Adelaide, South Australia
Unley High School
Broken words tumbled out of his mother's mouth.
"I have problem. Pain in...back," she said. "Very hurt."
The therapist leaned forward and held her frail hands.
"Where does it hurt, exactly? Your lower back? On the side?"
His mother looked at him from her dark brown eyes, and a mutual understanding seemed to pass between them.
He arched forward and gestured to his back. "Mẹ đau ở đâu?"
His mother nodded, thankful.
Silence on the ride home from the clinic. He drove while she sat, grateful for the quick diagnosis. He wanted to say something, but what was there to say?
She opened her mouth to shape the words, rolled them around, felt them on her tongue.
"I want go shopping,” she said. “Tâm invite us over her house tonight. My friends be there."
He sighed, exasperated. The only place she ever shopped was the Vietnamese supermarket, filled with fried tofu and the sound of the butcher chopping away at the parts of meats his friends would never consume. And Tâm's house. A hotbed of uncomfortable hospitality and noise, a place where he was forgotten because he couldn't understand. He'd chase the words, but they would always escape like shadows in the corner of his eyes. They'd laugh at him, taunt him, squeal with delight at his incapability.
"Do I have to go, Mẹ? I haven't been in a few years. Can't you just go?" He was used to speaking a hybrid of both languages. Not for convenience, but for necessity.
She glared back, adamant.
"You go. Need to practise Vietnamese now."
He knew he could not back out of it.
He stood still as mothers rushed past, bowls filled with soups and noodles. Children ran through the familiar house, their feet stomping in time, it seemed, to the banging in his head. Clanks and clangs reverberated from the kitchen, mixed with roaring laughter from the men outside searing meat on the barbecue.
So different from how he spent his Saturdays—with his friends, skateboarding, eating at Subway. He thought about joining the women, but he knew he would spoil their hard work since he knew nothing about cooking Viet food. The kids did his head in, and he could barely understand the Vietnamese of the men. A boy his age sat alone in the living room, watching Vietnamese news; he looked like one of those Asian nerds his friends made fun of at school.
A woman stirring a steamy pot on the stove yelled at him.
"Vinh! Lấy hộ cô cái lọ mắm tôm."
He wanted to tell her it was no longer Vinh, but Vincent, but he bit his lip. What did she want? A jar of something, but what? What was 'mắm tôm'? He'd known what it was once.
The woman sighed at him standing dumbfounded. She shouted something and gestured at the fridge, but it was lost under the roar of voices in the kitchen. He dodged around the mothers with brimming bowls and tugged at the handle of the refrigerator. Inside were rows of food, enough to bury him. Sausages and meat pies sat next to leftover noodles and spring rolls. On the side of the fridge he reached through the jars, turned them to find their labels. All in Vietnamese, and although he could read them, he no longer understood what they were. When had he begun to forget all the sauces he used to eat as a kid?
In the very back was a bottle filled with a purple sauce labelled mắm tôm. He selected it and navigated through the kitchen before handing it to the woman. She muttered something under her breath. At first he thought maybe it was the wrong sauce, but she glanced at him with sadness and disappointment. Before he could ask her, his mother's voice echoed through the whole house.
"Ăn thôi!" It was dinnertime.
His bowl sat in front of him as he perched on the edge of his seat, half-listening to the foreign words scattered around the table. They should not have been foreign. Deep inside, something told him it was almost too late. He was so close to losing his first language now. So close. He almost hated being here after all these years. There was a time he had participated in these conversations. He was fluent and had no trouble telling the adults about school, grades, his new friends. But as he slowly emerged from the cocoon of immigration, he realised the truth. People looked at him and his mother differently. So when she carried on with her fragmented English and Vietnamese friends, he perfected his English so that it became a shield, a piece of evidence to show that he wasn't one of ‘those people’. But now he could no longer speak properly in his own language.
He glanced at his mother, his Mẹ, with lines on her face from her hard work, strength, and sacrifice. He knew if he lost his Vietnamese, their relationship wouldn't be the same. Even their connection by blood couldn't save it. He would no longer be able to translate anything for her. It was now or never.
He looked at the living room. The nerdy kid was still sitting in front of the TV. He stood up from the table and left without excusing himself. That, he would relearn how to say. He drifted toward the boy, whose eyes were transfixed on the Vietnamese anchorman onscreen. He smiled at the thought of this boy doing better than he. He would ask him if they could sit together. He chose his words carefully, seized them, tied them down, so they could no longer escape, and tapped the boy on the shoulder. "Tôi ng-ngồi với bạn được không?"
Escaped takes on the idea of what it means to be American. Does being an American mean that you leave your previous culture behind, and what does it mean to be bicultural? Mai Nguyen highlights the complexities of the American identity and more importantly, brings a new realm of emotions into it.
Mai Nguyen graduated from Unley High School in Adelaide, South Australia, in 2018. This piece was inspired by her personal experiences and multicultural friends from around the globe.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR