One time I was sitting in my college’s dining hall discussing some of the words my momentary dinner buddy still remembered from his trip to Vietnam. Because Vietnamese is a tonal language and English is “tone-deaf,” his renditions were very amusing. At one point, I wound up differentiating the word for bridge in Vietnamese (cầu) from the (derogatory) word overseas Vietnamese get called in-country: Việt kiều. In the process of teaching him this, I recognized similarities that I didn’t expect: these two Vietnamese words had parallels in Chinese: cầu:橋 and kiều:僑.
Because I’ve been educated in the United States since pre-school, I have pretty embarrassing native language skills. What I’ve maintained is partially due to my dad, who had the sense to send me to Chinese school every weekend at 8 in the morning instead of letting me watch cartoons. So I recognized these basic words and saw the difference is that the former word is made with the radical for wood (木) and the latter is made with a person (人).
Even though Việt kiều is not something I want to be called, this image of a bridge, especially a human bridge, is very powerful for me. When we talk about building (human) bridges, we may be referring to the potential ties that people build between nations, between cultures, all the way down to the ground level: relationships between individuals and bi-national couples. At an economic level there are human bridges connecting global work/economic relationships, which the new international division of labor depends on, but also everyday people and families through remittances, charity, and (let’s not forget our privileges) the goods that fill our stores. And, like a bridge, these people carry burdens at personal costs, whether as a result of human trafficking, separated families, xenophobia, inadequate labor protections, or immigration policies.
In a different way, I feel like multiple bridges. I may not be Chicana, but I too feel that I am living in the borderlands, the working class within the ivory tower, the immigrant in the heartland. I admit that I’m proud of the advocacy work I’ve done in the past decade, and even more so the people I’ve been blessed to proactively and peacefully fight alongside. I don’t regret any of it, even when I felt like I failed, but as Donna Kate Rushin put it, “I do more translating/Than the Gawdamn U.N.” She ends “The Bridge Poem” with some of my favorite words:
The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
My own weaknesses
I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
I will be useful
I will begin my Walker Odyssey year with her words translated into my own language. She wrote “The Bridge Poem.” I write a Bridge blog. I have entitled my blog “Việt cầu” as a pun and reclamation of “Việt kiều.” This word choice (wooden bridge rather than human bridge) is not a distancing away from our humanity or a disembodying experience. Rather, it is an opportunity to connect to other beings without feeling burdened. This year is my bridge to a fuller appreciation of the Vietnamese diaspora experience.That said I don’t want to make this a study of the exoticized Other; I’d like to compare my gendered experience to that of the Vietnamese in Taiwanese, and to see how globalization has manifested at the ground level, to understand the interaction as well as the disjuncture, the structures down to the individuals. I am also considering spending some time in Vietnam and Australia. As for impact, I aim to be useful to the people I interact with, to give as much as I take, and to be conscious of my place and the space I take up. Finally and ultimately I hope this year, this fellowship is a bridge to self: for me to have and take some time for me, to learn about myself and where I want to go next.
I invite you to come along with me.