“It’s a very difficult language for them,” Jane explained. “Cambodians, for instance, have an easier time learning English than the Vietnamese. English has so many sounds that don’t exist in Vietnamese, and vice versa. Even when it seems to them that they’re saying it right, it can be hard for an American to understand them.
“We teach classes entirely in English here. And what we teach you might call survival English—how to read signs, understand grocery advertisements, get on a bus. It makes no point trying to teach grammar and parsing sentences to someone who can’t read a Fire Escape sign.”
She pointed out something else. “Do you notice,” she asked, “how the younger children walk compared with the older ones? Like Americans, with free-swinging steps instead of the smaller, tighter steps the older ones learned in Vietnam. And they don’t squat down on their haunches the way the older ones do. They’re becoming more and more Americanized.”
A MONTH LATER, while writing this story back in Washington, D. C., I see on TV that a group of Ku Klux Klan members in Texas have burned a mock Vietnamese fishing boat in effigy, just before the start of the spring shrimping season. The image of the Klansmen with their torches and white hoods burns into my mind like a branding iron. What must the wanderers from Vung Tau be thinking as they watch the evening news in Biloxi? But, then, terror is nothing new to them. They’ve rarely lived without it.
I think of the little Vietnamese girl in Gorenflo Elementary School. Her words ring in my inner ear: “We don’t scare. . . .”
I remember, too, Ba Van Nguyen’s boat number three out there on the Biloxi waterfront, emerging ghostlike from the fog, its lines as graceful as a gull in flight.
And I wonder . . . I wish I didn’t but I do . . . has the exodus of the wanderers from Vung Tau ended yet?