Birth Language Becomes Foreign Language
Preparations for the trip back to Vietnam were almost as tumultuous as the trip itself. Mom didn’t want me to leave because she was afraid something would happen to me. I had planned to go with several people, including a Vietnamese guy who goes by his given Catholic name of Matthew. I had assured mom that Matthew would look after me since he had gone back several times. Father didn’t want me associating with the communists in any way. I told him I wanted to see the old neighborhood. Any association with communists would be completely coincidental.
We were to be five going on that trip. All of us were working for United Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport. In the weeks prior to the trip, three of the people who were going to go said they had changed their minds. None of them were Vietnamese, and I hadn’t been relying on them to guide me through my first trip back to Vietnam. As long as Matthew was going, I was OK. I was set to go until I got a phone call from Matthew a week before our scheduled departure.
“Um, Nick,” Matthew hesitated. “No one else wants to go on this trip.”
I told him it didn’t matter, as long as he was still going, the trip was on.
Matthew didn’t answer right away. When he did, I couldn’t believe what he was saying. “Well, Nick. I don’t want to go either,” he finally admitted.
It was then my turn not to respond right away. I had to take a moment to suppress my anger. When I was finally able to talk calmly, I gave Mathew a list of why I was depending on him – he’s older than I, speaks Vietnamese better than I do, he’s familiar with getting around Saigon, and he can help if I get into any kind of trouble. I failed to persuade him. He apologized and hung up.
For the next few days, I debated whether I should go. I heard of stories of Vietnamese people like myself who had gone back to Vietnam and had found themselves victims of theft and extortion. Furthermore, I have to admit I was also reluctant to go alone because of a peculiar response I was getting at work from my coworkers.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was telling several people at work I couldn’t wait for my vacation to start. Whenever I mentioned I had two weeks of vacation coming up, my coworkers would ask where I was going. If I had said something like, “I’m going to Hawaii,” I’m sure they would have commented, “Well, enjoy your trip.” Their reaction when I told them of my destination, however, was far removed from wishing me a pleasant journey – more like, “Oh, be careful!”
Mom definitely didn’t want me to go when I told her Matthew had abandoned ship. She said I was taking a risk. I agreed but I felt the risk was well worth taking. I had been waiting for so long to walk through the open field at the entrance to our old neighborhood. I was yearning to touch the trunk of the mango tree in front of the house. Although I knew my pet cricket would be long gone by now, I did want to step inside the house and perhaps hear the chirping of another cricket to remind me of the delight I’d felt when I heard my cricket as a boy. With all those hopes packed into my mind and with a fair amount of clothing in my suitcases, I flew to Vietnam.
As the plane was circling, I thought of the last flight I took over Saigon. The rising and falling, and the upward jolts and downward drops made me vomit uncontrollably. Decades had passed by. I wondered if the rest of the trip would feel as smooth as this flight.
Approaching Tan Son Nhat Airport, I noticed the buildings had a gray, unkempt appearance. Houses were tightly packed to make a labyrinth out of the narrow streets, hiding beneath the roofing of aluminum sheets to give off a dingy, dilapidated look.
I’m home, I said to myself. That was when I wondered where my true home really was. I had left Santa Monica to come to Vietnam. Could both be home?
I followed the crowd into customs. It reminded me of an unfinished basement. Would the authorities demand any extra payments? If so, how much of a bribe was I supposed to fork over? I looked at the others in line. From their anxious expression, I didn’t feel alone with my thoughts.
Mom told me five dollars was the price that would get me through customs without any hassles – too much as far as I was concerned. Play it by ear, I told myself, and that’s what I did. I got through without any requests from the authorities and walked out into the parking lot where I came face to face with a crowd waiting for new arrivals.
I had never met Aunt Duc and her family before that first visit back to Vietnam. Once mom learned that Matthew wouldn’t be coming with me to Vietnam, she kept insisting I stay with Aunt Duc. I felt it would have been awkward for me to visit for a week with a family I’d never met, even our extended family. I wanted to be in a hotel and make a few perfunctory visits to Aunt Duc’s house.
