When my daughter was a baby, against all the advice of sleep experts, I rocked her to sleep before I set her in her crib. Back and forth, back and forth, for at least half an hour. Sometimes more. I’d watch the shadows on the walls: great big whales, a frond of a palm tree, a continent creeping slowly past. She’d stare up at me until her lids became heavy and dropped like valances. It was a space neither here nor there; a space for exhaustion, for love.
So maybe that’s why, when I finally set her on her elephant-printed sheets, I’d whisper into her tiny pink shell of an ear, “Mẹ thương con.” I love you. Literally: mother loves child. In the middle of the night, I spoke to my baby in Vietnamese, my native language, because it felt like a bubbling up of intimacy held tight inside of me, the language of dreams and instinct. I wanted to express to her something about our heritage and all the different ways to love a person.
“I love you” is a powerful phrase, but it doesn’t capture the nuance of the relationship between the speaker and the recipient. In English, you need context to define that relationship. But in Vietnamese, using the words mẹ (mother) and con (child), I’m able to be precise about the direction of my love. I’m not speaking to a husband or a mother or a friend. I’m speaking to a child, and not just any child — my child. The Vietnamese phrase, for me, captures something I haven’t found as succinctly in English: the articulation of belonging. It’s another way of saying “I am yours. You are mine.”
When my daughter began to sleep more regularly, no longer requiring my constant rocking, I got my nights back. I turned on reruns of The League while raiding the pantry for snacks. I read books and even wrote a little. But I’d stare at the baby monitor right before I turned off my bedside light, watching as she heaved her tiny body onto her side, worked her mouth around as if she wanted to speak. Mẹ thương con.
I always intended to teach my daughter Vietnamese. I myself have the vocabulary of a five year old, my own language development stopped at the age when I arrived in America, but I figured we’d learn together. Then life happened. Moves across the country, job losses, the everyday care of a small being. We filled our days with extracurriculars and timid attempts at road trips. We read every picture book under the sun. Though she was a verbose child, surprising family members with her vocabulary, I always felt guilty that she only spoke those words in English.
Sometimes, we’d hop on FaceTime with my grandparents, who communicate solely in Vietnamese. They asked her how she was doing, told her what a cute thing she was. They called her their “cục vàng,” their gold nugget. They loved her so deeply that it was clear they tried to cram that adoration into every phone call, cooing all the worn and beloved phrases they’d stored up for her, their first great-grandchild.
Though she smiled vacantly, I knew she couldn’t understand a word. That troubled me. I began introducing small phrases to her: “Hello,” and “Thank you,” and “May I have a glass of water?” She parroted them back neatly, though it was rare that she retained them. We practiced with my family during those FaceTime calls. They clapped, delighted. “Her accent is better than yours!” they said.
One day, as we were at the breakfast table, I absentmindedly recited a few Vietnamese words to her as I packed her lunch. Sữa for “milk”; tóc for “hair;” ba for “dad” and mẹ for “mom.”
She wondered, “How do you say I love you?”
I should have expected the question, but I didn’t. Her interest in learning Vietnamese up to this point was very casual.
I told her, “You would say: Con thương mẹ.” A reversal of the construction I used to whisper in her ear at bedtime. A phrase I’d say to my mother as a way to end our calls.
She paused in the middle of spearing a strawberry. She smiled at me. “Okay. Con thương mẹ.”
It felt strange, hearing those words, like a camera shutter going off. Because the sentence construction depends on a child speaking to a mother, I’d never before had those words delivered to me. And they did feel like a delivery, a parceled gift resting before my heart. I stared at her, almost afraid to move, afraid to break the moment that felt so pregnant with emotion. Those were the words I’d been waiting for, without ever knowing it.
“Con thương mẹ,” she said again. Testing the phrase.
“Mẹ thương con,” I said back, my voice shaking just slightly. Out of gratitude? Perhaps in the relief of knowing that this thread between us hasn’t been irrevocably lost.
Throughout the coming days, she’d shout the words to me as she was going to bed or out the sliding glass doors to play in the backyard. Every time she did, I’d stop what I was doing and let the words sink into my ears. They never ceased feeling like a gift, packaged carefully just for me.
These days, I’m taking Vietnamese language lessons through a little app with a robotic voice in a Northern dialect. It’s humbling, going back to the basics like this. Because of regional differences between South, Central, and North Vietnam, some of the words — even the simplest ones, like how to say “yes” — are new to me. I’m realizing anew how much there is to learn.
I mutter phrases aloud as I wash my face, as I make my coffee. “Xin lỗi, bà có hiểu tiếng Việt, không?” Excuse me, ma’am, do you understand Vietnamese? My daughter watches me curiously. I’m sure she wonders why I need to relearn a language I’d once spoken regularly, my first language. I don’t tell her, not yet, that sometimes meaning gets lost. You have to deliberately choose reclamation.
Sometimes, I get frustrated, because my mind can’t catch up to what’s in my heart. I use the wrong words or I muddle my syntax. It happens on FaceTime calls, my family corrects me, muffling their laughter. I feel like a toddler again, fumbling with expressing myself. Wanting to throw a tantrum. I constantly want to shift back to English, where I am much more confident and proficient. But doing so feels like escaping to another island, waving across the way to my family, marooned on their own island. I want us to sit together in the same place, speaking the same language.
My daughter, seeing me struggle, says, “You can do this! I believe in you.” It’s what I say to her when she’s taken a while to solve a math problem, her lip quivering in annoyance. Then she says, like a kind of stalwart benediction, “Con thương mẹ.”
They say love transcends language, and maybe that’s true. But language, when used with intention, can sharpen the connections between us, illuminating spaces that may be forgotten, as well as the paths to carry us forward.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins. Follow her on Instagram and sign up for her newsletter.