I’ve written short stories, poems, and news analyses. But the personal essay remains my preferred medium. The writer’s voice, when honest and frank, provides an emotional intimacy with the reader no other genres can. In my case—a refugee who fled from a war-torn country at 11 and became an American writer who travels the world—the personal often bares witness to the historical, as rivers are to the sea. The essay, indeed, can be all at once familiar, conversational, and reportorial. It can persuade without seemingly trying to. And, arguably, there is as much drama in a personal essay as in any piece of fiction.
Even before I could speak a full English sentence, even before I could distinguish “bear” from “bare,” I wanted to tell my story. Fresh from the Guam refugee camp, I tried my best with hand gestures and a few words, and when words and gestures failed, with color chalks and the blackboard during recess. I’d tell my seventh grade classmates about my childhood in Vietnam—my helicopter rides as an army brat, the Tet celebrations full of relatives and friends, the smell of ripened rice fields at dusk—what I would never experience again.
I was a shy boy in Vietnam. But in America, that was no longer true. I instinctively knew what I could not articulate was what kept me from being fully integrated in the new landscape: That I was not fully part of the New World unless I could bring my full biography—what I lost, what was robbed from me and my family at the end of the Vietnam war—to bare.
It was frustrating at first. I learned to read Vietnamese at four and French at seven. I could play Chinese chess at five. But my first few months in America I didn’t understand much. All I could muster were “No understand!“ and “I don’t know!“ So I bought a used typewriter and typed out the novel “The Wind in the Willows” and then copied newspapers articles. I learned how to type and read at the same time.
In the morning in the shower, before school, I would practice my English. I would annunciate certain words learned the day before and listen to their vibrations. “Business,“ I would pronounce. “Stress!“ I would shout. “Necessary!“ I could almost see the words with their sharp edges and round arches taking shape in the steamy air. I would try my best to rule over them.
Trouble was in our 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. But speaking English was becoming second nature. And sometimes, at dinnertime, I would spontaneously sing out a tv jingle: “My baloney has a first name. It’s OSCAR. My baloney has a second name…” The entire family would look at me as if I was possessed. Needless to say, my parents constantly scolded me.
A few months after having arrived from the refugee camp in Guam, my voice broke. I thought it somehow had to do with my having to speak English and nothing to do with my going through puberty. Heck, I didn’t know what puberty was. I was convinced that the harsh-sound words had chafed the back of my throat, shattered my vocal cords, and caused me to sound so funny that my family, distraught as they were with the loss of Vietnam, laughed and laughed. And I, so chagrined by my own voice, stopped talking at home altogether.
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 happen. 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 time – perhaps more than a year - until a classmate told me in very frank terms what was 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 actually change me. After all, I was at an age where magic and reality still share a porous border, and speaking English was like chanting magical incantations. It was reshaping me from inside out.
It took me a while to figure things out, but by then I had already become an American teenager.
Did I know then that I would grow up to a writer and essayist? No. But I did find the sound of my American voice intriguing. I distinctly heard from my own American voice the promises of newness, a future. After college, with a degree in biochemistry, I began to take creative writing classes.
Timidly at first, I began to write down my Vietnamese memories. I began to fancy myself a writer.
Many years passed…
I think of that tongue-tied child at the blackboard in seventh grade drawing pictures of helicopters and rice paddies trying to tell his story. He’s found his medium; and he’s still doggedly at it.