In the summer, my English gives way to a Vietnamese dominance. As I transition away
from an English-speaking realm, writing gets harder and harder. The words that used
to burgeon in my head, articulating my story as life unfurls before my eyes, are now
piecemeal, hopelessly elusive, evaporating just as swiftly as they come into conception.
My straightforward comprehension and self-expression abilities remain undiminished,
yet I fear I might be temporarily losing some intuitive sensitivity to the intangible,
nuanced musicality of English – the subtle sort that would give charm and poeticism to
an irregularly placed comma. Nonetheless, neither do I have absolute command over
Vietnamese. Despite my unimpaired proficiency of the spoken language, my writing skill
has receded unceasingly since coming to Middlesex, always leaving me in a futile wrestle
with the dictionary.
For someone who relies on writing as a passion, a therapeutic outlet, this lack of control
over words is slightly terrifying. It is but only one illustration of the uncertainty and
ambiguity that have recently permeated my life. Upon resettling in my room of many
years in Da Nang, I feel a void as I encounter dusty sketchpads, Soviet-era short stories,
and teenager-targeted pop CDs, items that are no longer reflective of my current taste or
sensibilities. This makes sense: while this past year I’ve shifted sands countless times,
trotted on many foreign territories, had my world view shattered and then reconstructed,
the room stays the same – stable, settled, static, almost stagnant.
And when I meet my old friends, just as our conversation starts to heat up, they
remark, “You look unchanged, but that is such an American thing to say!” I believe they
are only equating foreignness for American-ness, as both my view pertaining various
matters and my sense of humor can be distinguishable from those of my American peers.
Like languages, relationships with people and ties with places demand consistent
maintenance, a commitment that is often made inconvenient and unfeasible by physical
separation over time. That I’m losing grips with the elements that define my character is a difficult realization to come to terms with. Sometimes when I stare at the ceiling at night,
cursing how my neighbors’ overzealous cheering for Euro 2012 exacerbates my jet lag, I
would feel sort of homeless. You know, when you reach the end of a travel and check out
of the hotel in the morning to realize you have nowhere to go until your flight departs at
midnight. Could the cosmopolitan orientation that I take pride in be reduced to an illusion
for a decrease in cultural identity, a lack of a mental home base?
I’ve ruminated this question like those in textbooks, privately turning it over, searching
for the form of its answer. I read in a linguistics journal that the more dissimilar a
bilinguist’s tongues are, the less likely these languages are symmetrically co-dominant.
Vietnamese and English represent remarkably distinct perspectives in looking at verbal
communication, a fact which means that at a time, one of my languages is always
better than the other. It means that if I aspire to be a polyglot, I’d sometimes have to
compromise precise eloquence. When applied to a grander context, this theory follows
that if I am to lead an international, nomadic lifestyle, culture shocks and reverse ones
will recur to pain me a little every once in a while, for the variegated condiments that
constitute my selfhood are never settled, but always tempestuously competing for
dominance. Moreover, I will invariably forget people’s names, inadvertently grow
detached from previously treasured connections, or not be beside loved ones when they
need me the most. It may seem an unromantic, almost cynical conclusion to submit to for
someone barely sixteen years old.
And yet, I struggle for an extended conclusion. Gradually I figure out that I think in
terms of ideas, not languages. The proof is in some anomalous dreams, when I’ve had
my Vietnamese friends blithely gossiping in English, an American teacher yelling at my
tardiness in Vietnamese, and my parents greeting me with “Hola” on the phone. There
seems to exist an inexpressible interlinguistic space in which knowledge accumulates,
thoughts derive and are subsequently transcribed into comprehensible linguistic units,
like words and sentences.
Similar to how languages are not resources themselves, but means that originate from a
shared linguistic capacity, though people and bonds drift away without fail, there prevails
a common experience, a higher realm than the specifics. When I talk to you for the first
time, we are no longer part of each other’s future; we share a present, the present. When
we ultimately glide into each other’s past, I may or may not be reminded of you each
time I’m confronted with a new experience, but our interaction changes us. The universe
works around give-and-take. We leave bits and pieces of ourselves in others; we store
away traces of others’ charms and quirks in our own identities like candies in a jar.
Fine points and subtleties vaporize into oblivion with time, but the insights gained, the
essence, the changed perspective, persist. Commitments are therefore all mental; home is
but a state of mind.
My mind would ease, be soothed to sleep, to think that inevitably, identity ambiguity is
an ongoing phenomenon. It makes sense: we are not born with all of what we are going
to be. We invent ourselves under the influence of people and places and points in time,
and then we re-invent. To trot the globe, to form new connections and segregate from
old ones, to forfeit grips with some interests and rekindle some vanished ones, is not to
allow for an increasingly hardened and indifferent heart, but to foster an increasingly
vulnerable, ever-expanding one. If fragile footing in any society is the price one has
to pay to be equipped with senses more capable than ever in detecting uniqueness, in
appreciating elegant essence behind initially unpleasant facades, then it may be a bargain.
It’s the price I’m already paying to sustain within myself elements characteristic of
both sides of the Pacific. In that sense, one can say ambiguity is a blessing. Besides, the
temporary periods of discombobulated cultural disorientation when I travel, if anything,
is a proof that despite economic globalization, the world is still retaining its much-needed