Đốt lò hương cũ so tơ phím này…  Dưới đây là bài thuyết trình, lục lại được dưới lớp bụi thời gian, do Julien Nguyen, tức Kim Thanh Nguyễn Kim Quý, tức Người Lính Già Oregon, trình bày trong buổi hội thảo có tên “The Refugee Experience or Workshop for Social Studies, ESL, and other educators with international and multicultural interests” do Nha Học Chánh Portland Public Schools (PPS) phối hợp với trường Portland State University (PSU) tổ chức vào ngày 2 tháng 3, 1996 tại một hội trường của PSU, cách đây đúng 22 năm. Trong bài thuyết trình, có tựa đề nguyên thủy, “In the name of Hope” (Nhân danh Hy Vọng), Julien nhắc lại những ngày đầu gian khổ của ông khi mới đến Mỹ và chia sẻ kinh nghiệm về những nỗ lực và phấn đấu để vượt qua những khó khăn, trở ngại về ngôn ngữ trong ước vọng làm lại cuộc đời, cho sáng sủa hơn. Những thuyết trình viên khác, gồm giáo sư và sinh viên, học sinh cũng là những cựu tỵ nạn viên, đa số tỵ nạn chính trị, đến từ các nước trên thế giới. Xin gửi quý bạn tỵ nạn thân ái, cùng một lứa bên trời lận đận, đọc cho vui trong những ngày xuân còn lại.  


Love in the time of language Fiasco


Julien Nguyen



      I’m going to deliver a short but detailed speech, based on one of the many episodes of my vicissitudinous life, to the Portland Public Schools (PPS) and Portland State University (PSU) educators and students, and above all, to my old and new fellow émigrés –having chosen to live in America as their second homeland. Throughout my own humble experience I will focus on the importance of overcoming the language barriers if they want to rebuild successfully their lives, as I did, eleven years ago, in their new country and on the way to cope, practically, with difficulties in learning English.


1. My first years in the USA


      I was a teacher in a French High School in Vietnam before becoming a Captain of the South Vietnamese Army. I came to the USA from a Philippine refugee camp in January 1985, after surviving, since the fall of Saigon, an eight-year incarceration in multiple hideous Communist concentration camps, three successive failed attempts to flee the country, and a horrific seven-day journey to freedom, in a small boat, on stormy waters during the typhoon season. I came here, in Oregon, with no family, no money, no English, and no past. No future. Nothing but Hope –which was steady like rock. For six months, I slept on my friends’ couch, wore ill fitting set of second-hand clothes –all that I then possessed, from Goodwill or the Church Charities. I worked as a dishwasher in restaurants, janitor and laborer in warehouses, and strawberry picker in the summertime. Still I did not have an idea about how to remake my life that, in my lonely sleepless nights, I had always imagined as splendid as sunbeams. The most insurmountable obstacle was the language barrier. Obviously.


      Indeed, understanding people and being understood by them, especially over the phone, posed a real problem for me. And people were so politely contemptuous, or rather contemptuously polite, that my self-pride hurt terribly. During such talks, for example, I used to repeat only once my English sentences, very short, in fact, and if they still didn’t understand, or pretended so, I quit and took refuge in an obstinate muteness. The idea of going back to school to learn English did not even glide over my mind for a single moment. I told myself, it was too late to be a student again and I had mountains of more important things to do for an immediate adaptation and survival in a new living ambiance. I tried to forget my past, and above all, my future, by resigning, stoically, to an inevitable present, deceitful and monotonous. Until the day, being sick, I met with a family doctor in Salem. He was absolutely kind and condescending, like all other American doctors towards their patients.


      In SE Examiner, December 1994, and The Asian Reporter, March 1-7, 1995, free lance John Rumler wrote the story: “As the physician filled out his chart, he asked Nguyen what he was going to do in his new country. “I want to teach French in a university,” he replied, in broken English. The doctor laughed at him. “But you can’t even speak English,” he said.

     Nguyen turned red. “Don’t laugh at me. In five years I’ll come back as a professor to see you,” he said in anger. Storming out the door, Nguyen felt sick to his stomach. For days the laughter burned in his ears. On many sleepless nights the humiliation gnawed away at him.”


