Saying the Magic Words

Times Staff Writer

Kristi Dinh left a note for her mother on the kitchen table. “I’m going to work. I’ll be home late,” she scribbled in English.

When she got home at 10 p.m., her mom greeted her with a slap in the face. She had no idea where her 18-year-old daughter had been.

Like many teenagers, Dinh has trouble talking to her parents. But her problem goes deeper. Dinh, who emigrated from Vietnam when she was 3, has lost most of her Vietnamese. Her parents never learned English.


“If it’s a prolonged conversation, we have problems,” said Dinh, a senior at Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove. “We don’t understand each other.”

Mary Nguyen, 54, doesn’t know where her daughter works. They don’t talk about her education or her friends. They usually don’t even talk about what’s for dinner. She believes Dinh, her youngest child, has become too American.

“It’s a hardship, and it’s very frustrating,” said Nguyen, who relies on her older children to translate.

But a high school class is helping improve the family’s interactions.

Facing a growing cultural divide between immigrant parents and their children, the Garden Grove Unified and Huntington Beach Union school districts are offering Vietnamese classes to high school students, making Orange County one of only two counties in the nation with school districts offering Vietnamese as a foreign language elective like Spanish and French.

The program originated in San Jose in 1992 after Vietnamese parents complained that their children were becoming too Western and losing their heritage.

The language barrier had become so great that they couldn’t carry on the most basic conversations.

In Orange County, home to the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, the classes are gaining popularity. Districts have had to add more teachers and classes as students enroll.

But they are also faced with challenges. There is no curriculum or textbook, teachers are scarce, and some students fluent in Vietnamese are taking it for an easy A.

Experts say there has been a gradual effort to add language classes at high schools to prepare students for the global market. In Washington, D.C., Arabic is an option. Korean and Tagalog are offered in Los Angeles; and in Palo Alto, Mandarin will be offered this fall.

“We learned a hard lesson after Sept. 11,” said Marty Abbott, a director at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Alexandria, Va. “We couldn’t read their language, and we couldn’t find translators to help us figure out what was going on. We’ve gone into wars with Afghanistan and Iraq without understanding the language or the culture.”

For many Vietnamese American teens who have rushed to embrace Western ways, the language barrier has led to family pressures and a backlash in such shopping districts as Little Saigon, where merchants are intolerant of their meager language skills.

They are ridiculed as mat goc, those who have lost their origin.

The miscommunication between Dinh and her parents has caused family squabbles. Nguyen wrote a letter to her daughter, expressing her sorrow -- a note she needed her teacher to translate. Dinh said she had been tempted to run away from home.

“It’s hard to be fluent in both languages,” said Dinh, her ears double pierced, her belly peeking through her cropped T-shirt.

“I’m surrounded by Western ways. Everything I do is American stuff.”

So Dinh listens to Usher and Ludacris, sends instant messages to her friends and spends weekends browsing the racks at Pac Sun and American Eagle. She changed her Vietnamese name, Kim Tuoi, to Kristi when she became naturalized in 2000.

Conflicts like these prompted San Jose to launch its program in 1992. There are now more than 800 students taking Vietnamese at six of the city’s 12 high schools.

Hoping for similar success, parents and teachers in Orange County lobbied three years for classes.

Westminster High School first offered the classes in 2002, but high demand led to additional classes at Bolsa and La Quinta high schools. Garden Grove High School will start offering Vietnamese in September.

Lan Quoc Nguyen, president of the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Education, said learning another language would boost students’ job skills. He is already seeing a shortage of Vietnamese translators.

“The political implications will be a disaster five to 10 years from now when we run out of Vietnamese speakers and we might have to import them,” Nguyen said.

Students begin by learning sentence structure, vocabulary and Vietnam’s culture and history.

In teacher Quynh Trang Nguyen’s classroom at Bolsa Grande, a student read aloud a sentence, “Co ai nhin rat la dep.”

