Speak Up

Speak Up

Thu-Mai Tran makes her acting debut as Mai. (Photo courtesy of Kiet Le-Van)

In the film 'Dust of Life,' set in Westminster, the words people use and the languages they speak establish their rank and authority over others.

The mother refers to herself in Vietnamese as "tao," indicating her authority, and addresses her daughter as "my," which designates Mai as subordinate to her.

This article was first published on June 14, 2007, in LA Language World.

Language can be used to assert authority, superiority, and dominance, especially over immigrants who speak a different language. It can establish or nullify rank on the street or in households. These are some of the lessons of Dust of Life, a movie directed by UCLA alum Kiet Le-Van, which premiered at the Vietnamese International Film Festival (VIFF) this April at UC Irvine. It portrays the lives of the teenage children of Vietnamese families in Westminster, Calif.

A biennial festival established in October 2003 by two non-profits, VIFF showcases cinematic works by filmmakers of Vietnamese descent. This year Dust of Life was given the honor of the final screening on closing night.

Le-Van sees the movie's characters as members of two lost generations. Vietnamese refugees suffered through tragic experiences as "boat people" to find themselves alienated both from society and from their children. The children are forced through a tough process of assimilation into American life. The characters' difficulties and conflicts often reveal themselves in their use of language.

In one scene, Mai's mother finds her daughter climbing through the window after sneaking out to be with her boyfriend.

Mother (in Vietnamese): "What were you doing!"

Mai (in English): "I was at a friend's house, we were studying, we lost track of time. I didn't want to wake anybody up."

Mother (in Vietnamese, sneering): "Do you think I'm stupid?"

The alternation of languages itself suggests these characters' difficulties understanding each other. In particular, though, the use of pronouns in English and Vietnamese shows in more depth how each character views herself relative to the other person.

Mai Khanh protrays a woman struggling to understand her daughter. (Photo courtesy of Kiet Le-Van)

Instead of personal pronouns such as "I" or "you," Vietnamese speakers use terms of address depending upon whom they are speaking to. In Vietnamese culture, because Mai's mother is older, she assumes the right to superior rank and respect.  The mother refers to herself in Vietnamese as tao, indicating her authority, and addresses her daughter as mày, which designates Mai as subordinate to her. If Mai had responded in Vietnamese, she would have to address her mother by the pronoun con, used by offspring to address their parents, submitting to the subordinate status her mother has given her. Lien Vu, a graduate student in anthropology and Vietnamese cinema at UC Irvine, points out that Vietnamese speakers' use of language constantly reiterates relationships, particularly family and social ties. Vu attributes pronoun use to Confucian values demanding respect for parents and elders.

Mai's mother, who has difficulties with English and feels like an outsider in American society, uses Vietnamese pronouns to remind her daughter of her seniority. By contrast, Mai rejects the hierarchy implicit in the use of Vietnamese, and speaks English, giving herself a status equal to her mother's, if not higher.

The use of language to establish authority can also be seen when the police question Johnny, the film's main character. They mispronounce his Vietnamese name, "Huy," but although their conversation is in English, when Johnny objects to their taking his picture, a police officer asks, "Can't speak English and you're telling us about the law?" associating, in spite of evidence, Johnny's ethnicity with an ignorance of English and questioning his right to challenge authority.

In Dust of Life, language is used to establish status and belonging, both among strangers and family members, and to alienate them from one another. During Mai's argument with her mother, the alternation of English and Vietnamese shows not only the shifting dominance of each language between generations but also the mother's attempt to assert authority and Mai's rejection of the deference inherent in Vietnamese pronouns. Likewise, the police officers' comments about Huy's knowledge of English suggest that whatever they say to him in English strengthens their authority over him. In each case, Le-Van offers a vivid picture of language as a battleground and of immigrants' difficulty in feeling a sense of belonging, even in their own families.

Published: Friday, October 19, 2007