For Children Who Translate

1. At my elementary school, each grade level was assigned to study a continent. By swiftly looking at the hallways, one could easily tell which continent was the research object for the specific grade. Every time I craned my neck and moved my eyes upward, I saw the single continent in a bold hue, detached from the world along its geographic borders, on the white walls of our hallways. In fourth grade, the continent was Asia. We were assigned to select a country and make a travel brochure as homework. The teacher asked basic questions: the population size, the spoken languages, religions, and significant dates. In the middle of the folded paper, there was a box to illustrate the country’s flag.

The teacher asked us to name three countries, in order of preference. I picked what I thought was the obvious choice for me: Vietnam. The teacher permitted me to “research” Vietnam, writing in red ink, I know you really want to write about Vietnam. I wasn’t very studious at the time; I simply knew my parents could fill in the gaps.

During one of his visits to the Salvation Army, Ba found a set of used Funk & Wagnalls’ encyclopedias. From the handmade blond oak bookshelf, I took the V volume and walked to our dining table. I found the entry on Vietnam. There were only five pages, and I didn’t understand what I was reading. But all I had to do was answer the categories on each small box of the brochure. I didn’t even need to write in complete sentences. One of the sparse photographs featured a bright red flag with a bright yellow star in the middle. I sketched a crude replica into the map box. My star was crooked, and I erased it many times. I felt someone peeking from behind my shoulder.

“No, no, that’s not right,” Ba said in his gentle, throaty Vietnamese. “The South Vietnamese flag is yellow with three red stripes in the middle. You should draw that.” For ten years, Ba fought in the South Vietnamese regime. 

“Can you show me?” I asked in Vietnamese. I only spoke English to my brother and sisters at home. I found a piece of scrap paper and handed him a pencil. It was one of the few times my father helped me with my school assignments. He could tutor me in math, but when it came to reading and grammar I had to learn on my own or ask my impatient older siblings.

Pressing the pencil lightly, he sketched a simple rectangle with three horizontal bars in the middle. 

“The three lines have to be red. The background is yellow,” he instructed. 

From my box of crayons, I found the two colors and held them up for his approval.

“Why are the flags different?” I asked my father. I pointed at the photograph in the encyclopedia.

He glanced at the image.

“Two different flags for two different countries,” he answered curtly. He left the room.

My teacher returned our assignment. I received a checkmark. In red ink, she had circled my flag, the flag I had carefully lined with my ruler. The flag is supposed to be red with a yellow star in the middle, she wrote in cursive. I was embarrassed. I reread the comment-cum-reprimand many times. But I was also confused. My father and I are Vietnamese. And she was a white American. Did my father not know his own flag? Had he been away for so long that he couldn’t remember?

When I returned home, I handed my father the incriminating brochure. 

“She said it’s wrong,” I said to him, almost in anger. 

My father examined my illustration. My older sister was sitting next to him at the dining table. She leaned forward to examine the offending paper.

“Well, your stripes are a bit thick,” he said, “but the star is not our flag.” He tossed the paper on top of the newspapers that were scattered on the dining table. Every evening, he would throw the newspapers away.

My sister turned to me. “Are you going to talk to your teacher?” 

I didn’t answer her. Not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t know what to say to the teacher at the time. Or any white teacher teaching about colonial histories and forgotten artifacts.

2. After living in the United States for twenty-five years, my parents decided to apply for citizenship. I was twelve years old. I don’t even remember if they discussed their reasons with us, their four children. All I recall is helping my mother study. She had to memorize one hundred answers to one hundred questions that resemble a basic social studies course. Who was the first president of the United States? When did the United States declare independence? There were at least a couple of questions dealing with local politics. Who is your state governor?

When my mother returned home from work at the chicken factory, she’d prepare dinner. Rice was always magically cooked, and someone would scoop out six bowls of rice. Ma would pull out leftover dishes from the refrigerator and reheat them. We ate together, at the table in the small kitchen. After dinner, she’d settle in the living room. The TV was usually on, a rented TVB soap on VHS tapes from a Vietnamese market about an hour away, and she’d begin to embroider a complicated rose or bird design for a quilt or a pillowcase.

