Lost in Translation by Nam Hoang Tran
For the better part of my youth, I got the prestigious French culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu, confused with Corbin Bleu, Zac Efron’s co-star from High School Musical. The names had been thrown around within my friend group and, before I knew it, they were being used interchangeably. I found it difficult to think otherwise when everything made so much sense in my head. Here was a budding basketball star who ditched his life’s passion for a fresh bowl of linguini and some Concombre a la Menthe, a fancy term for cucumber salad with mint. That is to say America can be a confusing place, and even more so for those who arrived from elsewhere.
Take my grandmother for example, a woman of almost ninety who thought Shirley Temple was a religious landmark and Betty White was a color variant, no different than, say, lime green or baby blue. Part of the disconnect lies in a differing set of circumstances. Raised in 1930s Vietnam, she grew up during a time when the only way to comprehend life was to actually go out and live it. Now at the tail end of things and residing in a foreign place, my grandmother prefers the safety of her room. This can be tricky considering the main sources of stimuli are eavesdrops gathered from neighbors and passersby. And without the aid of visual references to ground these nuggets of information, Grandma must resort to the only way she knows how to make sense of things: by incorporating personal knowledge and experiences.
We were in the checkout line at a local Whole Foods when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a group of teens Crip walking in the parking lot. They were filming a music video, but because that was a foreign concept to Grandma, she tapped my shoulder and asked if the boys had some sort of psychological disorder.
“What they do there?”
“Don’t mind them,” I said, placing a hand upon her shoulder. “They are Crip walking, that’s all.”
A response which elicited a contorted expression as if I’d asked her to balance atop a bed of hot coal on stilts.
“David, what is Crip?”
And without hesitation, I told her it was a rival group of the Bloods. Fifteen minutes were spent explaining that besides the red liquid coursing through our veins, blood, when capitalized, denoted a notorious African American street gang. I even threw up the sign for good measure and she told me to enjoy the finger dexterity before old age came around and hit my ass with carpal tunnel. Grandma’s sense of humor was one of the reasons I enjoyed spending time with her. Besides the obvious familial closeness, I derived great pleasure in seeing my grandmother’s reaction to things I had otherwise taken for granted.
United by our mutual disinterest in sports, Grandma and I spent Super Bowl Sunday watching the live-action Aladdin movie. The one with a fifty-seven percent on Rotten Tomatoes and where Will Smith’s Genie resembled a humanoid blueberry with muscles. It would’ve been a different story had we seen the original, animated version. However, because all events were portrayed by real people, this led her to believe that everyone from the Middle East owned a sweater-vested capuchin monkey and traveled upon flying pieces of cloth. Attempting to explain CGI was out of the question, therefore I resorted to nodding each time she asked whether the carpet had decent gas mileage.
Not long after Grandma’s introduction to America we welcomed John, my forty-five-year-old uncle who enjoyed carbonated beverages and playing Sudoku. He was newly divorced after being caught feeding another woman an olive from his martini. Uncle John emigrated to the United States under the impression that it was some sort of Promised Land. A place he could start anew with better Wi-Fi connectivity and hamburgers the size of microwave ovens. Of course, it is perfectly normal to want things in a place of such abundance as America. The only catch being unless one is equipped with the appropriate vernacular, these amenities shall remain unattainable even if they are but an arm’s reach away. One cannot stand motionless within a restaurant and expect the desired menu items to just magically appear, right?
Uncle John learned this concept first hand when, upon requesting to be “surrounded by American girls,” found himself being driven twenty miles to the nearest nightclub. All was fine and dandy until a woman across the club caught his attention. As I discussed the correlation between house music and alcoholism with a drunk guy, my uncle attempted to communicate that he wanted to bring this woman home. She was in her late thirties, dirty blonde, and doing what appeared to be a variation of the macarena. After approaching and standing still for several minutes, my uncle pointed at her, then created a roof shape by joining his fingertips together at forty-five-degree angles. She must’ve thought he was calling her “big as a house” because she sent him waddling back with a crushed dream and face full of margarita.
“Any luck tonight?”
“Nada,” he replied. “Uncle John wet.”
“Please tell me you didn’t do that weird finger thing.”
Having been raised within an immigrant household, I’ve learned there is no greater test of character than helping older generations navigate the American landscape. Even greater, though, is the satisfaction which comes with successfully pulling it off. Grandma is advancing slower than Uncle John but progress is still progress. While there’s much work to be had, I find myself daydreaming of the day Grandma is able to handle the Ikea food court all on her own. There she’ll be, returning with Swedish meatballs in hand and the biggest smile across her face. I, too, will smile. Overcome by the joy of watching a loved one maneuver, albeit slowly, this once strange and wonderful place she now calls home.
Nam Hoang Tran is a writer living in Orlando, FL. His work appears or is forthcoming in The Daily Drunk, White Wall Review, Bending Genres, (mac)ro(mic), Rejection Letters, and elsewhere. Find him online at www.namhtran.com.