Life Between Languages

"May and her Yéye" drawn by May Mac. Edited by Michelle Lim.

Communicating with my Yéye has always been a verbal melting pot of languages. Vietnamese, Cantonese, and English—we’d mix these three into a concoction only we and our other family members could understand. Every moment talking to Yéye was like a language puzzle to solve with both of us eager to play detective.

During each conversation’s shift, we’d carefully watch each other’s expressions for any signs of confusion. If Yéye said a Cantonese word I didn’t understand, he’d speak the Vietnamese equivalent and gesture it out to convey his meaning more readily. Sometimes he sprinkled in English words to make it easier for me to connect the dots. I did the same back to him but with English and Vietnamese dominating my language mixture. Though, I must admit that my hand gestures and my pointing to household objects did most of the heavy lifting when it came to getting my message across. 

Within our communication style, we both knew it was okay if words failed. It was okay to have language gaps because our Frankenstein way of re-membering our multiple languages worked— until it no longer could. I remember when February 2020 pulled my Yéye and me into a new reality where he lost his voice. My uncle, who is my Yéye’s main caretaker, explained to me that the doctors found disease in his throat, and to avoid it from spreading further, they removed his vocal cords.

It was hard to process that I would never again hear him say the words, “Bây giờ ăn cơm” (Do you want to eat now?) or have him exclaim, “So beautiful!” when he peeked over my shoulder to see my latest drawing. I can’t even remember his last spoken words to me. I wasn’t prepared for this heartbreak; however, it wasn’t a time to grieve but a time to celebrate how he survived his second cancer. 

I couldn’t help but struggle with our new communication method. For 20 years we relied on verbal speech, then suddenly had to switch over to a new hybrid method where he writes me notes and I respond orally with gestures. I knew Yéye wrote familiar phrases we always used, but seeing them on paper made me realize just how high and wide our language barriers are. I may be a writer, but that’s in English where I’m most confident. Seeing written words in Vietnamese made me freeze up in trepidation. I felt my own illiteracy scream at me.   

Tools like photo translators helped half the time. Any small crevice on the page was filled with Yéye’s handwriting but it became too cluttered for Google Translate to read. That’s when my uncle would come to the rescue and interpret for me. He wasn’t home all the time though. When I was alone with my Yéye, our communication difficulties felt palpable. The language gaps between us grew wider and deeper; I didn’t know enough Vietnamese or Cantonese to communicate with him easily. I saw these gaps as problems with myself. Like I wasn’t enough. I wasn’t Vietnamese enough.   

I tried overcoming the barriers between us by learning new phrases and words that would take me beyond my everyday vocabulary of “everything my Mẹ (mom) nags me to do.” It was hard finding online resources because they were all pronounced in the Southern Vietnamese dialect and I only felt comfortable speaking in my Northern tongue. But I have to open up because comfort has always been my crutch in language-learning and it stops me from going beyond the ease of linguistic fragments. Our language trifecta—the one my Yéye and I shared—is both unique and beautiful. It’s a communication style I’m proud of but it’s time for me to learn more Vietnamese. To move beyond the fragments and to learn something whole.

On a video call with one of my Vietnamese friends, I asked her mom for translation help. I wanted to learn how to say, “I love you Grandpa!” And how to say (my personal favourite) “Your favourite grandchild is here to check up on you.” My friend’s mom said I had to learn how to pronounce, “em yêu Ông nội” and “Cháu yêu thích tới thăm ông bà nội.”

To help me further, she left a voice recording for me to re-hear the words and practice saying them in my own timeThese phrases were way longer than I was used to and contained vocabulary I had never heard before. I swapped in Yéye instead of Ông nội because my grandpa wants to be addressed by this Cantonese colloquialism. He likes this informal way of saying grandpa more than Ông nội, which is a title that carries a lot of formality and respect. Saying Yéye welcomes informal speech and all the mistakes I’m allowed to make. It’s the one Cantonese word I continue to cling to.

"Vietnamese - English Translation Diagram of 'Your favourite grandchild is here to check-up on you.'" by Jenny Ngo

Learning these phrases was difficult. The correct grammatical syntax took me a long time to get right. I replayed the voice recording several times and sometimes get so lost in the words that I have to ask my friend to repeat them for me in a slowed-down version. My friend also sent me a translation diagram to help break up each element of the second phrase. She made me realize I can have a moment where I don’t need translation apps, gestures, or my uncle to interpret for me. This is my chance to say something on my own.

I kept repeating the sentences out loud and sent voice recordings back to my friend to ask if my words are comprehensible. My English tone heavily colours my Vietnamese speech, which makes my pronunciation far from perfect, but once I get the okay from my friend, I start feeling a little bit more resourceful in Vietnamese. 

The small victories I made in learning Vietnamese were overwhelmed by more communication blocks. This past February, my Yéye’s vision grew cloudy. He now has milky cataract-filled eyes that can only see if you stand a breath away from him. The usual hand gestures and pointing to household objects are now out of the question. Once again, I find myself looking for another means to navigate our conversations as I slowly try to learn Vietnamese and as my Yéye’s health continues to deteriorate rapidly.

When I visited him in March, I kicked off my shoes at the door and saw him, like I always do, sitting in his leathered and weathered massage chair. But this time, he was watching TV at max volume. I stood in front of him and screamed in his ear, “It’s me MAY! May-ah! is here!” But he still edged his ear closer to my face and gasped using his non-existent vocal cords, failing to make noise. I knew, with my limited Vietnamese, that he was trying to ask, “Who are you?”

My uncle later walked into the living room and explained to me that Yéye’s health issues worsened. Now I’m an even bigger blur to him, a blur with a voice he can barely hear. As a kid, I remember seeing Yéye as my film-enthusiast grandpa who shot home documentaries filled with loud Vietnamese narration. He’s now a shell of that memory— a shell that holds someone who can’t speak and can barely see or hear. His senses are lost but I still feel fortunate because even though he’s just a fraction of the person he once was, he’s still breathing. He’s still my Yéye.   

Yéye is slowly turning senile and he forgets little things like where he last left the TV remote. But he still remembers me and the rest of his 11 grandchildren. Mind you, we’re not easy to forget, especially when my dad’s side of the family celebrates every major holiday: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and of course, the most important one—Yéye’s birthday.   

My life is still filled with language barriers I keep trying to overcome. But to accelerate my learning, I registered for Vietnamese language lessons this summer. This is my attempt to bridge the communication gap between my Yéye and me. It’s also a chance to feel more closely connected to my Vietnamese heritage. Sometimes the language gaps still make me feel inferior and there are times when I get overwhelmed by them—still thinking I’m not enough. That I’ll never be good enough. 

But I have to persist. If I don’t persist, the distance will grow wider, and my communication lifeline with my Yéye will be lost. This is why I keep looking for new alternatives to solve our puzzle of communication. These days, we’re playing a more advanced version of our language puzzle, and I’m more motivated than ever to take on the role of detective. To solve the puzzle with my Yéye. To fill the space just enough to make us whole.

May Mac is in her fourth year of the English and Professional Writing program. She is passionate about creating communications that combine her two loves—writing and graphic design. In her spare time, May enjoys reading contemporary romance books and taking nature walks while listening to music.