“Help me study,” she commanded, either to my twin sister or me, as she threaded a needle. 

I had already finished my homework. My older siblings, then high school students, had disappeared into their bedrooms. They were probably studying or finishing their own homework.

I was not a very good reader. I particularly disliked reading aloud. In the middle of third grade, I had been sent to speech classes, where I would remain until I finished elementary school, because of pronunciation problems. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at eleven o’clock, I spent thirty minutes with other students repeating words and imitating sounds with a hard “r”. I needed to enunciate more, the speech teacher told me, in her slight southern accent, as she corrected a list of words that ended with “-er” or “-ar”. The monosyllabic word “art” was especially difficult for me. Ahhh-t, I’d try to say. My classmates often made jokes at my expense. They called me stupid or slow. But Ma’s English was worse than mine, I always thought, as if such a comparison provided me with any consolation at all.

Many times, Ma didn’t understand my shaky English, so I had to try to translate fragmented phrases in Vietnamese. I could barely translate “What do we call the first ten amendments of the Constitution?” or “checks and balances.” Sometimes, I’d get creative. For “what are the three branches of government,” I would conjure a tree in my limited vocabulary. 

“What are the three tree limbs of the U.S. government?” I’d say in halting Vietnamese, after Ma couldn’t comprehend the English.

“Three tree limbs?” Ma asked, not looking up from her embroidery. Her colorful bird, mainly in dark reds and purple, was only half completed.

“Three…” I searched for a different word. “Three…” 

Ba answered from the dark. He always sat far away from us, in the dining room. He rarely turned on the light and sat chain smoking his Marlboro Reds.

“Tree limbs!” Ma exclaimed. She was probably imagining a government tree. “What is the answer again?” Like any student, she tried to memorize the question and answers. 

I mispronounced “executive” as “ex-uh-q-tif” until my older sister walked by and corrected me. “Ex-eck-u-tif,” I repeated.

Ma repeated in broken syllables a few times before we moved on. 

Why didn’t Ba need help? I wondered. Once, when we watched and listened to Ma go down the list of questions with my twin sister, I asked him if he wanted my help. The same printed sheets of paper were on the table, some proof of his more solitary studying. 

He shrugged. And he lit a cigarette.

I asked the questions out of order. Ba told us the examiners would rearrange the order of questions. He answered quickly, but his accent was, in some ways, harder to understand than my mother’s. Later, I found out Ba had taken language and writing courses at a community college in the evenings. Ma did not. I learned how to write checks for her. It was especially useful during her visits at the doctor’s clinics, where debit transactions and automatic check printing were not yet available. Ba could write and understand the written language and text, but Ma was more social. She spoke enthusiastically and carelessly to our neighbors and people at the grocery stores. Ba was quiet. I’m not even sure if I remember if he spoke a lot of English at all during my childhood. Even if he was assured in his comprehension skills, I would, or one of my older siblings, would always attend parent-teacher conferences as the reliable interpreter. But this entire citizenship process was almost a mystery to me.

“You don’t have to help me anymore, Anna,” Ba said, after we went over the one hundred questions.

“Just once?” I asked, confused. Ma said she needed multiple rounds. 

“It’s okay,” he said, unconcerned. And he took out another cigarette. The flame from his silver lighter briefly lit his face.

My twin and I got off of the bus and came home to a red-faced Ma. She was fuming. In one of their rare solo outings, she and my father, dressed in unusually formal clothes, had driven to Fort Smith with a witness to finally take their citizenship test. Ba had passed. Ma had not. And she was complaining about being tricked. 

As she relayed the story again, Ba actually looked amused. The receptionist had misunderstood her when she said she couldn’t speak English. She was not allowed to take the exam and had to reschedule. 

“What does this mean?” I think we asked Ba.

