My mother fell gravely ill shortly after Mother’s Day three years ago. By the time I arrived at the hospital, she was already heavily sedated, connected to beeping machines. Sitting by her side in the hospital room, I thought of our confinement inside another tiny space some 30 years earlier.
“I’m not interesting!” my mother repeated loudly into the phone, its stretched-out cord loosely curled around her arm. In the late 1980s, our family, recent immigrants to the United States, owned a small Vietnamese sandwich shop where I spent many afternoons helping my parents. For my mother, and other Vietnamese speakers, “interesting” and “interested” like “boring” and “bored,” were considered interchangeable. Immersed in homework a few feet away from the phone, I often wondered what the telemarketer on the end must have thought of these strange self-proclamations.
Learning English, a language with little in common with Vietnamese, was a struggle for all of us but especially for my mother. My brothers and I, in our teens, had the advantage of a still pliable tongue; and my father, of knowing French. My mother had neither. She had encountered English, only a year before our arrival in Texas, at age 50 in a refugee camp. What my homebody mother had was a steely resolve and survivalist sense of pragmatism.
In Vietnam, this combination of will and practicality had enabled her to adapt when our family, under Communism, was forced out of Saigon and exiled to a rice-farming village, 80 miles away but decades back in time. Overnight, her world shifted from running a business with my father and living in a home with modern conveniences to merely surviving in a backwater of preindustrial farm life. But in time, with my father, she learned to farm and fish, eking out a living in an impoverished village not exactly welcoming of outsiders.
In America, the struggle to adapt was equally challenging. Of the things my mother had lost in our new home, what she wanted most was to reclaim the ability to speak for herself. “I don’t want someone to translate for me forever,” she often told me. Twice a week, she and I attended a nighttime ESL class (English as a Second Language) held at my middle school. In her free time, she would scribble into and speak aloud from a densely annotated notebook of English words.
Before long, I became my mother’s English teacher, the expert in a language I was also just learning. Our lessons often took place while I massaged her arthritic knees. As the scent of menthol filled the air, I shared with her things — rarely emphasized in books — that had caused me to stumble. “Sesame” has three syllables and is not pronounced like “see, same.” The o in oven is pronounced like ə and not like ō as in open. There’s a huge difference between “I’m annoyed” and “I’m annoying,” As she continued to mix up the similar-sounding words but with opposite meanings, I came up with a short cut: Sentences that start with “I” should end in “ed,” and those that start with “It” with should end in “ing.” After that, she stopped proclaiming herself boring or not interesting.
In the three decades since, I’ve become a mother to three fully American teenagers. Fluent in English, I sometimes still need my children’s help. But in 2018, the help I need is not with coaxing my tongue to conform but with translating teen speak to regular English. “Savage,” “basic,” “salty,” “woke”— words with new meanings. A few days ago, in response to my 14-year-old son’s excitement, I declared, “That’s sick!” proud that I had used a teen slang for “cool.” His eye-roll, immediate and wide, was reminiscent of my own from long ago when my mother, after reading an article in the local news, exclaimed, “there was a robber packing heat.” Then as now, it seems that certain words and phrases are good to know but off-limits to mothers.
My mother never made it home from the hospital as her original kidney infection turned into sepsis then septic shock. In her final days of lucidity, she still tried to answer questions from the hospital staff on her own. “Remarkable for an 83-year-old woman learning English so late in life,” a doctor said. I couldn’t agree more. As my teenage son would text, “that’s v lit!” which in regular English means “that’s very awesome!”
Oanh Ngo Usadi is the author of the new memoir “Of Monkey Bridges and Bánh Mì Sandwiches: From Sài Gòn to Texas.”
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