Learning English with a drawl

We were Vietnamese refugees. ‘Mr. Water’ was our texas landlord.

Tee Ee/AP
Vietnamese boat people wade ashore from overloaded boats in Malaysia. From 1975 to 1997, some 840,000 Vietnam- ese arrived in United Nations refugee camps in Southeast Asia. Most were eventually resettled abroad.

“Latarata, gout tetenen he!” the overweight older man sitting in a wheelchair shouted through the screen door of his house when he saw us. The incoherence was exacerbated by the voice, a gravelly smoker’s baritone. What I heard didn’t sound like the English I had been learning in a refugee camp where I’d been only weeks earlier. In the mid-1980s, when I was 12, my Vietnamese family immigrated to a small town in Texas.

The man in the wheelchair was our landlord. Earlier in the day, we had moved into his rental house, one yard over. Before we finished unpacking, my father said the seven of us – me, my parents, two teenage brothers, and two older sisters – needed to go over to introduce ourselves. 

As a sprightly, friendly-looking woman burst out from behind the screen door, our landlord abruptly wheeled his chair away from us. At the other end of his porch, he erupted into a long rant. Our landlady explained that her husband had expected only five adult tenants, not seven – and not any teenagers. But we had left him no choice by revealing this fact only after we had already moved in. The drawn-out legato of her Texas lilt was surprisingly clear and slow enough for me to understand most of what she said. “Welcome, anyway,” she said. “Y’all are the first Oriental tenants we’ve had. My name is Loretta. My husband’s is Walter.”

But we never called them by those names. I could barely make out that tiny “l” sound wedged in the middle of “Walter.” Most likely, my parents didn’t hear it at all. We followed my father’s lead and addressed our landlord as “Mr. Water.” 

It was unthinkable for any of us, including my parents, to refer to an adult without a title. Anh, Chu, Bac, and Ong  were but a few of the designations for an older man in Vietnamese. In English there was only “mister.” 

As for Loretta, her name was three unfamiliar sounds too many, and unlike “Walter,” “Loretta” had no approximation to a common English word. We called her “Mrs. Water.”

After that first meeting, I became the deliverer of rent and messages concerning home repairs. Since Mrs. Water deferred most home-maintenance questions to her husband, I ended up talking primarily with Mr. Water. In school, when confronted with the chasm between my thoughts and my ability to express them in English, I either stayed quiet or spoke only the minimum required. But with Mr. Water, I had neither choice. While using my limited English to explain mechanical complications I did not fully understand, I could sense his agitation rising as my English began to sound increasingly Vietnamese. Abruptly, Mr. Water would put up his hand. I understood the none-too-subtle signal that he’d had enough of my mangled English.

“I just have to see for myself what happened.” That was my cue to rush ahead to alert everyone in our house of his arrival. In the seven years that we were his tenants, this scene would repeat countless times. Sometime during these frantic, fear-
inducing back-and-forth interactions, I comprehended for the first time the sentence that had greeted our arrival. It was:
“Loretta, come out! The tenants are here!” 

People often ask me when I first realized I could speak English well. The exact moment is hard to pin down, but it was certainly during one of these exchanges with Mr. Water. In my path to becoming an American, in large part by mastering this lingua franca of our modern world, I owe much to the gruff Texan for giving me the most effective ear-training exercise an English-language learner could ever have asked for.

The author has written a new memoir, ’Of Monkey Bridges and Bánh Mì Sandwiches: from Sài Gòn to Texas.’

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