This essay is part of our “On Mothering and Language” series.
Dear Ashie and Jackie,
I’m writing a letter to you to capture our season in life right now, when you are 4 years old.
There are so many things that I want to give to you. I want to give you my undivided attention, an open mind to see and be different, and a palate for Vietnamese food. I want to share with you ideas to feed your wonder; honest answers to your hard questions; love to nourish your hearts: all of the things that make up a home.
No matter how far away we are from each other, my love is the warmth in your cheeks, the breath in your laugh, the skip in your walk. It is in the peace as you sit, the sand in your fingernails, the green in the trees, the pink in the sunset. (Please remember to make time to see the sunset from time to time!)
Asher is a Hebrew name meaning blessed and happy, as well as the quirky fox son Ash in one of our favorite movies, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Jackie honors the nickname of your youthful and outgoing Ông Ngoại, who pulls everyone in the huge Nguyễn family together as “Cậu Ky”. Nguyễn, both of your middle names, keeps the Vietnamese in your name and on paper and, hopefully, in your identity. Being a twin can sometimes make you confused about your identity. Your preschool teacher, Maria, told me that you silly boys already switched nametags for the first time. You are each sure of who you are, even as you confuse people and they see you as similar.
I never worried about losing my culture until I became a mother to you, who are half-Vietnamese, and then felt a desire to pass on our language and customs, dear to my heart, just as I passed on my childhood bear, Oldie, to Jackie, and “Mama’s bear” to Asher. Since I am your only parent who is Vietnamese, however, I do feel a heavy weight on my shoulders to continue our mother tongue. Fighting to keep your culture alive in America is like fighting to swim to shore against constant waves. I resent that language is a form of colonization, and if I stop swimming we will be washed further out to sea.
To give you our ancestor’s language, I read with you, translating easy phrases into tiếng Việt, as I go. I ask you to repeat after me “cà rem sầu riêng” before presenting you with homemade durian ice cream (which I’m so proud you love). When I teach you a new phrase, you repeat it; Ashie, you ask me, “can you remind me later to say it?” and I oblige, telling it to you as a “secret” in your ear.
Will you ever hear tiếng Việt and feel like it welcomes you in a soft embrace, a home entering your heart through your ears?
We play with our beautiful wooden Vietnamese alphabet blocks: me presenting the animal, you boys taking turns and gleefully keeping the block if you correctly answer the animal in Vietnamese. Whenever we count cars, dinosaurs, or strawberries, you count in English and then, when prompted, easily rattle off một, hai, ba, bốn, năm, sáu, bảy, tám, chín, mười. You ask me how to say things in Vietnamese and we learn together.
On your birthday, you repeat: “bốn tuổi”, and on Tết you say “Chúc mừng năm mới.” I tell each of you as I kiss you on the lips at bedtime: “Mẹ thương con nhiều lắm.” You say, “I love you mama”, and I swoon, and tell you how to say you love mama in Vietnamese, which you repeat back: “con thương mẹ.”
Will you feel like tiếng Việt belongs to you, even though it can’t be a language you hear all the time, because I don’t know it well enough to say all the things I want to say?
Lately I’ve been thinking about the utility of words, how they bring comfort and meaning. Stories keep our memories of loved ones alive. It was so hard when we lost our dog Daisy last year. Both of your words comfort me when you tell me you remember our girl and still think of your favorite things to do with her (Asher: hug her, Jackie: kiss her). Jackie, you love wearing the t-shirt with my painting of puppy Daisy on it; Ashie, you said, “Mama, when you play with me, you’re playing with Daisy.”
Words give voice to thoughts, articulate our feelings, help us understand each other and how to better communicate with each other. Words can connect us between languages, and people, like rocks you step on to cross a stream – they are a path to another point of view, to understanding and empathy. (Though at the moment, you boys prefer to walk in the water instead of on the rocks, and delight in getting your feet wet and muddy!)
Isn’t it beautiful how a Vietnamese phrase can describe a simple idea, like how the words for earring are ‘bông tai’, which translates to flower of the ear, and grief is ‘chia buồn’, which literally means to share sadness?
Home is being Vietnamese, which is more than a language, more than words. It is in your blood. Being Vietnamese is not just a description; it can also be actions like making the effort to engage, learn and keep our culture and language alive in our homes. It is sharing a meal with Bà Ngoại and Ông Ngoại at mama’s childhood home and feeling their love whenever they give us cut up trái cây (mangos are our favorite); plants like a modest sprig of pink polka dotted begonia maculata or a pot of homegrown green onion; a jar of homemade nước mắm pha; lì xì and money into college funds; homemade bánh xèo, pâté chaud and chạo tôm. Being Vietnamese means delighting in eating hột vịt lộn, driving far for the best bowl of hủ tiếu Nam Vang, wearing áo dàis from the Phước Lộc Thọ, and sharing many glasses of chè because we have to taste them all.
