the loveless language
Posted August 24, 2012on:
this damn “quick post” feature is so annoying. I hate using it, yet it’s so prominent now, making the original “add new post” page practically buried. That might explain why I have not been motivated to blog much lately. Then again, I don’t have much to say because I’m so damn lazy this summer. Thoughts would be pooling in my head, but after I think everything through and finish composing that imaginary essay in my mind, then it doesn’t matter to me whether it get written down or not anymore.
One of the more serious thoughts I’ve meant to write up on is how I’m a Vietnamese with no allegiance to any flags. I’m not someone filled with Viet pride to begin with, though I have plenty of love and sentimentalism toward the Viet components that have shaped me into who I am today. But that’s just because I love myself. For instance, I insist on teaching SM Vietnamese extensively at home. The gist of my reasoning to her, when she asks (and she did ask), is this: Vietnamese is my primary language, a language that bind my family together, a language I’ve first learned to marvel at the world when I was impressionable, therefore it is so much more basic and intimate than English. If she wants to feel how much I love her, I have my hugs and kisses and actions to show. But if she wants to hear how much I love her, hear it in Vietnamese; English is the language I face the world with, the wall I separate others from myself. Vietnamese is the pull and the tug. Therefore, the Vietnamese May learns from me is the Vietnamese of my infancy, my youth, and now, my maturing self. I have no interest in telling May to pursue Vietnamese as it is evolving 1/2 a globe away right now. There’s a difference between my intimate Vietnamse and the living language that I read every now and then online, which I regard with contempt.
I guess each generation has something to gripe about in terms of the next generation’s contribution to their language. I remember how some people in my parents’ generation would complain about “communist terminologies” that my generation (the 70-80’ers) used. But even back then, even in elementary school, I was not fooled by the labels these words wore. Beyond their political affinity, I was keenly aware of the ugliness that was slowly eating into my mother tongue. It came from lack of pride, creativity, and depth. It was all about thoughtless borrowing, laziness; words kept on cropping up like random mutations that were employed haphazardly; the loveless words that no one cared to sit back and say them out loud 20 times, pondering their shapes and sizes, their melodies and rhythms. With the rapid economic expansion of the Millenia came a festering boom of more loveless terms, like an algea taking over a body of water when an ecosystem tips in balance.
Vietnamese have a lot of terms with Chinese roots – not necessarily modern Chinese terms, but the Chinese that used to dominate Vietnamese for centuries, the Han Chinese. The terms with Chinese roots are called Han-Viet. You don’t have to be a scholar to be able to tell a pure Vietnamese term from a Han-Viet term, just like you don’t have to be a scholar to typically tell an Anglo-Saxon English term from an English term with Latin roots. It’s something intuitive if you have a feel for the language, mostly through exposure. There are rules and patterns and linguistic rhyme & reason that go into Han-Viet terms; even as a child, I used to be able to analyze an unfamiliar Han-Viet term and deduce its meaning if I have been exposed to all of its individual components. I wasn’t particularly gifted, like, say 1 in 100. Maybe 1 in 10 lol. But nowadays, I see terms that even though I can read and speak Chinese, I can’t make head or tails of its Han-Viet form. That’s because Chinese, unlike Latin, is itself a living and evolving language. So there are differences from terms that got imported into Vietnamese, say, 200 years ago vs. terms that are imported now. That’s not even addressing the significant and drastic cultural and linguistic changes that took place within the last 100 years due to China’s political events.
When I see so many (MANY MANY) modern Chinese terms that are being directly imported into modern Vietnamese, I feel that it boils down to lack of pride, creativity, and depth from the country’s leaders (nothing new here). If the Chinese could go on to create their own terminologies, why can’t the Vietnamese language go its own separate way and work with what it already has? Or better yet, just coin new terms. Borrowing is fine, but i feel like the growth of the Vietnamese language within the last 30 years has been parasitic – if not borrowing from one language, then it’s from another. Not many new words have been simply created. The way modern Vietnamse is borrowing from modern Chinese is subverting the entire language, because it’s making it difficult to intuitively deduce a term’s meaning. Like there are Han-Viet, and then there are Mao-Viet.
