** “Mẹ” is pronounced like “meh” but elongated and dips down, “h” sound omitted **
Lingua Franca. Pidgin language. Dialect. Labels for the abstract syllables that have been rolling off my tongue for years. Each syllable is like a pebble: sometimes sailing smoothly from my lips, other times tumbling and scraping through my pipes. The lovely thing about speaking a tonal language is that each subtle flex of the styloglossus produces a completely different meaning. Which is just great, absolutely positively great , when your native tongue is not your first language.
It wasn't until primary school that I realized Mẹ (Vietnamese for mother), struggled with English. Throughout my life, Mẹ would enroll in ESL classes sporadically, tackling pronouns and predicates with vigor, but all her efforts would dissipate in her mind beneath the remnants of untreated dyslexia. Nonetheless, I would sit by her side after or while doing my own homework, patiently helping Mẹ with grammar. Here I was, at the cusp of understanding that complete sentences positioned adjacently formed these things called “paragraphs” while trying to explain what helping verbs were. But there were many trying times when my poise abandoned me in the face of yet another inquiry on how to spell “have,” when anger and frustration would roll down her cheek, salty rivulets ending in wrinkled papers. It was then that her Vietnamese would pierce through my hybridized apologies, creating an incommunicable chasm of guilt.
In the midst of those shameful moments I wondered how many other second generation kids were buffeted by the sharp winds of foreign but familiar cacophony, thrust against a seemingly impenetrable language barrier. But...did this have to be a barrier? This barrier was just like any wall obstructing my path, yet even the greatest walls have a top surface. A middle dividing edge no matter how thin that represents neither this nor that - a ledge I could walk as my own.
So I scaled the barrier, collecting pebbles in my shoes, my mouth. I left the pebbles in my shoes, to understand the boulders shackled to my mother. I swallowed the pebbles in my mouth and spat them back out, adorning the path before me, my saliva cementing the bridge slowly forming beneath my feet. The barrier crumbled, and in its place I had erected a bridge between two hemispheres.
Through learning Vietnamese, I bridged the gap between Mẹ and me, and forged a path for future identity shaping. As we sat together, grasping for words to bridge two ends of the world, I began to see the grit in Mẹ’s obsidian eyes. Nothing has taught me more about patience, perspective, and respect than helping my mother with ESL and learning Vietnamese. It's seeing that quiet, blazing dignity in her countenance that reminds me of the virtue “calm.” And I believe that virtue defines me today. Calm has allowed me to build my bridge pebble by pebble, so that when I stand upon it and look to both sides, I see rich fields of vernacular and vocabulary.
About the author: Priscilla Trinh is a senior at Minnetonka High School and college-bound, intending to pursue STEM fields. Born in Massachusetts but primarily raised in Minnesota, she plans to visit the seas once again someday. Aside from being immersed in literature, she enjoys drawing/painting, running, piano, and volunteering. In 2018, she received a Silver Key from Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and has been published in various school literary magazines. Note: see more work by Priscilla in the visual art section of issue two.