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 ten-year-olds at a backyard gathering.
I remember coming back home from college and being told by a family member that I sounded ngọng, 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. But the Vietnamese person as victim of history is a tired trope sometimes. 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.
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.
Tam Hoang translates his father's release papers
Tam translates the documents for his father's release from a reeducation camp in Vietnam.
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.
Tam Hoang discusses his childhood in Vietnam
Tam Hoang shares memories, good and bad, from his impoverished youth in Communist-run Vietnam.
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 of being victimized because of the war. But what you will sometimes find is a sense of loss not different from the Lost Generation of the First World War. 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, make sense of things. We ask questions and defend claims. We draw lines between things, or make them 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.
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.