Losing My Language: A Journey of Learning English and Reclaiming Vietnamese

Dear Asian Youth,


Sometimes, my Asian friends joke about me. They think it’s hilarious that I’d always get top marks in English, awards for essays about my pain and experiences, and earn praise for my fast memorization of Western history, but then I’d fail all my math tests.


“How is your lowest grade Calculus? You’re Asian, Cindy.”


It is pretty funny that I love English now, considering the fact that I couldn’t speak the language until I was five.


I grew up in a Vietnamese-American household, in a city where all my neighbors were either Latinx or Vietnamese. My parents only knew a little bit of English and I was raised by my grandparents, who didn’t know anything about the language. I learned how to count, point to objects, and listen to music all in Vietnamese. I was so sheltered that I had no idea that this was uncommon for a kid in America. I, like any child, assumed that I was just like everyone else.


The first day of preschool was a day I will never forget. Of course, 14 years later, I don’t remember the exact details, but I do remember that my grandparents dressed me in a matching outfit they had bought for me from Little Saigon. I remember the shame and embarrassment I felt from every other kid laughing at me for not speaking English. I cried the entire day, and when my grandparents picked me up my teacher told them that I would have to spend extra time learning English, both with her and on my own at home. I dreaded going back the next day, deciding that I hated preschool and I hated English even more. It was nothing but a language that caused me pain, and it was symbolized by every insult and laugh the other kids hurled at me.


Of course, as stubborn as the four-year-old me was, I had to learn English. The struggle I underwent is still documented in some of the progress report cards that my mom kept for me. Reading them now, I think the funniest one was when I wanted to tell my teacher that I went to Disneyland over the weekend. I said, “I go Disney.” She had to sit there and correct me over and over again until I could say “I went to Disneyland.” She put a gold star next to my name, and I’ll never forget how proud my grandparents were of me that day. I decided that English wasn’t actually so bad.


My gold star moment was followed by learning how to read. I actually was the first one in my class to memorize the entire alphabet and sound out words. Of course, I had an weird accent that was a combination of toddler babble and Vietnamese tones, but it was a big leap from where I was on my first day. This made me start to love reading. I went from not being able to express that I went to Disneyland to reading Eric Carle books out loud to my grandfather. Kids stopped making fun of me because I was the first one who could read The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar. I still preferred Vietnamese, but I had decided that reading and writing in English (in green crayon chicken scratch, of course) was worth my precious preschool time after all.


Eventually, I spoke English fluently. I went to kindergarten and aced all of my spelling quizzes. I put all of my time into reading books way above my grade level and slowly deciphering words that I couldn’t possibly know at my tender age. It was like I had to compensate for that little Vietnamese girl who hadn’t known a single word in English. I loved learning about American history so much that I rejected math and science. I foolishly decided that being good at those subjects would make me a nerd, an Asian stereotype that had already been ingrained in my brain when I was in elementary school. I would aim for only average in those subjects, barely able to grasp long division. I would be good at English and history just to show those other kids that I was better than them at subjects that I believed were meant for people like them and not people like me. I look back on this and I let out a painful laugh, streaked with tears. I didn’t know that I was basically craving the validation of non-Asian students and teachers by trying to be better than them at subjects society didn’t think I would be the best at. By this time, speaking Vietnamese became embarrassing for me. I refused to learn how to read or write it and insisted on speaking in English in public, even if my parents couldn’t catch up.


Middle school flew by, and before I knew it, I was in high school. This was when I learned how to write more than book reports. I wrote and wrote about my pain, my suffering. I weaponized my tears, writing about all those times I felt defeated by my personal demons because I thought to myself that this is what colleges and scholarships wanted to see. And yet again, English became painful. It pained me to write about clawing down my throat and losing so many people and crying myself to sleep and waking up with scars and becoming a woman and being Asian-American. But I could no longer find comfort in the once familiar Vietnamese. All those books and essays, all of that shame I had to overcome from not knowing English, and now…


I didn’t know Vietnamese anymore. I stumbled over my words, I couldn’t sound out a single word in Vietnamese and I couldn’t read the billboards in Little Saigon. English was painful, but Vietnamese seemed lost forever.


I have to slowly rediscover my lost language every day. I watch shows in Vietnamese with my parents. I try to understand every word, but I have to ask once in a while what a phrase means. I feel too shy to order in Vietnamese at a restaurant, but I’ve stopped feeling ashamed about speaking it to my parents in public. I’ve been trying my best to practice, even if I feel hopeless sometimes. My culture was never lost, never taken from me. I just chose to abandon it. Now I have to find it again, step by step, day by day.


- Cindy