There was a man outside the exit area of arrivals with a sign, “Nick Dao.” I was concerned the hotel I had contacted had not received my request to send someone to the airport to meet me. The sight of that sign allowed me to relax a bit. I started walking toward the hotel porter when I heard someone call out, “Nghiep! Nghiep!” I turned and saw a man holding up a sign, “Dao Dinh Nghiep.”
The man was wearing an enormous grin. His display had my first name, last name and middle name. He definitely knew who I was. He walked towards me and stopped right in front of me. I still didn’t recognize him. He had to introduce himself before I realized who he was.
“Chau Nghiep, hah?” he asked me.
“Da, yes,” I told him, confirming that I was his nephew, still wondering who he was. My confusion was apparent.
“Cau Bao na,” he laughed as he slapped me on the back.
I hadn’t seen Uncle Bao since my family moved from Qui Nhon when I was six years old. I had planned to visit him, along with the rest of my relatives the day after my arrival. What was he doing at the airport?
Mom had made sure there would be someone in Vietnam to constantly look after me. Against my wishes, she had called Aunt Duc and told Cau Bao to pick me up.
Should I follow the hotel porter or Uncle Bao? My obligation to family duty decided for me. Going to the hotel would have inflicted a serious insult upon my relatives. When I asked Uncle Bao how he had recognized me after more than twenty years, he said he looked for a tall, skinny guy in his twenties. In comparison to most of the people in Vietnam, I could be considered tall.
As Uncle Bao and I continued our conversation, I was pleased to be conversant in Vietnamese because he, like the rest of my relatives whom I would meet later, didn’t speak any English.
We were so busy talking I didn’t notice much of the city. When our conversation came to a pause, I looked out the window of the taxi and absorbed the city I had left so abruptly 22 years earlier. The first thing that grabbed my attention, as it would anyone who has a natural aversion to getting into a car accident, was the traffic. Theoretically, Vietnam’s traffic laws dictate that everyone drive on the right side of the road. Realistically though, Vietnamese drive as they damn well please.
In Kansas, there were a few instances when I was driving on a highway and found myself stuck behind a slow driver. To get around the car, I had to swing out left into the lane of oncoming traffic, speed past the slow car, then swing back into the right lane before an oncoming car would catch me head on. Once or twice, an oncoming car did come at me fast, and it would get too close for comfort. My heart always skipped a beat or two whenever that had happened, and my heart was skipping a lot of beats while we were driving to Aunt Duc’s house in Saigon.
Our Saigon taxi wasn’t going as fast as it would if we were on a Kansas highway, but I was still suffering a lot of anxiety. Every time I looked out the front windshield, we were in the opposing left lane, getting around a bicycle or a cyclo. Oncoming cars honked. Our driver sped up past the bicycle or cyclo, swerved back into the right lane, let that oncoming car pass us by, then veered back into the left lane to repeat the process over again.
When I tore my fear-filled eyes away from the traffic, I took a closer look at the city. The narrow, dirty streets were cluttered with vendors, shoppers, motor scooters, refuse, food carts, bicycles, cyclos, open sewage drains, cars, and a whole lot of noise. Every time a scooter or car wanted to get by something, which was all the time, they honked their horns and kept honking until they had gotten around that something. Unlike the traffic scene itself, I did eventually get used to the traffic noise. The cacophony of the traffic was so continual that it soon became a constant background noise that ceased to be distracting.
After twenty minutes of a harrying taxi ride, we turned left into a narrow alley, squeezed between the walls of two gray buildings, and stopped in front of Aunt Duc’s house. It was one of those aluminum-roofed houses I had seen from the plane as we were approaching the airport – cramped between a bunch of other concrete blocks of houses. Should I have turned a blind eye to familial obligations and gone instead to the hotel with that porter?
Aunt Duc and one of her sons, Loc, introduced themselves. They showed me around and while I was following them, I couldn’t help but notice how dark and gaunt my relatives were. Their appearance, as I would later learn from listening to the stories of their lives, was a testament to a lifetime of menial labor carried out under a harsh and glaring sun.
