Technically, Not Tenderly

Mom with her young kid in continuous line art drawing style. Mother playing and teaching her toddler child. Minimalist black linear sketch isolated on white background. Vector illustration
Image by Tetiana Garkusha (iStock Image)
In recognition of International Mother Language Day 2022, diaCRITICS issued an open call for new writing focused on motherhood, mother-tongues and motherlands, to reveal the intricacies of these experiences from a diasporic perspective. We’re excited to launch this special series with a moving essay by Maggie Thach Morshad which, among other things, explores how transformative motherhood can be on one’s own relationship to language.
– Sheila Ngoc Pham, Contributing Editor

In the immediate aftermath of my son’s arrival, I was navigating the boundaries of all my identities. I had no choice, really. After I gave birth, my husband and I moved into a new house with my dad and mom and disabled brother. The simplest explanation for this monumental shift in all our lives was that I believed this was how we could best care for each other. My dad was well past 70 and my brother’s care would only get more complicated as he aged with cerebral palsy. Given I had to leave my son to return to work after three short months of maternity leave, there was no one I’d rather leave him with than my mom.

Despite how simple this equation seemed, I had a hard time balancing it all out. I could no longer distinguish between my different selves. Daughter, mother, wife, sister—I had to be everything all at once. And I was usually traversing these wildly different terrains in Vietnamese, my first language, and English, my dominant language. My brain could not keep up with all the ways I had to adapt and aggregate, compute and translate.

I often found myself disoriented in those first few months of motherhood, but the time I felt most at peace was when I put my son to sleep. It would be just the two of us in a dark room. The sound machine on his changing table would emit a low, warm light and ocean sounds that were as soothing to me as it was to him. I’d hold my baby against my chest and savored the sound of his labored breathing, the tickle of his soft, thick strands of hair against my chin, and the feeling of his doughy legs against my belly. In this state of maternal euphoria, I’d softly sing the first song that came to mind to lull my baby to sleep.

“Twinkle, twinkle little star…”

It’s what I sang to my brother when we were children. Though I was only three years older than him, as the oldest daughter I often stepped in as a second mother— helping to feed him, bathe him, rock him to sleep. But the song was more ethereal and hypnotic when I sang it to my son. The whole process of putting someone to sleep took on a different meaning now that I was a mom.

Ru is a word I learned only after becoming a mother. With this word, there are no diacritics. No accent marks. No characteristics that trip me up like other Vietnamese words do. This word is beautiful in its simplicity. It means to sing. To rock. To put to sleep. And it is used mostly in the context of mother and child. In this word is a warmth and affection I had never associated with the way I spoke Vietnamese before then.

Throughout my life, I’ve had qualms about expressing myself in Vietnamese. Even though it’s my first language, I deduced that how I spoke it was not quite adequate by the way my dad laughed at the way I said certain phrases or how my relatives in Vietnam fixated on a word I said incorrectly and made it a family joke. It was enough to turn me mute in Vietnamese. As a child, I preferred silence over ridicule. As I grew up, it became easier to not speak Vietnamese. It was a relief when I moved away to college and to another state for a job. I no longer felt shame around my Vietnamese because I was no longer speaking Vietnamese.

Before my parents and brother moved in with me and my growing family, the shame I harbored around the way I spoke my first language was dormant. But with the merging of our families, my brain was operating almost equally in Vietnamese and English. Though I soon realized my Vietnamese vocabulary was not expansive enough to hold all my feelings and thoughts, of which I had plenty of as I learned how to fill my new roles. Inadequacy again became the constraint that kept me from feeling fully comfortable in Vietnamese, fully myself.


Over the next couple of years of my son’s life, I settled into a comfortable demarcation of my roles and languages. I thought and spoke in Vietnamese when I was a daughter and sister—“Đã, bà mẹ cần con làm gì?” I thought and spoke in English when I was a mother and wife —“Can you help me with the baby?” With constant tending, I could keep up this delicate balance. But with the pandemic, my careful compartmentalizing was upended. My work came home with me. The house was full all the time. Going to work was a reprieve from all my roles so when we were all forced to stay home, I no longer had a reprieve from the nonstop balancing.

The pandemic was challenging for other reasons, too. I missed the connections I made, whether that was with colleagues at work or fellow volleyball players at the beach. Even going to a coffee shop to write gave me a certain kind of connection to myself I couldn’t quite replicate during the pandemic. So when a friend asked if I was interested in joining a virtual Vietnamese conversation group, I thought I could regain the connection I had been yearning for—not only to other people, but also to this very formative part of my identity.

Other than the friend who started the group, I was the first to arrive to the initial meeting. Slowly, more boxes popped up in our Zoom room, and I began the same anxious calculus when I thought in Vietnamese amongst people who were not my immediate family. Is that woman older than me? That woman definitely looks younger than me. Do I call that guy “anh” or “chú”? That woman looks like she could be around my mother’s age but should I just call her “chị” to be polite? The hardest pronoun to settle on was the one for myself. When I spoke Vietnamese, I spoke it mostly from the perspective of a child. And because I had not spoken much Vietnamese with anyone other than my parents for the majority of my adulthood, I realized my fluency had been arrested. I didn’t know how to use any other pronoun besides con.

