This was not the first time that she messaged me but it was the first to happen while I was away from the comfort of home. At home, I could have my mom, my dad, or my uncle assist me. You see, I’m almost completely illiterate in Vietnamese and this kind of communication was far outside my skillset. Since it was late at night (morning in Vietnam), I couldn’t call anyone to help me respond. But I also couldn’t just ignore the message because she knew that I had read it! Whoever thought that function was a good idea?
Naturally, I went to Google and copied and pasted my cousin’s message into the translator. When I saw what Google Translate claimed my cousin said, I began to sweat profusely. It was obviously not right; why would she write to me about medical students?
I then took each word and translated them individually in trying to decipher what my cousin, Trang, was saying. Some of the translations were wrong, but I understood that “các em” meant “everybody” and “khỏe hết chứ” was asking if we were doing well. Now that I had a general sense of what she was saying, the second obstacle was the response.
This was extremely important for me because I had never been to Vietnam and, until very recently, our only method of communication with our family in Vietnam was via phone calls. Those were very limited as well, so typically, my mom and her siblings talked the majority of the time. If I ever talked to anyone, it would be reduced to a simple hello. Vietnam, to me, had always been a mystery that I yearned to connect with, a crucial piece to my puzzle that I feared was forever lost.
Things changed when all of us in the States pooled enough money to buy our family in Vietnam an iPad. They made Facebook accounts and we found each other. When my mom and her sister were able to Facetime after not seeing each other for decades, they couldn’t believe all of the time they had lost. The fact that we were on the other side of the planet didn’t seem as evident anymore when they were face-to-face like old times.
I stalked my Vietnam family endlessly, trying to curate an exact image of my relatives. One person stood out in particular, Trang, the one who had messaged me. She and I had the same name after all. I was able to see that she enjoyed cooking and that she recently got married. I was able to see the home where my mom grew up. I was able to complete an image that I never fathomed being able to see anytime soon.
Although we liked each other’s pictures and posts, talking to each other was a completely different endeavor. Speaking Vietnamese for me was already a challenge, especially since my five-year-old cousin spoke better Vietnamese than me. There was so much at stake if anything went wrong. I didn’t want my cousin to think that I was incompetent and that my parents didn’t raise their children well. I didn’t want to give the people there a bad impression of our family here.
So, without the protection of my family, I went back to Google Translate and slowly tried to sound out the words I knew well enough to give an understandable response. Slowly but surely, we had a conversation. We connected.
Our conversation was far from perfect. Even though my words didn’t have the correct accents or followed correct grammar, even though I apologized several times during our conversation and had to ask her several times to explain what she meant, my insecurities didn’t matter because we were finally communicating, which is a great deal more than I had ever accomplished.
I have always thought that to meet the rest of my family in Vietnam, I would have to wait until we saved enough money to go back. I know it probably won’t be until my parents retire that they would be willing to return to the land they left so long ago. But until then, I can show my mom how her sister is doing, how much her nieces and nephews have grown, and make up for lost time through Facebook. I can learn about the puzzle pieces that I thought I would never find, and reconnect with a culture that I never fully connected with in the first place. It’s more than I could ever ask for.
Trang Tran is a junior at Gonzaga University double-majoring in Sociology and English with a writing concentration and minoring in Business. She hopes to become a lawyer one day to help others and to be financially stable so she can take her family to Vietnam. Trang’s dream is to reunite her mom and an aunt who have not seen each other since they were 19.