Phuc Tran: Does The Subjunctive Have A Dark Side? Classicist and tattooer Phuc Tran grew up caught between two languages with opposing cultural perspectives: the indicative reality of Vietnamese and the power to image endless possibilities with English. In this personal talk, Tran explains how both shaped his identity.

Phuc Tran: Does The Subjunctive Have A Dark Side?

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PHUC TRAN: My name is Phuc Tran. I live in Portland, Maine. I teach Latin and Greek.


You don't look like a Latin and Greek teacher. You look like a hipster - like, you should be wearing a leather apron; like, you should be making homemade tonics and bitters. Do you do that, too?

TRAN: No. No I don't.

RAZ: OK, maybe not a mixologist, but Phuc is also a tattoo artist. And he's actually tattooed himself.

TRAN: When I got the tattoo fever, I just was like, I want to be covered in tattoos. And one day, I just was like, I want to do this huge thing on my thigh.

RAZ: What is it?

TRAN: It's like a big koi - you know, like a fish. And you know, I look at it and I'm like, man, that thing stinks.

RAZ: Now, tattooer's regret actually does have something to do with Phuc's other passion - which is grammar - because thinking that you could or should have done something different, it's all possible because of the subjunctive mood, which is what Phuc's talk is all about.


TRAN: I'm here to talk about how grammar is a tool to be used like a pair of glasses. And when it's used at the right time, it can bring the world into sharp focus. And when it's used at a wrong time, it can make things incredibly blurry. And this all starts with our understanding of the subjunctive. I remember talking to my dad about this and because he's a non-native speaker of English, he didn't quite grasp all the nuances of the subjunctive. I'd say, Dad, listen - you can say, if it hadn't rained, we would've gone to the beach. And my dad's response - that's stupid.


TRAN: Why do you want to talk about something that didn't happen? Fair enough. The subjunctive allows us look into the future and to see multiple, highly nuanced possibilities with just a little sprinkling of could's, would's or might's. Similarly, it allows us to look into the past, and to imagine what didn't happen, but could have happened. The subjunctive is the most powerful mood. It's like a time-space dream machine that can conjure alternate realities with just the idea of could have or should have. But within this idea of should have is a Pandora's box of hope and regret.

Growing up in Pennsylvania as a Vietnamese refugee, I often thought about what would have happened if my family hadn't escaped Saigon in 1975. Would we have been imprisoned like my father's cousin who spent years in reeducation camp being tortured and sentenced to hard labor? Or would we have simply been killed like countless other South Vietnamese who were unable to escape that April?

The night that my family was fleeing Saigon, my entire family - parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles - we were all scheduled to board a bus. And as that bus was loading passengers, I began crying - shrieking uncontrollably, so much so that my entire family decided to wait for the next bus. And as that bus pulled away from us, it was struck by artillery fire. It exploded and everyone on board was killed. As a kid, I thought a lot about our good fortune in escaping, and about what would've happened if we hadn't. And I didn't realize it at the time, but I was pondering things that my parents couldn't ponder, and it was all because of the English subjunctive.

RAZ: You don't think your family ever thought about what could've been?

TRAN: I really don't. And, you know, after I thought about that, I was visiting my mom 'cause she was sick and one of my aunts was there visiting her as well, you know, just for conversation my aunt recounted the whole story again. You know, and all the details are pretty much there. And I remember asking her, you know, what do you - in English - you know, what do you think, you know, would've happened?

And she was, like, I don't know, I guess we would've all died. And you could kind of tell, like, she hadn't really - like, she was just like, why would you even want to think about that or what's the point? It's, like, kind of like this pointless exercise in pondering what could've happened. That's like a huge piece guide in that pondering the could've, would've, and should've, right. Does it benefit you to think about the things that could've happened, you know, or does it just kind of fester? And if it does, and if it's not good for you and good for your - sort of your soul, you know, let it go because I think it's not healthy, right. But I think it's obviously easier said than done.


TRAN: For my father, there were no alternate realities in 1975. There was just what happened and what didn't happen. Even if he did feel the pangs of losing a life that he should've had, he didn't have the language to express it. In Vietnam, my father was a lawyer and an aspiring politician. He should've had a career. He should've been somebody important. Yet, there he was in 1975, in a country he didn't know, driving a cement mixer, trying to learn English and support his family. For my parents' survival, however, this lack of the subjunctive was fundamental to their resiliency. They were able to provide for me and my brother, to do what needed to be done, in part because they didn't expend psychic energy on what could have been.

In Vietnamese, there was just the naked indicativeness of the world, and they met it head on. As a kid growing up, for me, the subjunctive of English was this mirage of an oasis. Through the power of the subjunctive, I imagined this amazing world - this fantastical world where my name wasn't weird. I was trying to pretend that I was this typical American teenager. I played in a punk band. I skateboarded. I worked at a gas station. I ran away from home. I got into fights. I smoked pot. I was kind of like this Asian kid had been photoshopped into a John Hughes movie.


TRAN: I didn't look like any of my friends. And my family, full of brown immigrants and exotic smells, didn't look like my friends' families. And as a result, I didn't know what should have happened and what my future should have looked like as I spun my wheels in the quagmire of the subjunctive, wishing that I were someone else or somewhere else. What I did know was that when I graduated from high school, I wanted to double major in art and English. Then the unexpected happened - I hated my English and art classes. By the end of that semester, I had dropped both majors and I was undeclared. I was utterly depressed and deflated because I hated what I thought I should have loved. Dejected, I sat down with my dad that December to tell him that I didn't want to major in art and English anymore, as I awaited some reprimand from him.

But my father was completely calm, without a hint of disappointment. There was no "you should' speech from him because that would have required a command of the subjunctive, which he lacks. Instead, this is what he said, you don't want to major in art and English anymore? That's fine. Don't study what you don't like. What do you like? Study that. That was it. The answer was so simple. It was like pure, unfiltered reality delivered with the indicative. And so that's what I did. I went back to school - to college and that spring, I signed up, on a whim, for ancient Greek. And it was brutally hard and I loved every minute of it. I loved every clause, every accent, every participle. I wasn't restrained by ideas of what I was supposed to study or should have been studying. I simply pursued what I honestly loved - embracing the reality, the indicativeness of my passions. Should have didn't improve my present or my future. Should have simply blinded me to what was because I was so fixated on what wasn't.

RAZ: I mean, the subjunctive is, I guess, in a sense, it's all about regret.

TRAN: Or possibility, right? So if it's backwards looking, yes, the subjunctive certainly can eat somebody alive and fill them full of regret. But the subjunctive looking forward, I think is amazing. You have people who move things forward because they're able to think about things that don't exist like. the civil rights movement and, you know, women's suffrage, like, all that stuff, you know, sort of these huge, you know, seismic, cultural pushes forward. It does have a dark side, but it also propels a lot of progress forward.


TRAN: We take off and put on the lenses of the subjunctive and the indicative every day. And once we recognize the pitfalls of both the indicative and the subjunctive, we can actively choose a more positive and optimistic outlook. Go and reclaim and re-appropriate your language and grammar. It's your first and most powerful tool to experiencing and communicating the world around you. We all use the indicative and subjunctive every day, and we can be mindful of when we are blinded by the subjunctive and when we are overlooking the indicative around us. Thank you.


RAZ: Phuc Tran. His talk is called "The Dark Side of the Subjunctive." Check it out at Stay with us. More spoken and unspoken - how we communicate, in just a moment. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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