To add to this shame, I was loath to confront that I could not read Vietnamese. I remember trying to teach myself when I was nine. My mom bought me an alphabet workbook and at first glance, I thought I could read Vietnamese like English because Vietnamese uses Latin characters like English. But once I discovered Vietnamese has seven additional letters modified with diacritics, as well as tonal marks, my nine-year-old self determined that Vietnamese was too complicated to learn. When my mom asked me to read to her, I relied on the pictures.

“Đọc khó quá! (Reading is too hard!)” I protested.

“Có gì khó? Tại con không chịu học. (What’s hard about it? It’s because you refuse to learn.),” my mom replied.

What I was hearing was that my stubbornness kept me from learning. This, too, made me feel shame. Very soon, I equated Vietnamese with performing. I was memorizing and reciting, not truly reading. As I kept trying, my mom could correct me but could not explain how to pronounce each letter or what sounds were formed when multiple vowels came together. I abandoned that workbook before I left fourth grade and felt guilt every time I saw it. I carried these feelings into adulthood. A part of me had resigned to the idea that I would never learn to read Vietnamese.

But I couldn’t hide this in the conversation group. For the first couple of months, the activity we did was translate a comic (“Truyền Thuyết Long Thần Tướng” or “The Legend of General Long Thần”) as a group. Every person would be assigned a couple pages to read aloud to the group and then translate. The 30 minutes before every weekly meeting, I would frantically recite the lines I was assigned, first trying to read it by myself and then asking my mom to help me. I had little context clues since I only knew my small part of the story, a historical fantasy story set in the thirteenth century. I had to come up with mnemonic devices for words I was unfamiliar with. (martial arts) was one of them. To remember new words, I thought of a rhyming word. In this instance, I remembered the word for clear (). And that’s how I read the word for martial arts.

Eventually, the format turned into one select participant deciding the weekly topic. When I volunteered to lead, I asked questions that allowed us to be more conversational. No reading. No translating. Nothing standing in the way of just speaking Vietnamese. I asked questions like, “What object/experience made you feel ‘more American’?” and “At what lengths did you go to obtain this object/experience?” This conversation was when I learned that I was not the only Vietnamese child who yearned to go to sleepovers but was denied by my parents. It seems our refugee parents had the same thought—they wanted to protect us at all times, especially at night. The reason my mom gave me never satisfied me.

“Tại sao con không đi được? (Why can’t I go?)” I pleaded.

“Nó khác, minh khác (They’re different, we’re different),” both my parents would say.

I hated having to turn down sleepover invitations from classmates when I was younger, but now that I was a mother, I saw some logic to this. I’d like to think that all of our parents felt that sleep is more peaceful and sound when it’s in your home, amongst your family.

Being in this conversation group allowed me to see my family in a different light and allowed me to use my Vietnamese in a different way. Speaking Vietnamese became more than utilitarian; I wasn’t just speaking Vietnamese to translate something for my parents or to relay important information. I was learning who I was in Vietnamese: curious, gregarious, funny. My new favorite phrase was, “Tôi có một câu hỏi.” I surprised myself with all the dormant words I was able to conjure up and how I was able to patch together sentences and sentiments with the new words I was learning.  Not only was my Vietnamese vocabulary expanding, but becoming deeper, its contours outlining something more multi-dimensional and complex.

This expansion gave me more confidence to speak Vietnamese as a mother. I was no longer just a child when I spoke my first language. When I spoke to my son, I used words that are untranslatable, words that softened the hard, cold edges that accompanied the way I usually spoke and heard Vietnamese. I realized the way I used to speak Vietnamese was technically, not tenderly.

“Con ơi, con đi ngủ, nhe?”, which loosely translates to, “Honey, you go to sleep now, OK?”

All of a sudden, I was encountering my first language in all sorts of tender ways. Some days, I would overhear how my mom would ru Hollis for his afternoon nap. Every lullaby started with the phrase, “ầu ơ….” If you ask my mom what this means, she wouldn’t have a clear answer for you. It’s just a way to ease the child into sleep, a signal that it’s time to close your eyes and fall into slumber.


One week, the topic for our conversation group was dreams. We discussed a memorable dream or nightmare and answered whether we believed in them. Together, we stumbled through new words to describe our subconscious thoughts. The best part of this topic was the way some of us tried to talk about dreams in a poetic way. In slow and steady Vietnamese, a handful of us tried to talk about the meaning of our dreams. We were not merely conveying our dreams. We were digging beneath superficial responses to talk about what these dreams meant to us. Closing my laptop once everyone left the Zoom link that day felt like the precise moment that Vietnamese became something not to struggle through or something cold and sterile. Finally, Vietnamese felt warm and inviting. It was an embrace, and I could finally see myself in Vietnamese.

I used to think of my ability to speak Vietnamese and English were aspects of myself that were separate and distinct. But over the last couple of years and especially since I’ve become a mom, I see now that these two aspects are as fluid and amorphous as bodies of water. Just as the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean come together and become undistinguishable at some point, I am equally immersed in both Vietnamese and English.

Although I have yet to master a Vietnamese lullaby, I still ru my son every night. I tell him to ngủ ngon, a phrase I hope helps him drift into a sound slumber. And my dream for him is that he is able to glide through the waters of both Vietnamese and English, gently but deftly. And to know that he will be sustained and nourished by both these bodies of water.

Maggie Thach Morshed is a former award-winning sports journalist whose byline has appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, and other newspapers across the country. Her most recent writing revolves around identity, assimilation, and displacement. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Undomesticated, and Off Assignment, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about how living and teaching English in South Korea helped connect her to her Vietnamese roots.


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