I always love looking through old photo albums together, the tinted photos of graceful Bà Ngoại and charming Ông Ngoại in flowered gardens in California, at their workplace Mai-Linh Pharmacy, and with warm and familiar faces of Cô, Dì, Bác, Chú, and many cousins in our huge family. I challenge you to find young Ông Ngoại (who Asher looks a lot like!), and tell you who each family member is, by their name or number – since Ông Ngoại’s youngest brother is số mười bảy, he is called by his name.
One time, on a family trip to Belgium and the Netherlands, Auntie Shteen and I listened to your Ông Ngoại reminiscing for hours with old friends he met up with there. We wished we could understand more and hear more rare anecdotes about and from him. Now, I am thankful that I can understand Vietnamese and use it as a foundation to learn more as an adult, which I am currently doing as part of monthly remote group lessons with a lovely and patient tutor.
I often wonder, how do I give you the words, the choice of how much of your heritage you will carry forth in you? Someday, will you seek out a tutor to practice phrases and question when to use certain words and not others?
I have visited Vietnam four times, the first time when I was 16. It was also Bà Ngoại and Ông Ngoại’s first time returning since they left their home and became refugees. I hope to someday take you to Vietnam. Our first stop would be visiting family. Their stories are worth unearthing through patience and conversation – like the dinosaur fossils you’re currently reading about — to extract and preserve memories of our ancestors. Their stories are our stories. I want to watch you fall in love with Vietnam – be mesmerized by the liveliness of Saigon, drink in the breathtaking mountains and rice fields as we ride xe buýt through the countryside, savor the delicious food and, as I once did, climb Mount Fansipan and wander Sapa. I want to share with you the feeling of finding such belonging, a new meaning to what it means to be home. In our mother country, on our mother Earth.
I often think I’m teaching you, but so often you teach me in how you are present and observant in all that you do. You don’t have the bad habit of looking past what you think you already know all about. As Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches, being mindful of how our feet meet the earth brings us home to ourselves, and helps us appreciate the beauty and miracle of our world. I know you pay close attention to the splash it makes when you stomp in the deepest mud. You both love searching tidal pools and caves for sea creatures. Every step on our first family backpacking trip to Shi Shi beach was one that we took fully aware of our surroundings. We chased each other at sunset pretending to be various types of dromaeosaurs: you know these specific names, which is why I know you’re capable of learning Vietnamese.
Will you both grow up to be people who are not afraid of being imperfect, who choose for yourselves however much being Vietnamese feels true to you? There’s a beautiful quote by Glennon Doyle: “My only expectation is that you become yourself. The more deeply I know you, the more beautiful you become to me.”
Perhaps you will help reshape the narrative of Vietnam as a place beyond war and violence to see the beauty and character of the country where your grandparents were born. I know you can walk on water, and color outside the lines. You already dream up so many ways to do things you aren’t supposed to do, in ways that make me laugh and cry. I would love for you to reinvent with me a new way of being Vietnamese for all of us children in the diaspora – engaging with our heritage in different ways and reckoning with our traumatic histories to unearth healing, acceptance and celebration of ourselves, and empathy and understanding for our parents and the journeys they are on.
Will you find purpose in being a part of the team, like a paleontologist examining dinosaur fossils, that aims to piece together history, stories, and culture?
Recognizing our roots and exploring their nature helps us be more mindful of how they have shaped our ancestors and now us. It helps us come home to ourselves and be more fulfilled, at peace, and happy with who we are. People who retain their culture and achieve a balance can have a greater sense of identity and pride, and thus better mental and physical health. I understand myself, Bà Ngoại and Ông Ngoại better and our love is stronger.
I want that for you and me too. But I want you to know that our love is not dependent on any condition. No matter what, we will love each other fiercely while on this Earth, because I will never stop seeking to understand you. Sometimes you ask me what happens when we are no longer here (like the dinosaurs) – we might become mighty waves crashing against the shore, dandelion seeds floating on a breeze, or bright stars shooting across the galaxy.
Will you wake up one day years from now and visit me – down the street because, of course, we live near each other – and hug and tell me “con thương mẹ”? I’ll whisper it into your ear if you forget what to say, but remember to ask me to tell you.
I love you both so much. I love being your mama. And I love being a mama of twins, like my mẹ before me.
I hope to plant a seed deep inside your heart that grows with regular watering, fills your blood and limbs with each pump, and finds its way to the surface as your voice. I hope that it helps you unearth your identity and makes you both feel whole. And if you find meaning in our mother language, my love will be there too.
Hai bé cưng ơi, con luôn nhớ mẹ nhe con.
Mẹ thương con nhiều lắm.
Jen Nguyen is always striving to be a better daughter, wife, mama of twin boys, dog mama to an Aussie puppy, twin sister, best friend, em, chị, auntie, pediatric pharmacist, and human. She loves to be creative, paint, bake, wander up mountains, and adventure. She hopes to help improve health care for all families and make the world a kinder place, and seeks connection in all of her relationships.
A really beautiful read, Jen!! Keeping this in my “favorites / bookmarks” 🙂
Cried reading this.
Thank you for putting words on our mixed feelings of being Vietnamese in a white American world. Lot of love xxx