The house had three rooms on the bottom level, a living room that also served as the dining room, a bedroom that held one bed in which several people slept at night. A room in the back served as the kitchen, bathroom, and at one point in the past, a pigpen.
The boards on the stairs were so thin they bent and creaked under my 145-pound weight. There were also narrow. I could only place half the length of my foot on any step. Whenever I walked down, I had to be careful not to fall face-first. After a couple of trips, I found it easier to walk down in a backward way.
After a few days, I settled in. I managed a squatting toilet, bathing from a bucket, but I could not get used to my relatives waiting on me hand and foot. I didn’t want a glass of lemonade every time I turned around or the choicest piece of meat.
Those of us who were born in Vietnam but who now live in another country are commonly referred to as Viet Kieu, Arrogant Vietnamese, similar to Overseas Vietnamese, meant to designate those of us who have returned to Vietnam. Sometimes the term is spoken with disdain because we can’t always hide the difficulty we have adjusting to a way of life we have become estranged to and find less than pleasant.
Vietnam is a Third World country. City streets are jammed-packed. Flies swarm over and on uncovered slabs of meat at the market place making it difficult to enjoy a meal. Trash litters the streets. The odor from the open sewers gags a person as they weave their way down a street devoid of any sidewalks, full of pedestrians, cyclos, motor scooters, cars and bicycles.
While I hid my discomfort with the way of life in Vietnam from my relatives, I couldn’t conceal my disappointment when I saw my old house. Uncle Bao couldn’t understand why I was so intent on seeing the old house, but he agreed to take me.
We weaved our way out of the alleys from Aunt Duc’s neighborhood and we flagged down a taxi. When Uncle Bao gave the taxi driver the address to the old house and mentioned the big market outside my old neighborhood, the taxi driver said the market was too busy and too crowded. He didn’t want to take us there. Uncle Bao told the driver he could drop us off by the market, and that arrangement placated the taxi driver enough to drive us to our destination.
I reminded myself of that old adage – you can’t go home again. Years pass, people change, places change. I told myself not to expect much, yet my penchant for nostalgia held on to the hope that any changes would be minor and not noticeable.
We reached the market. It was at a high hustle and bustle like when I walked home from school decades ago. We walked through some alleyways and sidewinded our way between a few buildings. Once we were out of those alleys, I asked Uncle Bao when we would reach the big field that was at the entrance to the neighborhood. He pointed back and said we had come out of it. I stood still, disappointed.
We then walked to my old house, my old house that I didn’t recognize. It was divided lengthwise into two dwellings. That division had thrown me off, but the bench where I sat with grandfather was in front. It was more a pile of splinters, but still there.
Would I see the mango tree? Uncle Bao shook his head. He didn’t know. The current resident then said she heard us talking and came out to see what was going on. When she heard that I used to live there and was a member of the Dao family, she offered to let me come inside.
The woman found my inquiry about the mango tree humorous. She started laughing and waving her hand as though my question were trivial. The mango tree had been cut down years ago. I choked on the severing news.
Surprisingly enough, the rooms at the front of the house remained as they were when I had left – smaller because of the division. But the back had been altered. I couldn’t think of the word for water tank, and had to resort to describing it as the thing that contained the water. The resident said there was now indoor plumbing.
The chicken coop was gone. I wanted to ask the woman what happened to it but I couldn’t remember the Vietnamese word for it. The only synonym that came to mind was cages, and I couldn’t recall the word for that either. I was ready to leave.
Before I had set foot in Vietnam on my first return trip, I was having trouble speaking Vietnamese, but I was having that trouble in America. It’s one thing to know something. It’s another to be forced into admitting it. I knew I wasn’t fluent in Vietnamese but the realization never hammered home.
When I was speaking Vietnamese to my parents or a Vietnamese friend in Kansas, Oklahoma or California, I could always switch back to English, if needed. That fallback option was no longer available in Vietnam. The bilingual safety net was gone. Vietnamese, my birth language, had become my foreign language.