I never said “I love you” when I was growing up because my parents never said “I love you” to me. That does not mean they did not love me. They loved me so much that they worked themselves to exhaustion in their new America. I hardly ever got to see them. When I did, they were too tired to be joyful. Still, no matter how weary they were, they always made dinner, even if dinner was often just boiled organ meat. I grew up on intestine, tongue, tripe, liver, gizzard and heart. But I was never hungry.
The memory of that visceral love, expressed in sacrifice, is in the marrow of my bones. A word or a tone can make me feel the deepness of that love, as happened to me when I overheard a conversation one day in my neighborhood drugstore in Los Angeles. The man next to me was Asian, not handsome, plainly dressed. He spoke southern Vietnamese on his cell phone. “Con ơi, Ba đây. Con ăn cơm chưa?” He looked a little rough, perhaps working class. But when he spoke to his child in Vietnamese, his voice was very tender. What he said cannot be translated. It can only be felt.
Literally, he said, “Hello, child. This is your father. Have you eaten rice yet?” That means nothing in English, but in Vietnamese it means everything. “Con ơi, Ba đây. Con ăn cơm chưa?” This is how hosts greet guests who come to the home, by asking them if they have eaten. This was how parents, who would never say “I love you,” told their children they loved them. I grew up with these customs, these emotions, these intimacies, and when I heard this man say this to his child, I almost cried. This is how I know that I am still Vietnamese, because my history is in my blood and my culture is my umbilical cord. Even if my Vietnamese is imperfect, which it is, I am still connected to Vietnam and to Vietnamese refugees worldwide.
And yet, when I was growing up, some Vietnamese Americans would tell me I was not really Vietnamese because I did not speak perfect Vietnamese. Such a statement is a cousin of “love it or leave it.” But there should be many ways of being Vietnamese, just as there are many ways of being French, many ways of being American. For me, as long as I feel Vietnamese, as long as Vietnamese things move me, I am still Vietnamese. That is how I feel the love of country for Vietnam, which is one of my countries, and that is how I feel my Vietnamese self.
A thoughtful perspective on being Vietnamese American. My Vietnamese is also not perfect; therefore, I have been relearning it in the past few years. It is such a joy rediscovering my native language. I encourage the young Vietnamese generations, especially those who are born in the States, to learn Vietnamese. It is a very special language.