      Tortured by the humiliation and obsessed with a fierce determination to rebuild my life as I wished, that means, to resume my French teaching career, here, in the USA, I went to register for a BA degree at Portland State University. I had a licence ès-lettres françaises from the University of Saigon, but my English proficiency was lamentable. Luckily, there, I got the huge chance to speak directly, in French, with the PSU French department chair, a native French lady. After fifteen minutes, or so, she advised me to go directly into the MA program, instead of “wearing out again your pantalon (trousers) on the BA class seat”. Also, she suggested that I go to the banks and apply for a student loan. The program included three mandatory Education courses. While French classes looked easy and enjoyable, those Education courses, conducted in English, ate up 90% of my study time. In classrooms, with my professors’ permission, I used a mini-cassette, and tried to catch as best as I could their words. Back home, I read manuals and listened to the recorder. To improve my English, I watched TV (especially Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune shows), talked with classmates, read English newspapers, magazines and novels, and locked up myself in a rented tiny room in a cold basement, away from social life. I asked one of my nicest female American classmates to help me with English in exchange for my “tutoring” her in French. Twelve months later, including the 1986 Summer quarter, I got my MA in Teaching (French) with straight A, a Recognition Award for Commendation in Scholarship, and a membership in the National Honors Society of Phi Kappa Phi.


      Then, I was accepted into the Ph.D. program at the University of Oregon. There, I had to teach two second-year French classes as well. After four years, i.e. in 1990, I received my Ph.D. in Romance Languages (French and Latin) with a 4.0 grade average, a 450-page dissertation, written in French, on Stendhal –which was accepted for publication by Droz, Geneva, on the recommendation of Professor Victor del Litto, president of Stendhal Club, in Grenoble, and the post of Assistant Professor of French at Eastern Washington University, Cheney, where I also taught Latin.


      On my way to Cheney, “with the laughter, continued John Rumler in the above-quoted article, still echoing in his ears after four years, Nguyen decided to pay a visit to the clinic […]. As luck would have it, the physician was working that day, but to Nguyen’s dismay, the man didn’t remember him. Nguyen showed him his Ph.D. and the doctor shook his hand and congratulated him. Suddenly his anger and bitterness towards the doctor evaporated. He realized how the unthinking rudeness has sparked his ambition and changed the course of his life. “Thank you for laughing at me,” he said. They both laughed together.”


2. Difficulties in learning English


      Many years ago, in Vietnam, I struggled with English as an optional fourth language (after French, Latin, and Vietnamese) in a French High School. My English teachers were all French men having a heavy accent and showing a royal disdain for non-French things. English was offered an hour a week for two years, as well as Vietnamese. All that I then got from English lessons was translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and some poems of famous British poets such as Byron and Tennyson. When I came here, I had almost forgotten my few English words thus acquired from there. I realized that the English spoken by Americans is another language different from that of the rest of the world in pronunciation, vocabulary, and expression. I don’t worry much about its grammar which I see far less difficult than French or Latin grammars.


      a) Accentuation is my first biggest problem. I used to speak French since kindergarten. Therefore French pronunciation “residue”, so to speak, became the worst obstacle that I needed to overcome while learning English. In French words, indeed, except some rare cases, accentuation is generally stressed on the last, not on the penultimate, or on the first syllable, as it is in English. Accentuation in any language is a very important rule, otherwise no one would understand you and vice versa. Examples: “attention”: at-ten-tión (French) vs at-tén-tion (English). Or “manager”: one day,  looking for the manager of rental apartements, I saw some American children playing around: “Where is the ma-na-gér?”, I asked. “What?”, they answered. Seeing that they did not, apparently, understand my question, I repeated it, this time changing my… intonation: “Where is the ma--ger?”. They shook their head, asking “What do you mean exactly?”. I had to spell the word, and they all burst out shouting: “Oh, má-na-ger!”. One more example. To a Delta Airlines receptionist, in Denver, I asked “Which gate I should go for a connection flight to Or-lan-do?”. I repeated the question three times, but she seemed not to understand. At last, “Did you mean, Or-lán-do?”, she asked. “Yes, yes”, I answered, with a breath of relief.


      Vietnamese language accentuation, on the contrary, is made up with five inflection marks (á, à, ả, ạ, ã), which you must observe strictly, as well, otherwise you would be in  serious big trouble… In general, each Vietnamese word can be used with no mark,  or with all those 5 marks and thus, has 6 different meanings, and 6 different pronunciations, accordingly. Let’s have a look at my first name: quy (no inflection mark) means “to return”, quý, “precious”, “invaluable”, quỳ, “to kneel”, quỵ, “to fall on one’s knees”, quỷ, “devil”, and quỹ, “fund”. And I am “invaluable”, quý, not “devil”, qu, at all.


      b) Accent also is another problem. Even British English people, New Yorkers and Texans have accents, and funny accents, to our ears. There are books and online video-audio teaching how to learn their “accents”. I’m sure that, like all foreigners, I have accent, but don’t know which one. I remember, four years ago,  I drove to Seattle to renew my passport for an “emergency” trip to Vietnam to visit my mother who fell gravely ill. Usually the issuance procedure must take several days. While I explained my “urgent” situation to the American official there, he asked me, all of a sudden, if I speak French. Surprised, I said: “Yes, but how do you know it?” He answered: “Your accent!”, and then with compassion he began speaking French with me: “I like French since high school.” he said. Et patati et patata, the conversation seemed to become non-stop. The temporary passport was issued on the very day.


