I’m rooting around the fridge. “Mum, how do you say ‘coriander’ in Vietnamese?” The suspect word is spoken in English, the rest in Viet.
She squeezes her eyes, puzzled. “What?”
“Co-ri-an-der,” I say again, this time putting on a bastardised Vietnamese accent to see if that will help. “You know…um, a vegetable. No, plant! It’s green. You put it in bánh mì…”
I end up image searching the herb on Google, thrusting my phone in her face.
“Ohhh…ngò. No. We don’t.” She rolls her eyes at me. “Also, Google is not accurate for translations.”
I speak Vietnamese fine enough, having grown up with it. Mum’s English is getting better, but it’s easier to stick to her native tongue. So we stumble through conversations with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
The first ever text message I’d received from mum was so thoroughly in English, I’d thought it was spam.
Hello dear-enjoy your day- come home soon .
Its overly correct politeness felt far removed from the tiny, boisterous Asian woman I knew as mẹ.
When there’s a language barrier between you and your immigrant mother, a certain intimacy is lost, and conversation almost becomes transactional, struggling to get past the basics.
The other day, at lunch, mum had leaned across the table over chilli crabs. “Co Nga’s son is dating a kĩ sư.”
I’d scanned my brain desperately for what that could mean.
“Like, a talking doctor? Bác sĩ mà nói chuyện?” (I was trying to say ‘psychiatrist’.)
“No, kĩ sư.” Mum sighed. “You know, maths, they study buildings…”
I’d reached for my phone and typed furiously.
Mum has her own methods. She prizes a clunky plastic English-to-Vietnamese translator that sits next a thin ruled exercise book. In the book, she lists newly acquired English words from the telly’s subtitles. ‘I-n-t-e-r-r-o-g-a-t-i-o-n” she’ll write carefully, as the cops give the guy a good grilling on screen.
I used to fantasise about having those deep and meaningfuls that white mothers and daughters seem to have. Once, I overheard a housemate blithely explain to her mum the pros and cons of her IUD over the phone, as she cooked a quick pasta on the stove. I was awe-struck. I wouldn’t even have to vocabulary to broach that topic. (“Mum, I had a no-baby stick put in” probably wouldn’t work.)
Sometimes, I sit in mum’s house, staring at her as she hums Vietnamese ballads, and wonder how much of herself is lost to me as the words drift between us into the ether. I wish we could tell each other more. But you have to catch whatever strands you can.
Now, in the kitchen, I present mum with a thin white envelope. “Dear mum,” I’ve written on the card inside. “Happy Mother’s Day! I hope you are happy. Love, Vi.”
I’ve carefully written this in large print letters. I haven’t said what I really wanted to, because her English isn’t quite there. But that’s okay. She runs her eyes over the words, and smiles. I know she understands.
Vivian Huynh is a writer and musician. Follow Vivian on Twitter: @vivianhuynh_
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_