By: Thi Nguyen
“Hey, can I talk to you?”, said Mr. Kim, my PE teacher, as he pulled me to the side of the soccer field. “I saw that you were talking to other Vietnamese students, and I want to remind you that it’s very important to speak English all the time in America”.
As I stood there in shock, he continued: “Nobody here likes hearing a foreign person speak their native language in public, especially when that language doesn’t sound super pleasant. I’m an immigrant too, so I’m just looking out for you”.
“I understand. I’m sorry”, I replied and walked away, feeling as if I had irrevocably embarrassed myself.
Here’s a recap of my first 4 months in the United States: I’d made many new friends in high school. I joined numerous student clubs and community organizations. I received academic honors despite being a newcomer. My English had improved greatly, and I was just starting to feel at home…
Then, out of the blue, someone reminded me that I still didn’t belong. All because I was caught speaking my mother tongue – a language that was perceived as ugly and undesirable.
It was December 2012 – the time that I decided to gradually stop speaking Vietnamese.
I began to distance myself from my Vietnamese friends and try to speak as much English as possible at home. I locked away all of my books and music from Vietnam. I spoke English even when visiting local Vietnamese restaurants and markets. I would go as far as replying in English whenever I was asked a question in Vietnamese. When I hung out with my American friends, I would carefully “rehearse” everything I wanted to say in my head to make sure that it came out without a foreign accent or a grammatical mistake. I met my best friend, who was born and raised in Vietnam just like me, but we never had (and still have not had) one single conversation in Vietnamese.
All I wanted in my teenage years was to be “Americanized”, as my high school teachers would call it. I thought letting go of my Vietnamese roots was the right thing to do in order to be taken seriously outside of my home. I told myself, “Mr. Kim must be right. After all, he managed to get a teaching job at a prestigious school because he focused on speaking perfect English”. Needless to say, I still remember the first time I told my teachers that I was more comfortable speaking in English than I was in Vietnamese, when the sound of them congratulating me on becoming “one of us” made me feel anything but happy and proud.
On the one hand, I tried to convince myself that seeing my vocabulary and composition skills deteriorate in my home language was somehow worth it, since this meant that I was shedding my “fresh-off-the-boat” identity and letting my English-speaking self take over. On the other hand, I didn’t think that my entire life’s knowledge and experiences could be fully captured using just English either. For example, I struggled to explain in English how the manual processing of silk cocoons, one of my favorite childhood activities in Vietnam, worked, as I had only done it in my native language. At the same time, I found it extremely challenging to articulate in Vietnamese what “intellectual property” or “eco-friendly diet” meant, as I had only been exposed to these concepts in English. How I perceived myself as a person was also not the same in both languages: when I spoke Vietnamese, I felt like a gentle, relaxed, and bubbly person; whereas when I spoke English, I felt a lot tougher, more driven, and more tense.
There were times when I felt like my world was split in two and I was only allowed to pick one half. Suppressing my bilingualism meant that no matter which half I chose, I was never going to feel completely fulfilled. For the longest time, I strived to minimize my ‘Vietnameseness’ in hope of appearing more assimilated into the host culture, in which monolingualism and America-centrism were considered the norm. I did it at the expense of losing some degree of pride for and fluency in my mother tongue. However, what I ended up with was not a sense of security and acceptance that I had expected, but rather growing feelings of inadequacy and frustration toward the disconnect between the two cultural spaces that had both shaped me.
It wasn’t until my junior year in college did I start to tackle my self-suppression issues heads on. I befriended people from diverse backgrounds who were so eager to share their lives and learn more about what’s outside their bubbles, which inspired me to venture out and find my own story. I decided that I wanted, more than ever, to build a bridge between my two languages and nurture them equally as a part of my identity. With that goal in mind, I began to create and maintain connections with the Vietnamese community in the Bay Area, serving as a translator for many of their social events. I volunteered to teach English virtually to low-income students under a study abroad mentorship program in south Vietnam. During my junior year in college, I had the honor of working as an academic coach for immigrant and first-generation college students, many of whom grew up in bilingual households and believed that their insufficient exposure to ‘standard English’ would disadvantage them in university-level writing classes. Such interactions brought me so much joy knowing that I wasn’t alone in my struggle with bilingualism and that I could give back so much to others. My bilingual skills also gave me the cognitive flexibility that helped flatten my learning curve with Spanish, my third language (or at least that’s what I believe!).
Through countless conversations with the people that I served, I have learnt that being bilingual doesn’t mean that I have to “pick sides” in order to maximize my social advantages and be recognized as a true member of a group. In fact, bilingualism is to be embraced wholeheartedly in every environment and context. It’s an asset that enriches individual lives, empowers communities, and enhances diversity and inclusion throughout our globalizing world.
When I think about the incident on the soccer field back in 2012, I wish that I had stood my ground and let Mr. Kim know that I would not feel ashamed for speaking my mother tongue. Nevertheless, I also understand that for many people of color like Mr. Kim and myself, overcoming the stigma associated with speaking a foreign language in America and maintaining our cultural pride take a lot of courage – and we all have different timelines for our journey. As someone who is and will be living in a increasingly diverse society, I want to be among the first ones to break the cycle of self-discrimination and comfort-seeking tendencies that has permeated generations of immigrants and deprived them of a chance at being accepted for who they are. In my ideal world, new members of this country would never have to compromise their relationship with their own language and culture for the sake of being seen as viable candidates for assimilation. Instead, they would be welcomed and celebrated for building a foundation that further fosters America’s unity, resilience, and compassion.