Here is an example: The term that is is now widely used and accepted into mainstream VNesese for Physical Therapy (medical term) is vật lý trị liệu. That’s a direct import from modern Chinese. In Vietnamese, it sounds like a bad joke, as in when someone tell you that lạc đường (to lose one’s way) = peanut sugar. Traditionally the first term, vật lý, had been used to indicate Physics (as in a science) and not the whole body = physical (as in physical check up). Someone somewhere didn’t get the memo that languages can differ that way, if the word “jack” in English has 10 meanings, you can’t force an approximate a term for one of its meaning in another language to carry all 10 connotations as well. In Vietnamse, when one talks about the physical body of humans, no one says vật lý. A physical check up in VNese is called khám sức khoẻ, “health check up.” I remember seeing phục hồi chức năng (to regain abilities) as the approximation of rehabilitation and it made sense to me right away. The individual Han-Viet terms are familiar and their meaning preserved when coined within this context, making it easy to deduce the term’s meaning even on someone who hasn’t seen it before. In the case of the term for physical therapy, suddenly the word that has been traditionally used to indicate a science, a rationale, get forced to carry a second meaning just because it’s like that in English, wtf. And then, trị liệu (theraphy), is not even a commonly used Han-Viet word. “điều trị” is. If I were to hatch a word overnight and plaster it all over medical clinics in VietNam for my middle school-grade level grandma to read, I would have used “điều trị năng lực cơ thể”, “điều trị cơ năng” for short. I arrive at this term following a precedent literature pattern, keeping all the Han-Viet words within their usual territory, preserving what is traditionally understood and accepted in Vietnamese as their meaning. Vietnamese is a rich and accommodating enough language to create new terminologies, why run around and speak foreign tongue as if China has never weaned Vietnam from its influence? Why insist on this dependency? Where is the pride and dignity?
What originally set me off on this rant was the cumulation of compliments I’ve received about May’s command of Vietnamese, followed by practical evaluation of how this language skill will serve her well in life later on, or how important it is to her Viet identity… Inwardly I’m always thinking, I don’t give a foot. Because I love my children, I will insist that they speak Vietnamese as much as I can. Another simple explanation I have offered to May is that, at family gathering, I don’t want her to be the one to ask “mom, why are you and the aunties laughing?” “mom, what did he say?” “mom, what are you guys talking about?” I tell her that whatever I possess, I will do my best to share with her, it’s my act of love. Beyond that I have no illusions. Taking my family back to Vietnam so they can know their root? Whatever. They knocked down my childhood home, rebuilt the entire neighborhood beyond recognition. All the landmarks I knew flattened to rubbish and from the dust rose monstrous gaudy tasteless structures masquerading as improvement. What can I say if I were to take them back there? I would be a lost child myself in a land I no longer know.
Folding them into the Vietnamese overseas community? Not particularly tempting to me either. Whatever got erected and designated as Vietnamese cultural heritage around here all look like caricatures to me, many of them just carrying a bare minimum amount of “community” component and maximum amount of division. I have been rolling in community for years before I moved on solo 10 years ago (though I want to say this: while I was part of the community, I did not divide; I was always trying to contribute, and if I couldn’t make things better, I did not criticize), and if I have it my way, I’m not foreseeing my return any time soon. It’s not all ugliness of course. I have spent years reading and listening to stories, anecdotes, and observations that have enlightened and inspired me as well. But typically, these are the quiet murmurs that are beneath and behind everything and everyone. Because they seek to compromise and make peace, they flow quietly in and out, leaving the loud angry agitated ones on the surface to represent and hold the mike.
When I look at the 2 flags that both claim to be Vietnamese, I feel foreign and completely alienated. Maybe if we could do away with bot flags and make a new one with the $$$ sign, then our people might unite. Yet if you ask me what I am, regardless of what I may say, I’m Vietnamese. The damn commies who inhale China’s farts while trampling on their own people, I feel like they are cancerous tumors festering on my side. The anti-commies overseas who feel compelled to harass others anytime, anywhere, anyplace in the name of freedom and justice or whatever, they fester on my other side. On top of my head sit the ones who think they are the most balanced and enlightened, and they pass judgment like “that’s not how a true Vietnamese acts” as if Vietnamese don’t shit and piss, they are crushing my neck. So that’s my identity. Outwardly, I’m everything I hate and denounce, because I can’t say that’s not my people. Inwardly, I cross space and time, find somewhere I can just be alone with the ones I love, and nurture them with whatever is decent and honorable and whatnot.
In that space, I have no Viet pride.