Think about 1950s America, when kids listened to rock ‘n’ roll while their parents still swayed to swing.
“Turn down that music!”
Or the 1960s, with the advent of the Hippie movement.
“Cut that hair!”
Or the early 1980s, when kids walked around listening to music on the Sony Walkman, headphones drowning out their parents.
“Take those things out of your ears!”
Or today, when the thumbs hit the cell phone at rapid-fire pace at the table.
“Put that thing away during dinner!”
It’s been a staple of life for decades: the generation gap. But for younger Vietnamese Americans and their older relatives, the generation gap has met the language gap.
The failure to address relatives by their correct family hierarchy and to convey respect to grandparents by correctly speaking and pronouncing the Vietnamese language has been the source of frustrations in families torn between two cultures.
For those whose first language is the monotone English language, Vietnamese is more difficult to speak, given its five tonations. A simple and flat “Ba” means father, but if it’s “Ba” with a downward tonation (as in the diacritical mark “\”), the meaning turns into grandma.
Thi Chuc Nguyen, 73, came to the United States in 1975. Several years later, she followed her husband to France. After years and years of living in an affluent small town known for its large Vietnamese French population on the outskirts of Paris, she returned to Orange County, Calif.
Her frustration in California? The transformation of the Vietnamese language from one of respect and romance to one that isn’t, well, respectful and romantic.
“My brother’s name is Quý and his wife’s is Thi,” she said. “Both of their names are beautiful, with ‘Quý’ being ‘precious’ and ‘Thi’ being literature, as in Thi Thơ [poetry], or Thi Văn [literature].”
Younger people call them “Quái Thai,” instead, she said. “You know, the quái-thai [born-deformed] couple.”
As for chatting with her? “My name is Thi Chuc, and the way they pronounce it,” she agonized, they “might as well call me Ms. T-shirt.”
Others crave speaking traditional Vietnamese with their grandchildren.
Tran Xuan, 76, who lives in Westminster, has seven children, a number of grandchildren, and more than a dozen nieces and nephews. She said she can communicate only with the grandchildren who speak Vietnamese, even though their pronunciation isn’t right.
“For those who can’t speak Vietnamese, they can only hug me to show their love,” she said. “I told my children to speak Vietnamese with their children so that they can talk to me.”
Addressing relatives by their correct family hierarchy and conveying their messages to grandparents through proper Vietnamese words and pronunciations also frustrates younger Vietnamese Americans who grew up speaking English.
Trish Le, a 23-year-old actress who recently made her debut in the feature film “Dạ Cổ Hoài Lang,” said she has experienced that frustration.
“I got yelled at by my grandma because I used the word ‘hông có mắc mớ gì’ [as in ‘it’s not related’].
“I was on my phone and my grandma asked, ‘Why aren’t you eating?’
“I answered, ‘I was just texting.’
“’You’re eating at the table,’ my grandma said.
Le responded: “’Nhưng mà nó đâu có mắc mớ gì, con nhắn tin đâu có mắc mớ gì tới chuyện ăn [But it’s not related, texting is not related to eating.]’
“’She said, ‘Cái đó là hỗn [That is disrespect.]’
“I didn’t realize that. I thought I meant, ‘It didn’t connect.'”
“That was an intense situation,” Le remembered. “I’ve never been taught to disrespect, and I tried to pronunciate the words. I can read Vietnamese but not the dấu [tonations].”
Le is among many Vietnamese millennials who live in Little Saigon. She takes part in community cultural organizations such as Việt Cầm [formerly Lạc Hồng] – a Vietnamese folk dance group – and speaks Vietnamese at home.
Still, the Vietnamese language generation gap is inevitable – and sometimes funny.
Le retold the story of her younger sister, who also takes part in the folk dance group.
“My sister, 19, was practicing ‘Sơn Tinh Thuỷ Tinh’s’ [God of Mountain and God of Water’s] dance, and there was a part where she should say, ‘Xách quân ra đánh,’ meaning ‘bring out the army to fight.’ But instead, she said, ‘xách quần ra đánh,’ which means, ‘Bring out the pants to fight.’”
That prompted the dance coordinator to ask, “So, child, they fought without pants?”
The difference was just one diacritical mark “\”.
And a pair of pants.