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The The The The

In third grade, I was trilingual but could not pronounce “the” or “that” properly. No one corrected me—not my parents, my friends, or my teachers. They spared me like I had something stuck in my teeth. 

I found out when Mom came back from a parent-teacher conference and handed me Mrs. Johnsons feedback slip from a language arts assessment. Mom no longer read these notes—she expected me to summarize since my written English had eclipsed hers by then. We shared Vietnamese and Cantonese, so we had no shortage of words.  

The slip had all As in the margin, a note about my respectfulness, and one glaring comment at the footer: “He says ‘da’ instead of ‘the’ and ‘fool’ instead of ‘full.’ Just curious, was he born here? I went ahead and signed him up for an ESL test in case he needs extra help.” 

My gut twisted. It was not the first time someone assumed I was born outside of Texas. In the pecking order of my elementary school, ESL students were second-rate citizens. No one said so, but I saw how my peers treated the new Pakistani boy: politely but at arms length, like he had a transferrable rash. It was why I knew to bring sandwiches for lunch instead of what we ate at home.  

Mrs. Johnson didn’t clue us into what the ESL test entailed. Mom and I only gathered that if I scored below some unsaid benchmark, I would be diverted to a separate track at school. ESL classes occurred during recess and shared a space with Special Education. Students with dialect differences got lumped together with those who had speech impediments and learning disabilities, a contorted mass to be dealt with in one room.  

No one in my family had been through the American school system, but the message was clear: blend into the main group or be ostracized into the “other.”  

Without a semblance of opposition, our family converted to an English-only household. It didn’t matter that Vietnamese persisted more than a century in my family—even survived French occupation—or that Mom learned Cantonese to share another language with Dad. Cantonese became the language of food; Vietnamese became the language of arguments. We discarded all other uses for them. We shed our mother tongues like a snake leaving its molt. We hardly looked back. 

For me the transition was almost unnoticed. I spoke at home what I spoke at school, responding in English when spoken to in Vietnamese. My brother, with whom I socialized most with at home, was too young to care. In the face of assimilation, we never questioned the tradeoffs—this was but another critical tenet to get ahead in America. We prioritized the absorption of the suburban Texan dialect over the languages spoken over generations of our family. 

Ahead of my test, I found every opportunity to say “the.” My tongue tapped the bottom of my front teeth in constant preparation for a sound I now noticed everywhere. I studied my classmates’ pink mouths after they raised their hands. Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” became “The The The The” in the shower. I passed the test, avoided ESL classes, and soon forgot the momentary danger of being othered.  

 

I met my maternal grandparents for the first time two years after the ESL test, two years into exclusively speaking English at home. It was also the first time Mom would see her own parents after escaping Vietnam as a refugee two decades earlier. 

The flight was tremulous as the plane traversed the Pacific, partly because of turbulence, mostly because Mom kept shaking her leg. When I finally dozed off, more than halfway through the eighteen-hour flight, she jolted me awake and climbed over me to throw up in the bathroom. Her behavior unnerved me. At home she exhibited such solidity; on the plane she was a wreck. 

My extended family hugged me like their own. They pinched my cheeks. 

Ahead of the trip, she had forced us to get two vaccines in each arm—for typhoid and other maladies I no longer recall. She stuffed one of our bags with pills, creams, and bandages. Before we landed, she strapped a concealed pack to her chest, which housed a stack of twenties and fifties, her social security card, and her drivers license. She clutched her American passport like a shield, ready, I think, for a war she had escaped and which had since passed. Her paranoia heightened at the customs gate, where she slipped a twenty-dollar bill into each of our passports as we passed through. I dont believe it was protocol, but the officer didnt blink when he slid the money into his trousers. Mom was a U.S. citizen now, but I saw how afraid she was of her Vietnamese past. 

After we safely made it through and the hawkers and cabbies approached us, she switched to Vietnamese, playing the local, trying to avoid their schemes. They followed us past the baggage claim anyway. We must have reeked of Americanness. 