      In 1992, on a vacation tour of Europe, I happened to go to London from Amsterdam on a ship and to share the cabin with three other guys, one from London, the second from Scotland, the third from South Africa, and myself, a French-speaking Vietnamese-born-American-citizen-naturalized from Cheney (WA). After midnight, going back to the cabin, separately, from the bar, we said hello to one another for the first time. Then, we engaged in a conversation conducted in English, of course, but couldn’t understand one another well only until dawn. On which, the guy from South Africa told me: “That’s very strange, and still we spoke the same language!”


      As a professor from the USA, I could get a room at the University of London campus. One morning, in the cafeteria, while sipping my coffee, I saw a young lady (an American, based on her look and accent, and later she said that she was a student from Atlanta) talking with two male British students. Suddenly, she came to my table: “Are you from America?” she asked. “Yes”, I answered. “Are you a student?” “No, I’m a French professor at Eastern Washington University”, I replied. “Could you join us? We need your help”, she asked. Intrigued, I went to their table. One of the guys told me, “She speaks too fast”, and she complained: “I don’t understand much what they say”. I then felt immediately the problem –their accent– and tried my best to “translate” for one another, myself having brutal time catching every word from the mouth of the two Londonian students. That’s unbelievable, but the story was 100% true!


      While my American students have a hell of a time in pronouncing the French vowel u (tu, rue, vu, su etc.) although they deal perfectly with pure, secure, I can say well the English consonant r (very, radio, etc.) only until a couple of years later. As for the English vowel i, I always hesitated between [i] or [ai]: ideology, Iran, Iraq, or idiot, etc. Or the words ending with the same -eat: tr-eat, thr-eat, or -ead: (to) r-ead, (I) r-ead, but being pronounced differently, and perhaps, arbitrarily. Where is the common rule?


      c) Vocabulary is another obstacle, uncommon for Vietnamese people, since there is no similarity at all between Vietnamese and English. That’s good and bad. Good, because there is no confusion possible. Bad, for you can’t “guess”, unlike French and English, for example: royal, maternal, surprise... However, there is some resemblance in appearance between French and English but with different meanings –which they call “false friends”, faux amis. When I first came here, I had a problem with, just an example among many, boy friend, and girl friend. I thought boy and girl are used just to mark the gender (while in French ami, minus -e, is masculine, and amie, plus +e, feminine) for the English mono-gender word friend).


      So, one day, I asked a young and beautiful lady, my American neighbor: “Do you want to be my girl friend?” (I meant, “mon amie, my female friend”). “Not so soon”, she shook her head with amazement. Disappointed, I asked why. She only smiled. Five years later, on my trip from Eugene to Cheney, I stopped by to visit her. She was still living in Salem and still remembering the “incident”. “Now, you may have known well”, she explained, “girl friend or boy friend is someone very dear to you, someone, you know, in American way, you can sleep with, and marry eventually, or not. Only today have I realized your innocent mistake”, she said. “But then, I thought that you wanted to declare, too fast indeed, your love for me”, she added. “Oh, you must have assumed my love in the time of English mix-up”, I replied with a broad smile. We both laughed. Until now, we remain good friends, simply, without affix boy or girl.


      There are many words written and understood similarly in English and French, but pronounced differently such as route, impossible, evident, hostile, phrase, message etc. On the other hand, there are some homonyms, like door (porte) and d’or (golden), déjà vu (already seen), etc. that have different meanings, of course, and create confusion.


      d) Expression:  In my entire life, I never studied English grammar, even in USA, for I did not have enough time and it’s not different from French grammar, generally speaking, and in my opinion, it’s still easier. I learned how to write English phrases by reading a lot of books, fictional or non-fictional, newspapers, whatever, and applying French grammar into English sentences. My sentences, indeed, had many “subordinate clauses”, like in Latin, while those of most American writers contain only independent, with short and concise phrases. Some of my “readers” said, my “sentence, though correct, is not English, it’s heavy, complicated, even sophisticated”. “Make very short and direct sentences”, they told me, “cut off your flourished and unnecessary, if not futile, accessory tails”.


3. Conclusion:


      Why this personal story, centered on le moi haïssable? First, I would like to express my gratitude to God for having protected me against so many hardships since the invasion of my South Vietnam in April 1975 by the Nordist troops, then to thank my professors and friends around the world whose kind encouragement and precious advice helped me understand the price of happiness and the meaning of suffering. And also, I want to send this little message to the desperate, the outcasts of fortune, the lonely travelers in the valley of tears and all my companions in misery and exile: Life and success are made for brave and proud people who never give up hope and dream of achievement, although there are never free hope or cheap achievement.



March 2, 2018




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