Life without language: all the ideas, thoughts, and emotions present, but unable to be expressed. This is how I picture my grandfather when he first immigrated to America with my grandmother and their nine children. Lost, he wanders around, hoping to bump into someone who can understand him. He raises his own children to know Vietnamese and hopes his future grandchildren would also be connected to the language of their ancestors. But when I form my lips into unnatural shapes to speak these words, they come out pathetically.
I cannot speak Vietnamese.
As a child, the conversations between me and my grandfather consisted of feeble attempts at speaking each other’s language. Only a couple of familiar words could momentarily break the wall that divided us. Whenever I visited his house, I exchanged a shaky “Chào ông” for his heavily accented “He-llo,” and ran off before the shame from my inability to understand could affect me.
At the time, I was unaware of the synchronized rhythm that beats in the hearts of me, my father, and my grandfather. My grandfather loves playing the violin. Although he is not classically trained and can hardly keep a beat, he loves it and I can sense it every time he plays. When my family came to America, my father struggled to adjust as any teenage immigrant would. Vietnamese was confined to his family’s home and English was difficult to learn, so instead, he picked up the guitar and taught himself how to play “Yesterday” by the Beatles. Forty years later, he claims he still cannot get it down perfectly. On the piano in our living room, he sings in broken English…
“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…”
Like my grandfather, music is a part of my father’s design. By the unchangeable threads of heredity, I was also fated to have a connection to music, just like them. And it was music that could break the language barrier between me and my grandfather.
A single sheet of music sat in front of me. It was a beautiful piece, no doubt, but we, the All-State Senior Band, were playing it without any emotion. After a couple of unsuccessful run-throughs of this piece entitled “Hometown,” our guest conductor Samuel Hazo told us to look at measure thirty-three, reflect on a personal memory that reminded us of that part, and write about it right there on our sheet music. Soon after instructing us to do the same in the other parts of the piece, everyone’s sheet music was filled with our lives in the form of tiny scribbles between the lines of melodies. When we played the piece again, we were finally able to “sing our life stories,” as Mr. Hazo would call it. Every musical phrase became a vessel for retelling our most precious memories: stories of first loves and recollections of childhood memories. No one had to say a single word.
There in the music, I finally spoke to my grandparents. As I played measure thirty-three, I pictured them sitting there on that boat in the middle of the ocean, holding onto a faint glimmer of hope for a new life in America, looking for their own new “hometown.” I said “thank you” for their courage to come to the strange and unknown America and “sorry” for being unable to speak Vietnamese. After the concert that night, I received a bigger hug than usual from them and I knew that they had heard and understood me. Being a part of a family and culture is more than just knowing the language. Emotions are enough to make words unnecessary. In my family, we speak three different languages: Vietnamese, the language of our origin, English, the language of our new home, and music to connect everything together.
“I like that Quan shares a piece of his life and one of his passions that we may not have known otherwise with us in the essay: music. He ties his innate love of music back to his family and makes a really powerful connection between music and language. He captures the reader’s attention from the first few sentences by weaving the story of his family into an expansion on one of his favorite activities. You really get a taste of how passionate he is about music and that it is something he would share with our JHU community. Quan provides us with a window into some of what he values most in life—family, his cultural heritage, and music— and what he would bring to our student body.”
—Johns Hopkins Undergraduate Admissions Committee