I remember not knowing how to speak.
When I was in pre-school, my family was worried
that no one would understand me.
I spoke in this Frankenstein monster tongue
of Vietnamese and English.
(The gaps between two broken languages
cannot make a full sentence)
So every other Wednesday, during kindergarten,
I’d be called out of class to fix my speech.
What was wrong was that
the words blurred like hummingbird wings
and the song came out as a whirlwind,
too quick to comprehend,
too fast to decipher.
I learned how to smooth and comb
the knots of my talk at the same time
I was taught Chinese in school.
No one would expect chipped china plates
lined along my soft gums.
I only mastered English, though.
During family gatherings, uncles and aunts
spoke slowly to me,
gesturing towards food
and providing physical cues
to give meaning towards their foreign speak.
While on the other hand,
I would read letters with important headings
and big government stamps to my parents,
I made speeches;
I learned to do pirouettes like
“99 nuns in an Indiana Nunnery” or
“I wish to wash my Irish wristwatch.”
Things my parents could never say!
And in class, I studied Chinese,
found out how to say the things
I already knew how to say in English.
I started to put names to objects
I forgot to label in Vietnamese.
But there are some Chinese words that
sound exactly like their English definition:
And there are some Vietnamese words
that sound ugly and jagged when they
plunge out of my mouth.
As much as I tried my hardest
to adopt my native voice,
it never came out as smooth as
the shiny, commercial talk
that I saw on television every day.
My mother is Chinese.
My father is Vietnamese.
I am American.
She speaks Chinese.
He dreams Vietnamese.
I speak repaired tongue.
I dream renovated dialect.
I’m sorry, can you say it slower?
em không biết nói tiếng Việt
I’m sorry, can you repeat yourself?
It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you,
it’s just because I can’t.
It’s because I don’t know how.
I’m still trying to tell you.
I’m holding on so tightly to the stitched words
and patched up language of my childhood.
Even in my perfect English,
There are some things I just can’t say.
Xong phim is a Vietnamese word that doesn’t exist in English.
I am done.
I am through with you.
I am at the end of my rope.