MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Commentator Andrew Lam immigrated to this country when he was 11 years old. He says that for him the process of becoming an American was also about growing up.
ANDREW LAM: A few months after I came to America at the end of the Vietnam War, my voice started to break. I went from a sweet sounding child speaking Vietnamese to a craggy-sounding teenager speaking broken English. You sound like a hungry duck, my older brother was fond of teasing me. By then I had practically stopped speaking Vietnamese. When I first answered in Vietnamese to the English teacher's question that first day in seventh grade, the entire class erupted in laughter. I remember feeling terrible shame.
So I desperately embraced English so I wouldn't stand out. Each morning, each night, I practice vocabulary words out loud. I mimicked characters on TV, and memorized entire commercials and recite them like mantras in order to sound like an American. Trouble was, at home, in our Vietnamese refugee home, the smell of fish sauce wafted along with the smell of incense from the newly built altar that housed photos of the dead, and speaking English was a no-no, and my parents constantly scolded me. Then one day my brother said with a serious voice, mom and dad told you not to speak English all the time and you didn't listen, now look what happened. You shattered your vocal cord, that is why you sound like a duck. Since no one bothered to tell me about the birds and the bees I fully believed him. I was duped for what seemed like a long, long time until a classmate told me in very frank terms what puberty entails.
But I also remember being of two minds. While I mourn the loss of my homeland, I, at the same time, marveled at how speaking a new language could change me. After all, I was at an age where magic and reality share a porous border and speaking English was like chanting magical incantations. It was reshaping me from inside out. Speaking English I had a markedly different personality. I was a sunny, upbeat, silly and sometimes wickedly sharp-tongued kid. I whisper sweet compliments to Chinese girls and made them blush. I cursed and joked with friends and made them laugh. I bantered and cavorted with teachers and made myself their pet. No sorrow, no sadness clung to my new language. And even though I sounded like a hungry duck speaking broken English, a wild river full of possibilities flowed effortlessly from my new tongue.
NORRIS: Andrew Lam is the author of the book Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. He's the editor of New American Media.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.