The Dominance of Language in Meditations on the Mother Tongue

The Southern melting pot of language and culture often appears more like a salad chopped into historical time periods. The scattered ingredients, often too easily picked out, generate a simplified version of our identity. When considering the subject of shared history and tradition, people mention the millions of European immigrants passing through Ellis Island, Africans kidnapped and enslaved on plantations, and the more recent cultural shift of Latinos migrating to work low-wage construction or manufacturing jobs. Rarely are specific nationalities, or other expatriate communities acknowledged, leaving a multitude of Southern immigrants disregarded. Until An Tran, a Virginian writer of Vietnamese decent, confronts the topic unapologetically in his collection of short stories.

Meditations on the Mother Tongue presents an elegant point of view and descriptive style that sheds light on the struggle to find an identity within a region that has largely forgotten other subsets of immigrants. Using his Vietnamese heritage paired with American citizenship, his stories push the reader to recognize a generation’s detachment and reconnection to their native culture and their local home. His chosen method of demonstrating this dichotomy lies within his focus on language – the “mother tongue.”

Tran opens the collection with its namesake, “Meditations on the Mother Tongue.” The story follows Bao, the son of Vietnamese immigrants, as he struggles to uphold the founding ideals of his culture and to understand his parents’ native language. The story brings light to the similarity between words within the Vietnamese language. For instance, xahn means green, but it can also mean blue. “We just say xahn like the sky or xahn like the leaves,” Bao explains. Ma is another example, as it can mean “mother” or “ghost,” depending on its pronunciation. Tran creates a puzzle using these two words, as Bao sees a ghost that wears blue around his home. When he visits his mother in the nursing home, she wears green. This draws a connection between the fading existence of Bao’s native culture and the future ghost that it will produce in his life – an emptiness within emptiness.

“The Message of My Skin” also resonates similarly, using a different linguistic vehicle. Instead of focusing on the spoken word, this story challenges the reader to look at physical appearances and how different people interpret them. The story concentrates on a linguistics expert hired to decode the language of squids by observing the ever-changing colors on their bodies. While he goes by Tom When, his birth name is Tam Nguyen. Already, Tran sets the tone of a man living in disguise. Even his troubled brother has fallen into the same pattern, going by Connor instead of Cung. As Tom studies the patterns of the dominant squid’s flesh, he begins noticing how other people see his skin. When Tom visits a bar with a white coworker, the bartender has a nasty attitude, and Tom translates the bartender’s reactions as perceiving him as a traitor to Asian culture. This exchange serves as a catalyst for Tom, as he discovers the empowerment he can draw from his heritage. After this encounter, Tom begins asserting his own dominance like the dominant squid. When Conner owes a local pool player money, Tom unleashes his aggression on him, using his native Vietnamese language and secret physical prowess to enforce this rediscovered strength and empowerment. Later, he does the same to his brother. Anyone who questions Tom’s reactions receives his aggressive use of the Vietnamese language.

“Prophecy” follows the story of Anna as she and her husband navigate the difficulties of parenting a terminally ill child. As Anna attempts to find her way through the treacherous territory of balancing doctors’ appointments and her child’s symptoms, her husband eventually reveals that she has lost her son in the translation of medical lingo. In replacing her son’s favorite colors and superheroes with blood types and allergies, she has accidentally labeled him as more of a patient and stress factor than as her human child. While deciphering between the few bits of terminology that Anna understands and the many phrases that she doesn’t, the pressure grows and diminishes her child’s personhood further. This story demonstrates the anxiety that can overtake the listener when he or she doesn’t fully understand the weight of the words spoken to them. It also explores how attempting to fit humans into labeled files can devalue their existence. Even though this particular story does not tackle the hardships of two separate languages, it does beautifully exemplify the struggle of understanding language and appreciating individualism, a theme that resonates so loudly here in the South.

Mediations on the Mother Tongue explores the aspects of an immigrant’s relationship between the South and native culture. With each story, Tran combines acceptance of one’s heritage with an appreciation for the present, surrounding culture. An Tran uses the human experiences of his characters to make Southern readers empathize with other real and different people. He also challenges them to include their struggles within the conversation of Southern heritage and history, while pointing out that native Southerners enjoy the privilege of being multi-generational immigrants already involved in the discussion of history. Yet, those with little generational space find it difficult to carve their own niche of recognition in a culture dominated by its history. In nurturing the cultural heydays of the past so attentively, we neglect the glistening facets of our current diamond of diversity. Tran suggests that his readers polish both gems with equal fervency.