Mother Tongue

Kim O'Connell - Arlington, Virginia
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, May 18, 2015
Kim O'Connell

Kim O'Connell's mother is Vietnamese, and her father is American. But since she was born and raised in the U.S., her mother insisted that her daughter be "Americanized" and only speak English. Now, Ms. O'Connell believes that learning her mother's native tongue can help her connect to the other half of her heritage.

Themes: family, immigrant
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My mother and I are making spring rolls in her tiny kitchen. This is my favorite treat from her native Vietnam, and we’ve been making them together ever since I was old enough to stir a pot. As she works, she sings a lilting song in Vietnamese. As usual, I don’t understand a word.

The song reminds me of another one she used to sing when I was a child. It was a mnemonic device about the multiplication tables, and would no doubt have been helpful, if it weren’t entirely in Vietnamese. “Một lần một là một…hai lần hai là bốn…ba lần ba là chin,” the song went (I had to check my foggy memory against the Internet). I begged her to sing it over and over, but I never asked her what the words meant.

As a young bride to my soldier father, who brought her back to Washington, D.C., when his Army tour ended, my mother was determined to become “Americanized.” She listened to the Bee Gees and Blondie. She made fried chicken and pie alongside curry and spring rolls. And most of all—most unfortunate of all—she insisted that we speak only English at home.

I didn’t realize then that, in her quest to be a good American, she was depriving me of an opportunity to learn Vietnamese, and thus to be connected to my heritage in a way that has always eluded me. If I could turn back time, I would insist that she teach Vietnamese to the nimble-minded girl I once was, before my brain calcified into its current state, crowded with to-do lists and half-remembered song lyrics.

As a child, I didn’t care to know my mother better. She took care of me, and that was all. As an adult, I can’t know her well enough. Relying on her still heavily accented English, my mother often seems to summarize her thoughts, editing out things that are too difficult to say. When I ask her why she didn’t speak Vietnamese to me when I was young, she says, “Why bother? You’re American!”

Yes, but I am also half-Vietnamese. Without the language, I am acutely aware that I am only half—never any more.

Lately, I’ve been asking my mother to translate phrases into Vietnamese so I can try to commit them to memory. I can now order three or four items when we eat at Vietnamese restaurants. I can say “thank you” to the waiter. But that’s it. I still don’t know how to say “I love you” in Vietnamese, or that other thing we all want to say to our parents but are too scared to say, which is “Don’t ever leave me.”

Back in her kitchen, our first batch of spring rolls is done. “Count them,” my mother commands, “so I know how many more to make.”

I shake my head. “Can you do it?” I ask. “In Vietnamese?”

She smiles and complies. “Một, hai, ba, bốn…” With that, we are back where we began.

Kim O'Connell is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia, who has published articles and personal essays in a range of publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ladies Home Journal, and NationalGeographic.com. She likes to hike, read, cook, volunteer in her community, and spend time with her husband and two children.