We exited the airport into the sweltering heat, a sour-bitter tinge of sweat and gasoline in the air. We didn’t have to search long to find Moms family. There they were: her mustached brother, her slim, bespectacled sister, their spouses and children, and her mom and dad, sinewy and compact. Mom cried in Vietnamese; her quiet sniffles set a staccato between her words of longing, her utterances taking on a folky twang as her American hardness melted away. My extended family hugged me like their own. They pinched my cheeks. 

In the taxi van to my grandparents’ place, I let their frenetic conversation engulf me. The questions focused on Mom and sometimes Dad, Mom answering quickly before relaying back her own questions to her siblings and parents. Some of the Vietnamese was too fast for me. I understood, though I could not fathom, the intensity of a reunion after nineteen years, and so I stayed quiet, giving them space to fill the air. 

Only when we sat for dinner the next evening did I realize the gaps that had formed in my Vietnamese. I eavesdropped into conversations between my elders, but familiar words escaped my comprehension. Rather than inherently knowing the words as I had a few years prior, I had to translate in my head, and the translations slowed me from grasping the sentences. Luckily when the conversation turned to me, their questions took on the leisurely pace that adults use when they talk to children, so I was able to keep up.  

“What’s your favorite subject?” my grandmother asked. 

“Math!” I replied in Vietnamese. 

“What kinds of food do they serve at school?” my grandfather asked. 

“Fried chicken, sandwiches, cookies . . .” I paused. And then in English, “Pizza. Wait, Mom, how do you say potatoes? Like fries.” 

Most of the next three weeks went as such. I turned to Mom when I needed her to translate for me. I tugged her arm when the adults spoke too quickly and I wanted her to explain. Each of their indeterminate words broke my train of thought. 

 

I learned in my late twenties that I was experiencing the early stages of what linguists describe as first-language attrition, the predictable atrophy of native comprehension as usage becomes irregular and replaced by a new dominant language. This typically maps out to three steps, the first of which is lexical attrition—the loss of vocabulary. 

Without daily conversations in our mother tongues, I started to lose natural access to familiar words—I knew them but had to find them. This is known as cross-linguistic interference. In my head, common English words held dominance over my Vietnamese and Cantonese equivalents, so for a word like house, I thought of the English first and then translated to Vietnamese. Only words used exclusively with my family were easy to recall: nước mắm (fish sauce), chùa (temple), cậu (uncle). 

In Vietnam, my internal translations slowed me down during most conversations with my relatives. At the time I just thought I was rusty.

I adored the gift despite not having answers. I twirled that keychain on my finger the whole trip back. 

I believe my grandfather sensed my unease. In my presence he mostly spoke with his hands, teaching me to fold paper into tight boomerangs that we launched at unsuspecting bugs from taut rubber bands or slowly piercing ant pupae onto hooks to cast at the local pond, sitting side by side, waiting for catfish to bite. He walked me around the neighborhood with his hands behind his back, his shoulders curved forward, anticipating but not expecting my questions. When Mom wasnt looking, he strapped a helmet on me and positioned me on his moped before whipping us through the dirt roads. I saw Moms hometown that way, standing between his arms, his legs safely pinning me in place, together bare-knuckling the handlebars and screaming with exhilaration. We didn’t need words.

At the end of our trip, we exchanged gifts. Mom handed my grandfather Costco value packs of calcium pills and ibuprofen. My grandfather, in return, peered into the glass display bureau that held chipped china and little ceramic figurines and extracted two silver items. He got on one knee before my brother and me and handed us identical keychains. They were bottle openers from Tiger Beer, rubberized insignias of an orange tiger triumphant before a palm tree, still in flimsy plastic wrap. 

From anyone else, I would have suspected an act of disingenuous regifting. But I sensed my grandfather saved those keychains for a moment like this. They were important someway, somehow. Did he hope we would one day share a beer together? Or had he prized them so much that he wanted us to have them? I adored the gift despite not having answers. I twirled that keychain on my finger the whole trip back. 