“I need an American passport,” he had answered. “I no longer need to carry my green card.” But it was neither a celebratory nor a happy moment. Ba had just said this so matter-of-factly. When Ma eventually passed, I didn’t attend their Oath of Allegiance ceremonies. Nor did I know such a ceremony existed until much later in my life.

Decades later, when I found myself mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, I’d read emotional tweets about strangers or their parents becoming citizens. Many would mark their anniversary of such a milestone. I knew Ma wasn’t sentimental about these particular events in her life, but I felt compelled to ask her why we didn’t celebrate.

“Citizenship test?” she repeated over the phone. 

“When did you become a citizen?” I asked. “What was the exact year?”

“Two thousand…” Ma began in English. “Two thousand…” Finally, she said, in Vietnamese, “two thousand ten.”

I laughed. “That’s not right, Ma. That would mean you took the test ten years ago. I was young when you began studying. I was still in elementary school.” I didn’t tell her I never really understood or knew their plans, or their differences that marked them as “alien” or “permanent residents” when I, their child, was an “American citizen.” They never talked about these matters with me. Or perhaps I had never asked them. 

“Exactly twenty-five years after Ba and I left Vietnam in 1975.” Her voice trailed off, and she began counting. 

I solved the arithmetic problem for her. 

“If you add twenty-five years, that’s 2000. That’s some time ago.” I said the word “year” in Vietnamese and “2000” in English.

“Two thousand,” she repeated in English. “That sounds right.”

“Why didn’t you celebrate?”

“Celebrate what?”

“Your citizenship.”

“People remember those things and celebrate?” Ma asked, in genuine surprise.

“I see it online all of the time.” I translated “online” as “on the net.”

“Not important to me,” Ma said, not dismissively but decisively. “We just did it for paperwork reasons. Ba, when he was alive, and I were told that if we didn’t become citizens, people would tamper with our retirement funds. Now, who said that…” She searched her memory for a name.

“Your retirement funds?”

“We don’t even know if that’s true,” Ma said. In the background, I could hear her grandchildren loudly playing with each other. It was expected daily noise whenever we talked on the phone. “But people weren’t very nice to us. We did it just in case because we didn’t have a lot of rights.”

I then suddenly remember her talking in rapid Vietnamese, on that fateful day she was told she couldn’t take the exam. 

“What happened when you tried to take the citizenship test?” I said. “You said you couldn’t speak English and they wouldn’t allow you to take it?”

“It’s like this,” Ma began in her tone of storytelling. “There was a secretary who asked us a bunch of questions. She asked me if my English was good enough to take the test. I told her, honestly, ‘not really’, and she wouldn’t let me finish the thought! I think she only heard ‘no’. And then…” Ma’s tone grew somewhat huffy, “she asked me why I would take the test if I couldn’t speak English. But I could have passed it! I only needed to correctly answer six out of ten questions. If she only listened to me!” Ma was on a memory rampage.

“So what did you do when Ba took the test?”

“I had to wait for him,” she said. “There must have been FBI or CIA agents in the room. I couldn’t cause a scene.”

I was imagining a bureaucratic office in Fort Smith, in western Arkansas. We used to drive to the area almost every other weekend. We always visited a particular, now closed, Vietnamese grocery store. I was always accustomed to my parents speaking Vietnamese to us, but there, they could speak Vietnamese to nearly every patron in the grocery store. It seemed like a magical place for them to speak comfortably. But I couldn’t place where this U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services might be.

“Your English is quite good now,” I said suddenly. Ma was still talking about her unjust experience.

“You think so?” Ma said.

“Maybe your English is better than my Vietnamese,” I said, thinking aloud. “How are your grandchildren’s Vietnamese and English?” When they had Internet access in their home in rural Delaware, the older kid would try to FaceTime me. I always spoke to them in Vietnamese, but I knew their language experiences were similar to their father’s, their aunts’, and mine. 

“They speak both better than you!” Ma said, laughing. “You had a lot of problems in school.” She was referring to my special speech classes. “How long did you have to take that class?”

“For too long,” I said, almost unkindly. “Why are their language skills better than ours?”

