Being both Vietnamese and Korean, but having grown up in America, I have a strange relationship with the English language and my mother-tongue Vietnamese. Because I was blessed to grow up with my grandmother who knew only enough English to order some of her favorite foods (i.e., hamburger–preferably a Big Mac), I learned enough Vietnamese to allow me to understand the gist of most stories told around the dinner table, but not enough to ever allow me to be a diplomat (unless said diplomat was being asked to take out the garbage). I never learned to read Vietnamese until I went to college, and it was there that I discovered several things.
#1. The reason I had such a difficult time understanding my newly arrived cousins wasn’t because there was something wrong with me (though some might disagree), but because they had a Southern Vietnamese accent, and I had been raised with my grandmother’s Northern Vietnamese dialect. My grandmother survived not only the emigration from Vietnam to America (see my previous post Flight), but also a harrowing escape from northern Vietnam to southern Vietnam because of the Communists.
#2. The other revelation to me was how I even came to be born. Now, normally, taking a language class does not prompt a discussion regarding existentialism, however, having now learned the proper pronunciation for words and phrases that I had heard all of my life, I realized how poor my father’s Vietnamese is, which led me to wonder how my mother and father managed to have a conversation in those early years, let alone fall in love. Their mutual language had to have been English, which was obviously a 2nd language for both. One phrase which I had heard all my life, and realized later was being mangled every day was the phrase “Mình ơi”. This is a term of endearment similar to honey or sweetheart, and primarily used between husbands and wives. My father pronounces it “Me-noy”, which explains why it took me so long to figure out exactly what he was saying all these years to my mother. When I learned the literal meaning behind the phrase, it made me take a closer look at my family. You see, growing up in a fairly traditional Asian family, compliments and positive feedback are not the norm. We don’t “hug it out” in our family. Children are given nicknames based on practical descriptions: “Little brother, big sister, etc.” And so, when I learned the meaning of “Me-noy”, I was taken aback by how beautiful it is. Mình ơi literally translates into “my self” or “my body”. I was instantly reminded of this verse:
“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be as one flesh.” Genesis 2:24.
Mình ơi is at once beautiful and archaic. It describes what one writer calls “the transcendent unity of husband and wife”, in which you become so much a part of one another, their body is yours and vice versa, while also describing the possessiveness that is inherent in marriage. It pales in comparison to honey or sweetheart in terms of its depth of meaning. Love thyself, or love one another, it is all the same if the true meaning of the phrase is felt.
In one passage from Scripture, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And Peter answers “Yes, I love you” in 3 different ways. What limits us in our understanding of this passage, and why I find the scholarship of the Church’s teaching so helpful, is that in translation from Greek or Latin, the words used for love differ in each sentence. Love of God has a different word from love of neighbor or friend. When translated to English, that meaning is lost as we have only 1 word for love, and thus the subtle nuances of the exchange between Jesus and Peter are lost on us. In the same way, “Me-noy” went from “honey” to something much more meaningful once I understood the significance. There is power in naming something, as it allows us to truly see its nature. When we are able to name an unfamiliar noise as the knocking of a shutter in the wind, it changes our reality and our emotional response. Understanding Mình ơi showed me the depth beneath a life in which sweet words are seldom said. I love you is the dinner my mother cooks for all of us on our birthdays, planned for days in advance. It is the shoveling of the driveway on yet another snowy day, and hours spent knitting socks for feet that grow cold at night. It is that which withstands illness, death, and heartache and transcends the boundaries of our self.
Today I am thankful for languages, spoken and otherwise. I am grateful to have grown up bilingual and multicultural, as it has given me the ability to appreciate all that is unique and wonderful in each world.
Because I love words so much, I wonder what the phrases lovers use in other countries reveals about their culture? I’ve shared a link to an article which lists a few, but please feel free to comment if you have an example of one used in your family or culture:
This article is a lovely one which discusses the meaning of the word “ơi”:
And in response to yesterday’s post about Pi Day, a video response to Pi Day by Vihart, which because it is equally nerdy and snarky, manages not to make me like Pi Day less: