Sing to me in Vietnamese: A daughter learns the language of her refugee parents through song

The World in Words
Lily Bui and her Vietnamese-born mother who arrived in the United States as a refugee in the 1980s.

My mom arrived in the United States in the early 1980s.

She was part of a wave of political refugees who were trying to escape war-torn Vietnam. Before then, there were very few Vietnamese immigrants in the US.

Like many others, Mom signed up for English classes. It paid off. These days, she gets by just fine speaking English. She even runs her own accounting business near “Little Saigon” in Orange County. She speaks to some of her clients in English and others in Vietnamese.

I try to imagine what it must have been like to speak one language for almost 20 years of your life, and then start over in a completely different language.

When I visit her at home, Mom and I often talk about her first days in the US — what it was like for her to adjust to a new language and culture. I often wonder how it feels to be from a culture steeped in one language, but to raise your children in an alien culture and language.

UCLA Vietnamese language professor Quyen Di Chuc Bui.

UCLA Vietnamese language professor Quyen Di Chuc Bui.


Courtesy of Lily Bui

“I just remember that my first difficult thing is I have to listen carefully in order to understand what [people] say,” she tells me.

My mom raised me to speak Vietnamese, but other Vietnamese refugees didn’t do that: Their children speak only English.  Now that those children have grown up, there’s renewed interest in the Vietnamese language. People like Quyen Di Chuc Bui, who teaches Vietnamese at UCLA, tells his students that pronouncing the tones of the language is like dancing. 

The Garden Grove Unified School District in Orange County serves one of the largest  Vietnamese communities outside Vietnam and recently set up a dual language (English/Vietnamese) immersion program.  

My mom has told me more than once: “You have to speak your language in order to understand your culture.”

She reminds me of this Vietnamese proverb: Uống nước nhớ nguồn. Literally, it means "drink, but remember the source." Wherever you go, you must remember where you come from.

“I’ll always remember who I am,” my mom says. “I am a Vietnamese girl.”

Lily Bui mother wearing her ao dai, her tradional Vietnamese dress.

Lily Bui mother wearing her ao dai, her tradional Vietnamese dress. 


Courtesy of Lily Bui

Podcast Contents

(This bit is written by Patrick Cox)

01:40 The shortest-ever history of Vietnamese migration to the US.

2:00 Lily's linguistic upbringing in South California (Lily's personal website, by the way, is totally worth checking out)

2:15 Lily's favorite phrase in Vietnamese.

5:40 Lily's mom sings.

7:00 Speaking Vietnamese at home and work in Little Saigon.

11:20 Quyen Di Chuc Bui becomes "a dancer" when he teaches Vietnamese.

14:25 Without the language, how will we learn from our past mistakes?

15:20 Lily's mom's ao dai, her traditional Vietnamese dress.

16:25 "You still have to remember where you came from."

17:20 Which languages will Lily pass on?

18:40 The Cuba connection.

20:30 How aging Vietnamese-Americans view the new Vietnam.

21:45 Back with Rupa Shenoy, host of the wonderful Otherhood podcast.

22:35 Getting busted for speaking your native tongue (and thinking no-one understands it).

23:15 Rupa's heritage language is Konkani, which she speaks, sort of.

27:10 Please leave us a review at iTunes. Thanks!

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