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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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The Truth About the Fact: A Journal of Literary Nonfiction is an international journal committed to the idea that excellence in the art of letters can play a vital role in transforming the planet we share.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A letter to Pleiku, Vietnam:

The truth is you will never read this. You will never read this for two simple reasons: (1) I don’t speak or write in Vietnamese and (2) you haven’t learned to read much English yet, aside from the two or three words and phrases you, for some reason, remember most from our classes (hello; ball; and ‘it is a book’).

So no, today you can’t read this but you might be able to someday, given that you keep up your English schooling and practice as often as you can. I want you to learn, I really do, but you will never know how difficult this experience has been for me on a moral level. As I walk into your classroom everyday, all 20 of you wide-eyed and mischievous, only ten years old but ready to take on the world, my heart does something weird and almost inexplicable. I lose my breath. Not only because 20 of the most beautiful and challenging little humans I have ever encountered surround me in wobbly desks but also because I am holding something profound in my hands: an English book. This book, keeper of the world’s most dominant language, is “gold,” as the Vietnamese nuns we are staying with tell me. They say it is the key to your future; I see that it’s also the knife that is slowly cutting the threads that bind you to your mother tongue: J’rai. Every time we celebrate your ability to memorize a new word and use it in a sentence, I feel a hurricane of happiness because I am so proud of you… but it never comes without the eye: the sadness and guilt. At only ten years old you are so far from your native culture and family, away in a world where you feel condemnation for your culture and skin color. Your brain is plastic, stretching and expanding with everything you learn, but at the same time expelling your neglected mother tongue with your culture inherently wrapped up in it.

I want to tell you not to neglect this but to nurture it instead. The thing is this: you don’t have control. But I do; I have a little control. So in class we drew pictures of our families and wrote “mother” and “father” below their colorful, stick figure bodies. What the nuns don’t know is that we also wrote “amĭ” and “ama” below the stick figures: “mother” and “father” in Jarai.

You wanted Western culture: break dancing and beat-boxing lessons and the lyrics to Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.” I was more than happy to share that with you. So we danced during breaks and I beatboxed while you windmilled, freezeframed, and spun on your heads. But after classes you would teach me traditional Jarai dances. You sang and whistled the tune and brought me down to my knees so that you could stand above me and guide my arms around in the wake of yours.

I try to embrace yours but it just keeps coming back to mine. My Western culture.

Another truth for you is that I don’t know how to finish this letter. There is so much to say to you… yet you will not read this. Should I finish it even though you cannot read it? Does it matter?

All I can say is that when you ask me in your broken English if I’ll be back someday and I tell you yes, that I desperately want come back to see you and that I will try my hardest, I really do mean it. I mean it from the very depths of me.

But as we say goodbye and I get in the van and watch you grow smaller and smaller, dust in your faces as you wave your little hands, my breath again leaves me. And a hot tear drips down my face and onto the calla lily you gave me that now sits in my lap.

Just know this: I really did mean it.

Mallory Massie


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