One of my great regrets in life is I never learned to write in Vietnamese. I’ve always thought that speaking it was enough—as in, it made me Vietnamese enough. But I wholeheartedly believe that every person of Vietnamese origin should know the language. Vietnamese carries the history, the struggles, and triumphs of our people; it keeps our culture and heritage alive. It sets our stories apart from the stories of other people in this world. It is the language of our soul, and for us, some things can only be expressed in Vietnamese. When my father was dying, I told him that I loved him in Vietnamese. “I love you” was not enough; it couldn’t carry the weight of our emotions.
Below is my first Vietnamese poem, written with the little Vietnamese I can write (and a lot of help from the dictionary). Though simple, I’m proud to have written in the language of mother’s lullabies and father’s loving words.
Mẹ tôi thức nguyên đêm,
hầm xương nấu nước phở thơm. Tô
phở mặn như nước mắt.
Nước phở âm—hương quế,
thơm gừng, hạt hồi—la của thiên.
Bánh phở trắng như mây
Răng mềm, răng đau ơi,
cha tôi ăn nước phở no đầy.
Người già sống vì hương.
Tôi chẳng ốm ngày nào,
phở mẹ tôi thang thuốc trị bá bệnh,
trị cảm, trị buồn lo.
Tôi ăn phở hay khóc.
Ai ơi ăn phở không nhớ nhà
không nhớ Mẹ, nhớ Cha?
Tôi nhớ mẹ hiên lành,
tay thơm khói lửa bếp, nụ cười
phong phú như bàn đầy.
Và cha tôi — nằm trong
đất chưa hai năm lạnh— tình cha
tôi vấn còn no đầy.
My mother stays up all night,
boiling bones for fragrant phở broth. A bowl
of her phở is salty as her tears.
Warm phở broth—perfumed with cinnamon,
scented with ginger, star anise—is heavenly.
The phở noodles are white as clouds.
With loose teeth and tooth pain,
My father sips his fill of phở broth.
Old people are sustained by the essence of food.
I was never sick a day in my life.
My mother’s phở was a cure-all for all ailments,
curing colds, curing sorrow and worry.
I have cried over a bowl of phở.
Who hasn’t eaten phở and not thought of home—
remembering mother, remembering father?
I think about my gentle mother,
her hands perfumed with smoke from the stove, her smile
abundant as a full table.
And my father—buried in the
ground barely two years cold—with his love
I am still full.
If you like stories like this, subscribe to Chopsticks Alley.
Writer and dreamer, Vuong is founder of Tourane Poetry Press and editor of Perfume River Poetry Review. His work has been published in prominent literary journals, and he is a frequent reader at poetry events in the South Bay. His work is an examination of the Vietnamese-American experience, what it means to be Vietnamese so far away from quê hương (motherland). He believes that every Vietnamese is a poet at heart.