 

Four years later, we traveled to Vietnam for the second and final time. I was thirteen, going through puberty and paranoid of appearing dumb with my slow, elementary Vietnamese. Distant relatives came by my grandparents’ house and filled their home with chatter. Id hide in the bedroom with my brother, taking turns playing the Gameboy.  

I still understood my relatives, but I avoided engaging with them, for I feared they would be disappointed in my grasp of our language. Only when we sat for dinner did I have to confront them. I passably answered most questions but did not speak unless spoken to. 

During one dinner we all sat on plastic stools low to the ground, as we had most nights, a bowl of rice in one hand and chopsticks in another, the tiny table in the middle hosting entrees my grandma had cooked. There was no room for us to set our bowls down. My relatives were gossiping about a family friends husband when mid-conversation, an aunt-in-law nodded at me and asked, “Is he mute?” 

I scowled. My grandfather interjected, “No, he’s American, silly! He speaks English. And he knows Vietnamese too.” He turned to me and winked.  

I appreciated his defense of me, but after that meal, I rambled on in English with my brother to make sure the adults I met knew I had a voice, albeit a foreign one. Oblivious that we would not return to Vietnam in the future, I counted the days until we left. America was my home, not Vietnam. 

When we arrived home to Texas, we quickly settled back into our routines. Dad traveled Monday through Friday for work, and Mom defaulted to English when it was just the three of us. Occupied with making friends and succeeding in school, I hardly even thought about our familial languages those few years after our trip. Vietnamese and Cantonese merely interrupted the steady stream of English at home, slipping in when we discussed what to eat next or when my parents argued without wanting us to fully grasp what they said. 

Once, while peeling string beans, I asked Mom, “Do you dream in English or in Vietnamese?”  

It took her a moment. She blinked a few times and responded, “I dont know actually.” 

A few days later, while driving us home from school, she told me “I’ve been watching my dreams for you. They are always in English.” 

At the time I felt proud at how assimilated we were. How incredible, I thought, that Mom, who had not known a single word of English until she was nineteen, could become so fluent that she dreamed in English years later.  

We never accustomed ourselves to American tastes, though. On the weekends when Dad was home, we drove forty minutes away to Garland, where there existed a small enclave of people like us, replete with a supermarket filled with tanks of sea creatures, a few Viet-Chinese restaurants, and a store dedicated to all forms of tofu—raw, fried, skin-only, and silken, to be eaten with syrup.  

Because I refused Dad’s laborious haircuts in our bathtub at home, he insisted that I get them done in Garland. There, haircuts were as close to free as we could find. Beauty school grads would filter in and out of the area, testing their new skills on willing Asian heads. 

One time, my hairstylist started making conversation with me.

Afraid to let some amateur mess up his son’s hair, Dad liked to commandeer the whole experience. He picked the hairstylist (a man, as usual), dictated his preferences for me (“longer at the front, textured, tapered back, not a straight line”), and stood behind, watching the poor guy snip cautiously, often inserting lamentations at clumsy form (“now’s too early for tooth scissors!”). Dad had no training, but that didn’t stop him. It was only with new Asian immigrants that he felt comfortable being a bully.  

One time, my hairstylist started making conversation with me, I assume to keep cool amidst Dad’s commentary. He asked where we were from. I answered and repeated the question back to him, continuing the dialogue in Cantonese. He digressed into how he missed Hong Kong and how dreary it was that he was a teacher back home and here he cut hair. It was a winding speech, but I was proud to understand some of what he said. 

I wanted to commiserate with him and share how years back my parents endured a difficult immigration. I had time to conjure words, but their order jumbled in my head, making the act of forming sentences impossible. “I’m sorry,” I said. “My Contonese is very bad. Do you speak English?” 

He shook his head no. A silence filled the room, save for the buzz of the clippers and the occasional interjection from Dad, to which my haircutter said, “Yes, sir,” and nothing more. 

