Hear, Say: Hoangmai Pham’s Memoir, continued

A sneak preview! Writer Hoangmai Pham gives diaCRITICS reader an opportunity to read two more chapterlet drafts from her work-in-progress memoir Keeper of Stories.  In this first one, Pham jumps right into her story of learning English, of hearing and saying.

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The following is from a memoir by Hoangmai Pham, who escaped from Saigon to the U.S. with her family in 1975, at age 7. Keeper of Stories is a work-in-progress that interweaves her family’s history in Vietnam and America and her own psychological journey surviving and understanding that history. Only recently has Mai learned that her strategy for coping with her traumas was what is referred to as a dissociative disorder, in which she compartmentalized pieces of her personality to keep them safe. The memoir traces how she unearthed her family’s history, and explains how that helped her integrate her different parts. “Hear, Say” and “Alien” are early “chapterlets” about her first encounters with American culture as the only Asian child in her elementary school. On her blog, you can find preceding and subsequent chapters. She posts drafts of chapterlets for readers to comment on, including here, on diaCRITICS, “Running Saigon” and “Day, Night, Week, Month.


Summer did not slow the pace of new things. While I went to the neighborhood public school, Dan and Faye had spread the word, and a group of congregants from their church sponsored a scholarship for my older brothers to attend a private boys’ school, the better to protect them as teenagers. But when summer came, we all stayed near the Ross’ house.

In the mornings, we assembled in turns around the small kitchen table. In this new reality, only grownups got to drink coffee. Someone put a bowl in front of me and a tiny glass of orange juice. Into the bowl they poured nuggets of something light and crispy, and then a stream of milk followed on top, denting a small well in the center of the bowl’s contents. It remained a mystery why the wet came on the dry and then the rush to eat it quickly before everything got mushy. No one prepared me for this.

My father had planned a routine for me. After breakfast, either he or one of my brothers led me into the sun porch facing east. I sat cross-legged on the beige carpet while they set out an array of index cards, some with clearly printed letters and some blank, and pencils. Nouns were easy – brother, mother, father, sister, school, book, house. Verbs seemed redundant, changing their endings depending on who and how many people were doing the action and when it happened. Vietnamese verbs were much more solid – they stood their ground regardless of time context or the trivial people involved. “s” or “es” for plurals. I found other patterns on my own – ”—er” means “person who does that” – teacher, baker, rider. I recited drills as instructed, and wrote them on the blank index cards. I got in trouble over the use of relational adjectives – Chuong pointed to himself and I responded, “Chuong is my younger brother,” because he was younger than my oldest brother, An. He scolded and indignantly crossed out my sentence with his own pencil. We took a short break for lunch and then went back at it. By mid-afternoon, everyone was exhausted and we packed up the materials.

Linguists break the process of second language acquisition into several coarse phases. First there is the “silent” phase, a time of language shock when the learner speaks little if at all to others, but may be engaging in “private speech,” self-talk as a rehearsal for an eventual public exchange. But sequential structures tell little about how a child, in particular, understands the onslaught of newness or even the goal of speaking, if it is not explained and negotiated with them. Am I learning English to find playmates? To please my parents? So that school is less terrifying? Or is it to ask for help?

I have no memory of teetering between English and Vietnamese. I simply put the Vietnamese aside when not speaking with my parents, coding thoughts into pictures and an Inter-language now lost to memory. Neither did I engage in trial and error like substituting I don’t, I won’t, I did not, or I hadn’t if one didn’t seem to work; it would be perfect when I spoke it, or not spoken at all. If it could be perfect, my heart, please, would palpitate less.

Faye Ross walked me down the block and across Lincoln Drive to the Alt family’s house. Letitia was my age, Stephen was two years older. They tossed a ball between them and then to me. They bantered until Letitia said she didn’t like this or that. How come? Stephen asked. How come not? I watched his round mouth wrap around the schwa of come and replayed the motion in my mind, translating it for my own muscles. How. Come. How did it come to be? How come = why. I waited until a turn in the conversation seemed appropriate, my heart beating insistently.

“How come?” I piped, and got an appropriate response as immediate reinforcement.

In September, they sent me to second grade with perfect English, no accent. The teachers were relieved. I didn’t seem to need any help at all.

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