When Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl were three, we visited an older Vietnamese woman, Nu, who taught them a little Vietnamese–counting from one to ten, the words for airplane, dog and duck. Nu also was a surrogate grandmother who fed them traditional Vietnamese treats and played with them. Nu lives far from us, and her work schedule meant that our visits were limited. Circumstances of our busy life meant that we saw Nu less and less frequently, and in the last year, we’ve seen her only sporadically.
We wanted Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl to have some connection with the language of Vietnam, its food, people, and customs, and we’ve made some small gestures to maintain their Vietnamese heritage. We have an annual Tet party, we celebrate Tet with their classmates in school by reading about Tet and bringing in a special treat, and we talk about what it was like in Vietnam when they were babies. However, we have not been vigilant about ongoing language lessons.
I’ve found a graduate student from Hanoi who has visited Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl a couple of times and we hope to grow this relationship. Nina was immediately interested in MM and GG, and she spoke on her last visit about wanting to help them understand experiences that other Vietnamese children would have. To that end, she made and brought corn pudding, the sweet treat she remembered eating in her youth. We talked about Pho, and when I pulled out Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen, she exclaimed, “Oh, great, you cook with Andrea!” Nina seemed impressed that we attempt to cook Vietnamese food, and that we host an annual Tet party. She talked longingly about not being home for Tet for the last four years while she has been in the US for college.
Nina came prepared to teach MM and GG a traditional Vietnamese song about ducks, called “Một con vịt.” Nina sang while we tried to copy her tone and pronunciation. GG made an effort, but she was a bit shy, and not as robust a singer as she is on Taylor Swift songs. GG also copied the words, the tone accents and all, from the lyrics that Nina wrote for her. My own efforts at singing the song, though ardent, were less successful, except for the quacking, which is apparently the same in Vietnamese and English!
I’m hoping that since Nina is just starting a five-year graduate program, we’ll get to know her, and that she will become like an “older sister” to GG and MM. As she was leaving last night, she explained that GG should say goodbye in a special way: “Chao chi.” Nina explained to me that Chi is the form of address for an older sister. I was touched by her eagerness to take MM and GG under her wing as a surrogate big sister.
I did find “Một con vịt” on You Tube, though the tone is hard to hear in this rendition. Nina sang it much more beautifully.