My Cantonese sentence structures had unraveled. I was experiencing the second stage of first-language attrition, grammatical attrition—the loss of syntax. To piece a sentence together—noun, verb, adjective, adverb—I had to reformulate the order of its components based on my memory of how others spoke. Tricky transformations like verb tense threw me off-kilter. The conversions paralyzed me. My vocabulary shamed me further. Though I still understood some of what others said, I was relegated to answering yes or no.

 

I stopped hearing Vietnamese and Cantonese altogether while in Boston for college, except at the occasional restaurant. One weekend, my roommate’s parents were in town from Florida and wanted to take us out to dinner. They craved soup dumplings and char siu, items they couldn’t find in their sunny state. I took the reins—I wanted to impress them. They exhibited an ease in their American identities, and I wanted to show them the confidence I had in my own heritage. 

I chose a Hong Kong-style restaurant, and my four roommates and the parental pair followed me aboard the red line into Chinatown. The waiter sat us down at a banquet table with a spinning top. Except for one couple, Asians sat at every other table. I felt comfortable. 

Back at the dorms, I had watched some videos and practiced ordering in my head. Despite my declining facilities with Cantonese and Vietnamese from lack of use, I still knew the names of dishes I loved—food was the last pillar I refused to give up. My friends and the parents flipped through the menu aimlessly. I inserted myself. 

“Let me order,” I said, confident of my taste and worldliness.  

“Please!” the mom replied. “As long as you dont forget the dumplings.” She winked. 

I held authority. I would order in Cantonese. The waiter walked to my side, hovering above me, pen and paper in hand. I pointed, I read out the dishes, I described our preferences. I felt impressive until the waiter corrected me. 

“Gon chau ngau ho,” he said haughtily. “Beef chow fun.”  

“Hai, deoi mm ji ah.” Yes, sorry, I replied. I continued, trying to not let his interruption bother me. My friends cocked their heads. I worked through another dish in Cantonese and described the way I wanted it prepared.  

The waiter grew impatient. “Spicy, right?” he snapped back in English. “Okay, that’s it? Anything else?” 

The repercussions seemed peripheral and infrequent.

I bowed my head in shame. My friends ignited some previous conversation, perhaps to pretend nothing had happened, perhaps oblivious, but I remained quiet, the heat of embarrassment reddening my cheeks and drying my eyes. This was a restaurant my parents and I had visited the weekend they moved me into college. I realized that without them, I was relegated to pointing to items on the menu like everyone else. The specials on the wall, the unique preparations I craved, the patience and care of the waiters—all these little benefits of my heritage were no longer accessible to me.

My natural pronunciation was gone. I had experienced the third and final stage, phonological attrition—the loss of tones. Not only did I now lack the vocabulary and sentence structure, but I now no longer sounded like my kin. Anyone who spoke Cantonese could pick out my non-native accent. I spoke like a student in an introductory class—clumsy, brazen, unrefined. I knew what I represented to elders: traditions discontinued. 

Embarrassment is a great motivator. I believed then that I had a chance to reverse my course, so I fought the decay. I downloaded a language app, binged Hong Kong soap operas, and asked a fellow dancer from my college hip-hop group to only speak to me in Cantonese. 

This lasted about a month. The green bird on my app went from cute to insufferable. I couldn’t prioritize the soap operas over Breaking Bad. When I needed to vent, my pact with my dance partner unwound. I tallied the cons of giving up, which included nothing that I didn’t already know how to deal with: stuttering at restaurants, awkward calls with my grandparents every year, being teased at holiday parties. The repercussions seemed peripheral and infrequent. I let go of my desire to learn. 

Language loss felt like drowning in slow motion, as if my ears patiently filled with water until my head submerged beneath the waves, hearing familiar calls beckon to shore but only registering gurgled bits. Eventually, the people who looked like me felt the furthest away. Their inflections sounded familial, and I recognized what they said, but I didn’t know what it meant anymore. 

