where other Vietnamese families might use more formal language. They came from a more rural area, and while they could be very dignified, they were most comfortable with ribald jokes, impersonations, and, yes, puns. My favorite discovery was that their speech bloomed with affectionate jargon specific to them, as evidence of our often unboundaried relationships with each other.
These are discoveries that not only situated me as a Vietnamese person, but as a member of my own family system, in its complex machinations, its outsized love.
When I wrote notes to my mother and my aunt, I began using diacritics. I’d understood how important it was to represent a word exactly; a single hook or tilde makes an immense difference in meaning. My own pronunciation became more precise in our phone conversations. When I spoke in Vietnamese, I felt less as if I were shuffling through mental flashcards, and more as if I were pulling strands of meaning from the air. Still effortful, perhaps, but more fluid than before.
They never said anything about these small changes, but they’d later ask my mother. “What’s going on with her?” an aunt asked.
“She’s learning,” Mom might have said. “She’s finding her way back.”
Over the years, whenever I’ve visited Việt Nam or my grandparents’ home for an extended period of time, my tongue begins to loosen. The tension fades after the third or fourth day, and I’m there again, on that abandoned path. I find old parts of myself, too: the kid stepping off the airplane to unfamiliar sounds, the one who’d tag along to temple on weekends, the one who sang folk songs at the top of her lungs. When I teach my daughter Vietnamese words, I feel like I’m pulling her along with me, into a place that’s quieter, more sacred than those we’ve visited.
If language is a series of paths, then I am now fortunate to travel a few. English and Vietnamese, yes, but also some French and Spanish from my early years in college. Sometimes, the paths blend. When I’m talking with my mother, I tend to weave in and out of our two languages, finding meaning between the two. In a way, that’s our language, this beautiful negotiation between all the spaces of our heart.
What I’ve found is that language is never really lost. There’s a perpetually open invitation to find your way back. And that imperfect, fraught, brave attempt to communicate is the point of it all.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out tomorrow (!!!) June 27th; you can order it here if you’d like. Thao has also written for Cup of Jo about absent fathers, styles of mothers, selfies, and physical affection. You can subscribe to her newsletter here.
P.S. Let’s talk about code-switching, and how do you show physical affection in your culture?
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