“They have a parent who can speak both fluently,” Ma answered. “Their father can help them with their homework.”

Ma once told me an extraordinary story of her youth in Vietnam. At fourteen, she stopped attending school because her father would not teach her martial arts. As rebellion, she skipped school and ran away from home, spending her days in the mountains practicing kung fu on her own. I always laugh at this story. I didn’t think it was unbelievable or an outright lie; Ma never seemed ashamed about her limited education. But there are moments when it shows. She can read in Vietnamese, but she, unlike my father, writes slowly and crudely and often misspells words. 

When we were taught how to begin reading and writing in Vietnamese, it was our father who taught us. Never Ma.

3. When my father had his first stroke in 2006, his speech became impaired. My older sister and I were in the ICU room with him. He tried to speak to us, but only sounds came out. We couldn’t understand him. Both of us, in panicked voices, kept repeating “we don’t know what you’re saying, Ba.” He kept trying, but abruptly stopped. He looked down at the linoleum floor and didn’t say anything more. Inconsolable sobs came out. He wouldn’t look at us as he wept.

Ba spent months in rehab. His speech improved rather quickly. His right hand was permanently balled into a fist, and he had to walk on a cane using the strength of his left side. He could no longer write letters or checks in his beautiful cursive. No more meticulous loops, curls, and waves that connected together. He practiced writing in his left hand. Shaky lines replaced his once showy handwriting. 

Other things had also changed. My parents lived separate lives and never stayed in the same house if they could avoid it. My father began living with my sister, who acted as his primary caregiver. I seemed to move farther and farther away.

At the end of summer 2016, I had flown from Montreal to Fayetteville, Arkansas. I had just barely unpacked after relocating from Boston when my sisters told me he had another stroke and was in a coma. They were told that he may be dying soon. 

I only understood fragments of the story. My sister’s neighbors saw our father walking around in the front yard in a confused state during the early afternoon on a hot day. Later, they helped pull him out of a storm drain. They mentioned he said something about looking for a cat. Sometime later, on a walk with his dog, someone found my father passed out in his beat-up white Oldsmobile car. He had vomited all over himself and was unresponsive. 

My tired sisters finally left the hospital, saying that they were going to return in the early evening. They were scared and worn out.

The nurse gently urged me to ask my father to squeeze my hand, to try to lure him out of the coma. I took his rough and dry hand into mine, and repeated the nurse’s order, in Vietnamese. My father lightly squeezed my hand. Encouraged by the response, I pleaded with him to wake up. He had briefly opened his eyes once, when my older sister was present on the afternoon before my arrival, but he quickly closed his eyes. She thought she heard him tell her he was tired. It had been almost 24 hours. I didn’t know what to say to Ba, and kept repeating the short sentences that I could say without crying in front of the nurse: It’s Anna. I’m here now. I came all of the way from Canada. I’m here. Wake up. Please. 

Ba’s eyes flew open. I screamed “Ba” and started crying loudly. I sat up at once, turned away from my father, and tried to calm my loud, shaky breaths. I could see some curious nurses from outside peering in from the windows. When they caught my eye, they quickly returned to their tasks. I rushed into the bathroom and washed my face with cold water.

The nurse told me he’d return to run some tests on my father. He assured me things would get better, that his waking up was a good sign.

I sat silently next to my father, who seemed dazed. He looked at me with wide, cloudy eyes. His brown skin looked so dull and yellow then.

“It’s Anna, remember?” I asked softly. 

He nodded. With his good hand, he touched his chest and he continued to look at me. His hand had big black bruises and liver spots. He repeated the motion. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

“Are you trying to say something?” I asked, in alarm. I leaned closer, in case I could make out any whisper. But I heard nothing. I turned to look at him again. “Are you in pain?”

He nodded again, and he kept tapping his chest.

New tears began to form, but I took a deep breath. 

“I’ll get a notebook and pen, Ba,” I said, trying to sound calm. But my heart was pounding. I swallowed. “Just wait for me. I’ll be right back.”

I dashed over to my backpack and pulled out a small Moleskine notebook and a pen. I hurried back.

