A guest post to motivate, encourage and inspire…
Immersion: Seeing Through Different Eyes
When I started writing a book about my husband’s childhood in Vietnam, my critique group told me that, while they loved the stories, it sounded like an American-born, English-speaking woman was telling them. They were my husband’s experiences, but my words. How could I show the world he grew up in when it was so different from my own? How could I write in English without losing the context of Vietnamese language and culture?
I rewrote, paying attention to expressions like “Wow!” that sounded too American. I switched to Vietnamese equivalents: Ồ for Oh, hì hì for a tittering laugh, Ui! for Ouch! Another easy substitution was onomatopoeia: the broken speakers squawked rẹc rẹc rẹc, the pig rooted around ột ột ột, cooking pots and pans clattered lảng cảng.
I searched for words that seemed out of place. Novocain became “numbing medicine”; the ICU was a “cold room”; and shoulder-pole seizures meant tetanus. Whenever possible, I described things using Vietnamese analogies. Grandfather complained that he was carried like a sack of rice. The principal’s lectures clung and stretched like leeches. I asked my husband to say dialogue for me in Vietnamese, so I could hear the words and try to match them in English. But still, I missed things. “You use too many absolutes,” my husband said, “never, always, ever. We don’t do that.”
My husband had helpfully converted everything from the metric system to the foot-pound system when telling his stories. I converted everything back. Likewise, for monetary transactions I used Vietnamese đồng or sticks of gold, not dollars or ounces. But I tried to give clues. I wanted my readers to experience the flavor of the language and culture, not feel it was inaccessible.
I questioned every turn of phrase, trying to see the world through a different language and culture. Do you say, “Hold your breath?” I asked. “No, we say silence your breath,” he answered. I learned that suicide is “the quiet way out,” and hide-and-seek is called five-ten because kids counted five-ten-fifteen-twenty. I collected Vietnamese sayings. “The frog dies because of its big mouth,” his mother would warn, reminding him not to say too much. But trying to write a memoir in my husband’s voice made me feel like the frog in another Vietnamese proverb—the one sitting at the bottom of a well thinking the sky was the size of a platter.
Over the years it took to finish the book, my own experiences began to help. We visited Vietnam and saw where my husband grew up. My in-laws embraced me and our children grew up in an extended Vietnamese-American family. As I tried to see the world through my husband’s eyes, comments from my critique group changed to “I felt like I was there.” Still, when I gave my husband the complete draft, I worried what he’d think as he read his own story. “It’s like reliving my past,” he said. I had finally managed to climb up and see a little more of the sky.
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