Today, I feign understanding. I guess. I nod. I smile. I assure myself that English is all I need. Living and working in New York City, I hardly have a chance to feel the prickle of shame that comes with unknowing.

 

A few years after college, I was back home in Texas when I heard my grandfather was close to the end. He suffered from some sort of mental deterioration the local doctors could not pinpoint, perhaps Alzheimer’s. It was a protracted decline, in which he first lost his memory, then his motor function, and finally his appetite. No one knew what was happening, except that his mind would go before his body. 

Mom scheduled a long-distance call. By this time, we learned that he refused to eat or drink anything except for Coca-Cola. We knew what was to come. 

I hovered while Mom spoke to him. My mind raced. I knew she would pass me the phone soon. What do I say to someone who is dying but doesn’t know? How can I communicate my love for him? How can I thank him for those few weeks in Vietnam, for the Tiger Beer keychain we were to use together? It wasn’t lost on me that Id have to convey these thoughts in Vietnamese. 

Mom spoke softly at first, deferential as a daughter. Then she kept shaking her head. She interjected and corrected him, incredulous, I believe, at his responses. At some point, she lost her desire to speak. She had not visited him in Vietnam for more than a decade, and now she would not be there for his final days. She handed me the phone. 

I tried to imbue all my respect and questions and thoughts and love I had for him in my first “hello.” I froze.  

“How do you say ‘grandpa’?” I mouthed to Mom.  

She looked beyond me. She was lost in her own world.  

“Dũng, con khỏe không?” he replied.  

Dũng was his first son. I did not correct my grandfather. He continued. I turned up the volume and pressed the phone to my ear, Mom’s leftover tears splotched on my face from the screen. As in all my recent interactions in Vietnamese, I only caught a few stray phrases that I could decipher. 

“Mm,” I interspersed to convey my listening. He sounded wise and full of clarity. His voice was methodical and easy, though his gregariousness mismatched my memory of him a decade earlier. He went on, like he had saved all his words for me. I soaked up his voice. 

I was protected from the grief in knowing the imprecision of his words, yet I grieved my futility to understand. Soon his silence matched my own. 

“Bye, bye,” he ended in English, interrupting the brief hush. 

“Bye, bye,” I replied. 

He passed away a few days later.

 

Between the last time we visited Vietnam and his passing a decade later, Mom would urge my brother and me to come to the phone when we could afford long-distance minutes, which was about once or twice a year. “Come, come, speak to your grandparents,” she’d say, antsy to best utilize the time we had. I usually got on, though I squirmed and procrastinated, ashamed of what little I could say. 

Early on he asked me open questions, which I would stammer through, and as my understanding of the language weakened, we needed to speak through a filter: my mom. We eventually defaulted to simple yes-and-no questions. He mostly cared that I was doing well, and I thought that was enough too. Within a minute or two of each call, with nothing left we could convey on our own, we would settle into a momentary quietness before Mom, still listening over my shoulder, would pluck the phone from me and enjoy the remaining minutes with her family. 

Linguists do not consider the silence between kin—the loss of connection when in shared moments, for lack of understanding, we default to the comfortable and easy: leaving things unsaid. It was easier to endure the brief calls each year than to relearn a language I hardly used elsewhere, even at home. My grandparents were an ocean away; our day-to-day lives in America took precedence. The truth was, my family and I accepted that trade-off long ago. Guilt only flickered, and regret laid nascent until years later. 

In America a potent optimism surrounds us. I was charmed by the possibilities of assimilation—avoiding ESL classes the first step—and today, I often encounter others’ excitement at the possibility of retrieving my heritage scot-free. When I relay my regret of losing Vietnamese and Cantonese to acquaintances and strangers alike, they sometimes list off immigrants they know who still speak their mother tongues or they point to classes available online. “Why dont you relearn your languages?” they ask. “It’s never too late.”  

I consider it regularly. Then I remember my hesitance: no matter how fluent I become, I will never be able to recover the words of my grandfather.