“Can you write what you want to say?” I asked. I had turned to a new blank page.

Ba took my pen and began writing with his left hand. His hand was shaky, and he wrote hesitantly. From my perspective, it looked like he was just drawing horizontal and vertical lines. At times, he would cross another line. I looked on in horror, but hoped that the lines would eventually be words. Something. Anything.

Ba handed the notebook and pen back to me. And then he looked at me impatiently. His eyes were still wide and confused.

I looked at the indecipherable lines. There were about a dozen lines. Just lines. I didn’t know what he was trying to communicate. I willed myself not to cry as I gazed at my father.

“I don’t understand, Ba,” I croaked. A few tears leaked. “I’m really sorry. I don’t know what you’re trying to say.” 

Ba’s forehead furrowed. He looked at the notebook page briefly. He then returned his gaze back to me and tapped his chest again.

“I’m really sorry, Ba,” I repeated. I took his hand and squeezed it. He squeezed back. He shifted his gaze to the wall in front of him. And he sat like that for a long time.

The last six months of his life were cruel. His voice was barely a whisper. He was now in a wheelchair, too weak and physically unsteady. He had been transferred from the ICU to a regular hospital back to the ICU, and to the rehab center. He had his own room, and the extra bed was occupied by my sisters or me. We had to stay with Ba, to translate for him. 

During one of his speech exercises, the heavily pregnant therapist read to us from one of the pamphlets. I listened with slightly raised eyebrows at the tone of her voice. It seemed like she knew how patronizing the aspirational guidelines sounded, but she didn’t stop reading nor did she ever look up from the paper. And then she finally began the exercises. 

“Name five fruits,” the speech therapist said. She looked from Ba to me.

I repeated the command in Vietnamese.

Ba paused, and whispered, “Apple. Banana. Orange.” In Vietnamese.

“Oh,” I said, feeling foolish for not expecting this. “He said apple, banana, and orange in Vietnamese. Did you want him to speak in English?” I asked, skeptical how one could even separate speech from cognition. 

The speech therapist hadn’t anticipated this inquiry either. 

“In Vietnamese is fine,” she responded with uncertainty and with a slight frown. She would just have to trust my translation skills.

I turned to Ba. “Can you name two more?” I gently asked.

Ba’s eyes turned thoughtful. 

“Point to your tattoo,” the speech therapist suggested. She had admired my sleeves before she began the session. When I used to visit my parents, I always tried to cover my arms, to avoid tiresome fights. But the summer in Fayetteville was too hot.

I pointed to the pineapple on my left arm. “Can you name this, Ba?”

Ba’s eyes rested on my tattoo. He hated my collection. 

“Pineapple,” he whispered in Vietnamese. 

We waited for another fruit. Then the speech therapist improvised. She asked me to point at the other fruits, vegetables, flowers, and the lobster that was tattooed between my shoulder and chest.

Ba looked at the lobster with knitted eyebrows. 

“Shrimp?” he said, looking at me with questioning eyes. I couldn’t tell if he wanted confirmation or if he was expressing disapproval. I shared a smile with my father.

We were sitting in the cafeteria of the rehab center, eating dinner. Ba’s tray was covered in Styrofoam, plastic, and foil. I tore open his plastic utensils, small packets of salt and pepper, and a single napkin, while Ba, using his left hand, opened his fruit cup and milk carton. I looked around the cafeteria. Posters about healthy eating and were taped all around the otherwise empty walls. We were seated near the doors, and the other patients were also spread out. There were about a dozen of older folks. Some were eating by themselves; much older patients had a nurse practitioner sitting with them. 

Ba offered his roll. At the time, I didn’t have an appetite and barely ate. My stomach was always upset. But I took the roll and split the roll in half. I took a small bite. 

One of the clinic’s social workers stopped by. She had introduced herself earlier, when we were setting up his room at the center.

“I just wanted to check on your dad,” she said, giving him a quick glance and smile. “Make sure he eats a little bit more today.”

