Being Thai, Vietnamese, Laos, and Chinese isn’t easy. Sure it’s fun being from many different Asian backgrounds, but it’s also very difficult. You can struggle with remembering all of the languages and you can also struggle with your identity.
When I was about three years old, I spent the summer with my mom and grandma. If I recall, I was walking around the house and they were in the kitchen cooking. I sort of slipped walking around and I went ballistic lecturing them in Laos saying;
“Oy, Anna see thi you nee thok thao.”
But now, I can barely speak the language. I understand large portions of the language. Strange isn’t it? Well, I can understand what people are saying to me, but I don’t have the accents to reply in the language. For example, when immigrants come to the Americas, they usually can understand what you’re saying. They’re not completely lost, but they haven’t been trained to speak our language. So people think just because people can’t speak one language, they can’t understand it. I was talking to my grandma’s aunt and uncle one time and I haven’t seen them for many, many years. They’re the older generation so they are like me, but reversed. They can speak Thai, but their English is very limited because they haven’t been taught how to speak English. But my visit with them was interesting.
“Sa bi dee, ma pah.”
“Sa bi dee, Bee. Hui khaao?”
“No thank you.”
“I ate at home with mommy before I came.”
“Oh. See ow soda, baw?”
“No thank you.”
That’s how our conversations usually went. We conversed in two different languages. I, obviously spoke in English and whomever I spoke to spoke whatever language they were. From my responses alone, you can get a gist of what we’re talking about. If you’re not being able to converse in the same language as what everyone else is being able to talk to you, then it’s just awkward even though they understand you.
So we know I spoke Laos and I understand Laos and Thai. Now what about Vietnamese and Chinese? Well I understand portions of Vietnamese and I only know random words in Chinese. My aunts speak Vietnamese to me and I only hear it when they speak to my cousins. I learn the way little children do.
“Jacob get ready to dee tham.”
“Okay, Aunt Nhu.”
“Jaden give them to aem.”
“Bee, what do you want to eat?”
“What is there to eat?”
“Fried rice or lahp cheung.”
“What’s lahp cheung?”
“It’s the chinese sausage.” “Ooh, okay.”
Sure she may not speak complete sentences using Vietnamese, but when it was in English, I can use context clues to learn what the words in Vietnamese are. When she says “dee tham,” it means to go shower. When she said “aem,” to Jaden, it’s kind of something you call your elder brother or male cousin.
So because I can barely speak any of the languages, what am I? By blood, I am all Vietnamese, Laos, Thai, and Chinese. But my language identity, I’m what they call a ‘Twinkie.’ I am Asian and it looks that way on the outside, but I only speak English and on the inside, I don’t really have anything Asian about my language or culture.
I feel like Amy Tan in her short story. Her mother speaks ‘broken English,’ and she speaks proper English when she’s talking to people outside of society, but when she’s talking to her family, she code switches to broken English. Sometimes, I need to do the same with my elders. Not necessarily my mom, but with the older aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Code switching affects my true identity because depending on who in the family I’m with, I will speak differently or add bits and pieces of another language with English when I speak to them.