Living In the In-Between 

An English teacher born in Vietnam grapples with a lifelong identity crisis

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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 10-year-olds at a backyard gathering.

I remember coming back home from college and being told by a family member that I sounded ngng, 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. The Vietnamese person as victim of history is sometimes a tired trope. 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.

Tam and his family were resettled in Milpitas, Calif., in April 1991.
  • Tam and his family were resettled in Milpitas, Calif., in April 1991.

History Done to Others

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.

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.

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 victimization because of the war. What you will sometimes find is a sense of loss not different from that felt by members of the Lost Generation or those who lived through the World War I. 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, to make sense of things. We ask questions and defend claims. We draw lines between things, or make existing lines 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.

click to enlarge Release papers for Tam’s father after he spent more than five years in a re-education camp.
  • Release papers for Tam’s father after he spent more than five years in a re-education camp.

Uppity for a Poor Person

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 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, whom 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 proposals 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.

click to enlarge Tam as a child, at left, with his mother & father and the rest of his - family in their home in a village south of Saigon.
  • Tam as a child, at left, with his mother & father and the rest of his family in their home in a village south of Saigon.

Good-Bellied Intentions

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 enamored 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 a 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. A derogatory slang term 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 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 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 30 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 was bizarre sometimes. If you went 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 fear some sort of retribution, but to make a political statement. It used to be the norm to slip a $5 or $10 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.

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