After I relayed the message to him, she continued, “I just read his file, and I have to say it’s a surprise that he’s still alive.”

I just stared at her, unsure of how to respond. I remained silent. I didn’t know what file she had read, but assumed it was a cobbled piece of various testimonies from us and the doctors at the hospital. 

She said more platitudes, that they’d work to get him better and that he could benefit from attending community centers with people “like him.” Then she moved onto a different table, where an old woman with thick black glasses demanded cake.

I watched Ba eat his food. He had finished his fruit cup, and ate a few more bites of his boiled chicken before pushing his tray away. 

Ba finally returned home in early November. Throughout this time, my family had been together temporarily. All six of us for a few days. But we never spoke about the possibility of his passing. We were scared to, and we chose to believe the doctors and rehab professionals when they said he would improve. Even when I called our family doctor after I saw him coughing up blood in his napkin. The doctor, who had told me to calm down and not be hysterical, said he would be okay and to buy cough medicine.    

I flew from Montreal to Fayetteville often and stayed for extended periods. When I was in Montreal, I called at least once a day. Ma remained at my sister’s home. She would put Ba on the phone. He always sounded tired, but we tried to hold a short conversation. 

As the months went by, Ba’s hoarse whisper eventually disappeared. At the start of his rehab, when he felt better, his eyes were clear; but they had become permanently cloudy and dull. He could not keep his food or liquids down, and had lost too much weight. He had become skeletal. He could barely stand with assistance. And, yet, he couldn’t tell us how he felt. When he didn’t speak, he nodded, shook his head, or pointed. He occasionally tapped his chest.

On my last trip to Fayetteville, when I stayed from November until January 5. My father had turned 72 at the start of the new year. I had baked cupcakes, but he never ate one. 

I had to catch an early flight back to Montreal. It was about four in the morning. I told my mother I was going to say goodbye to my father. I opened his bedroom door softly and sat by his bed. His eyes weren’t closed all of the way, but his chest was moving up and down. 

“Ba?” I whispered. No response. “I’m leaving today. I’ll try to come back next month. I hope you’ll be better by then. I’ll be back.” I squeezed his hand. He didn’t squeeze back. Lowering myself, I hugged my father on one side and stayed in that position for a few seconds before leaving.

The last time I talked to my father was on January 6. By then, whenever we were on the phone, I could hear nothing. No breathing. No sounds. I knew he was holding the phone with his good hand and he was moving his lips. But there was just silence. But I continued to ask him questions, as I had in the previous years when I used to call him daily. But I never knew if he had finished answering when I moved on to a different topic. I couldn’t hear him.

He was again admitted to the ER. On the morning of January 10, he passed away in the hospital. I was in Montreal. I wouldn’t return to Fayetteville until his funeral, forty-nine days after his death. In the Buddhist ritual, these forty-nine days were a mourning period, to allow us to pray and be assured that Ba’s spirit would transition into the afterlife. 

When I finally returned to Fayetteville, a photo of my father was on the altar table. At the cemetery, his tombstone was just a few feet away from the graves of his daughter and son. Family members I’ve never met, their names barely spoken at home. They were only children when they had died, almost a decade before I was born. 

During his ceremony, we kneeled on the cold earth and prayed silently. I wished for my father’s suffering to end in the afterlife and bowed three times at the grave in front of me. 

I didn’t linger. Once I got up, I began walking away, not bothering to wipe off any signs of dirt on the knees of my black tights. When there was a safe distance between his gravesite and me, I glanced behind my shoulder. Narrowing my eyes, I could just make out the image on the backside of his tombstone. An engraving of the South Vietnamese flag.


  • Anna Nguyen is a PhD student and instructor in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany [an1]. Her research focuses on the rhetoric, composition and literary studies of science, literature on food, citations, and social theory. She is especially interested in theoretical creative non-fiction, where social theory, thinking about food, and first-person narrative blend without enforcing academic conventions. She hosts a podcast, Critical Literary Consumption.

  • Altered images from 42nd Street, directed by Lloyd Bacon in 1933.