Nguyen asked the classroom for a translation.

A student responds: “She looks hot.”

“Really? Is it really sunny outside?” Nguyen asked, as the classroom filled with laughter. “In Vietnam, we use the word pretty, very pretty. She is very pretty.”

Students in the class are mostly Vietnamese Americans who are fluent in English but speak halting Vietnamese. Some were born in the United States. Many have changed their names -- Vy became Shayla, Thanh changed to Tiffany, and Tra Giang is now Natali.

When she was younger, Alice Pham balked at going to Vietnamese classes at her church. But her parents forced her.

And her parents made her sign up for the class at Bolsa Grande.

“I could never imagine how much the class has influenced her,” said her mother, Dung. “She comes home a different person now.”

Alice, 15, who was born in Los Angeles, used to like McDonald’s and Hometown Buffet. Now she prefers Vietnamese food and attends Vietnamese Mass instead of the English sessions. She speaks Vietnamese at home and even reads Vietnamese newspapers for fun.

Reaching this point has not been easy.

There are not enough instructors certified to teach Vietnamese language, culture and history because the state does not offer a credential program. Many of the teachers, by default, are Vietnamese Americans.

“It’s a handicap situation, but we have to start somewhere,” said Nguyen, the school board president.

His district snatched up Quynh Trang Nguyen, a math teacher, and Dzung Bach, a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army who teaches at La Quinta High in Westminster, where Asians make up 70% of the enrollment.

The program is so new that it lacks grants and federal funding, and textbooks have yet to be approved by the state and federal education boards. Teachers create curriculum and handouts on their own.

Teachers often use old college-level textbooks designed for native Vietnamese speakers that do not come with a teacher’s edition.

Some are pro-communist, use antiquated terminology similar to Old English and lack crucial historical events or figures such as Tran Hung Dao, a Vietnamese hero who was said to have turned back two Mongol invasions in the 1280s.

“It’s like not having Shakespeare in English textbooks,” Bach said.

Teachers must also be creative to balance the range of skills in the classroom. Some students are taking the class because their friends are in it. Others are fluent.

A few, such as Jerry Hernandez, are enrolled because they see opportunity.

“I want to open my own auto shop near here, so I’m expecting that my customers will be Vietnamese and I have to know their language,” said Hernandez, a 14-year-old freshman at Bolsa Grande.

Classes, Bach has learned, tend to be more like support groups at times, with fast learners helping out classmates who struggle. Sometimes the classes stray into cultural matters.

On a recent morning in Bach’s class, students clicked off their favorite food. Some preferred pizza and bananas over pho and papaya, two of Vietnam’s staples. Another chose sushi over braised chicken feet, a popular Vietnamese dish.

“On every occasion, I try to remind them of who they are,” Bach said. “The students here are not 100% Vietnamese anymore.”

For Kristi Dinh and her parents, the class may be one last chance at building a relationship.

Their misunderstandings had mushroomed into mistrust and, eventually, avoidance.

Mary Nguyen, a retired seamstress who acknowledges that she is hot-tempered, implemented a strict policy: Speak Vietnamese or don’t speak at all.

Dinh won’t eat Nguyen’s braised caramel fish and pork dishes. Instead, she asks for $5 to run to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“She lives like an American, so I am always mad at her,” the mother said. “How is she going to save money eating out every day?”

Dinh said she was taking the class in hopes of mending relations with her mother.

When she leaves the house, she says to her parents: “Thua ba me con di,” a formal expression with a respectful tone, instead of saying “Bye,” which is seen as informal and better suited for friends.

When she doesn’t understand something in Vietnamese, she asks her siblings for help.

In the living room of her house, Mary Nguyen’s eyes welled up. The class had already brought change.

In a letter to her mom, Dinh wrote in Vietnamese: “Mom, don’t think bad of me. Believe in me that I will succeed. Rest assured that I will not let you down.”