When I walked into my preschool on the first day of class, my name wasn’t Samantha. It was Hoang-Anh. The only English words I did know were, “stop,” “hello,” “please,” and “thank you.” My teacher made it very clear to my mother that afternoon what a hindrance my lack of English would be.
“Here in America, we speak English. She doesn’t even recognize her own name.”
My mother apologized, promising that she’d try to teach me English as quickly as she could. That night, she wove my American name into my nightly bedtime story, my birth certificate clutched in her hand and her fingers grazing over my place of birth: California. She had to remind herself that she did not come to America for this. For the next month, she and my father spoke only in English, read only English books to me, and listened to only English music.
I don’t remember how long it took for me to stop speaking Vietnamese. But it was the day I stopped singing Vietnamese folk songs to my bedridden grandfather.
It was the day he stopped recognizing me as his granddaughter, and knew me only as the strange little Vietnamese girl living in his house.
It was the day I stopped being Hoang-Anh and became Samantha.
Samantha is good at English; you could say she even excels in it.
She can write essays while in half sleep and when she was twelve, she read Virginia Woolf. But Samantha, I, had clorox poured down my throat. When I speak, I sound too smooth, too glib, too lost, in comparison to my mother who sounds like home and warmth and a country I can no longer remember how to find. When my mother speaks to me in Vietnamese, I can understand her perfectly. But when I try to respond to her in anything but English, it’s like trying to look into my blind spot without turning my head.
I try to make up for what I lack by embracing as much of my heritage, my culture, and my history as possible. But there is only so much I can do when during family reunions and family weddings, I am tightlipped the entire night, sipping soda xi muoi and straining to remember how to say, “I’ve been good, and you?” If there are a handful of Vietnamese words I do remember how to say, it is sorry. Xin lỗi. I am so sorry.
If I could ask my grandmother something, I would ask her how it feels to have four grandchildren who can’t speak to her, how it feels to have her family tree hemorrhaging at its roots when her two baby grandchildren turn their noses up at Vietnamese food. I would ask her if she feels proud of my mother for successfully bleaching my accent right out of my throat.
I would also apologize to my grandfather.
I’m sorry that I stopped singing.