The Half & Half Experience, Reviewed
April 17, 2023 / Hayle Chen
After grappling with my Chinese and Vietnamese identities and the feelings of inadequacy in my native languages, I now see what I always have been: two marvelous halves of a whole.
The events at the Tower of Babel have always been akin to a horror story to me.
It’s written in Genesis that God, in response to humans building a tower tall enough to reach the heavens, confounded language so people could no longer communicate with each other. Humanity, duly chastised, was then scattered across the face of the earth, never to speak the same tongue ever again. Though this story — recounted by a Vietnamese nun — was a blip on the radar of my expansive theological education, I was always intensely troubled by the implications of a universal language. That at one point, we could have all understood each other and with a swipe of a hand, that connection vanished. To me, it seemed we’d lost our chance at unity before I was ever born.
Languages have always been deeply personal to me. I pick them up like children do bad habits — enthusiastically, expeditiously, and at first covertly. There’s something intensely satisfying about bridging that linguistic divide, learning the nuances of somebody else’s native tongue and communicating with them in earnest. When the weight of the world feels like a burden upon my shoulders, I impulsively turn to a new language; I find comfort in immersing myself in the unknown, cleaving it open until its secrets are bared.
My life has never been absent of a multitude of languages: I’m a half-Chinese half-Vietnamese American woman. I was born into a heritage embroiled in shifting dialects, distinct accents, and foreign phrases. I’m all the better for it; I’m deeply insecure because of it. Growing up, I was caught between two ethnic worlds where it was paradoxically assumed I’d innately know my native languages and assumed that it was too difficult for me to comprehend them at all. Being two disparate halves of a whole was a fate I didn’t know I’d endure.
These experiences formed me, and though they haven’t yet come to a head — still shaping me as I grow — I do find gratification in reflecting upon them. I’ve too long internalized them.
But no longer — here’s the half-and-half experience, reviewed.
The Fourth of July
I used to believe that summer trips to Nebraska were trips to Vietnam, because all my Vietnamese family members — the Bui side — lived there.
For most of my childhood, it felt like the entire year culminated during the week of the Fourth of July, when my family would take the 11-hour trek to Lincoln where nine of my mother’s siblings lived.
I’ve always viewed the holiday as particularly resplendent. Upon our arrival, the exclamation by the multitude of Buis that “the Chens are here!” made me feel cherished. There was an easy magic that existed when life’s focus was the events of a singular holiday. I reveled in the annual family talent shows conducted in an aunt’s garage, the buffet tables lined with an exorbitant mix of ethnic foods, and the anticipation of the next explosion of sound as fireworks lit the sky.
As I grew older — when the summer trips became more sporadic — I realized how often I felt more glaringly a Chen than a Bui. In car rides to grab more firecrackers, an older cousin’s head would whip at me in shock when they realized I was laughing because I understood the Vietnamese joke.
Wide smiles and patronizing warm eyes greeted me anytime I spoke the simplest of words: cảm ơn (thank you) or cơm (rice). When I ran into an aunt, I would dutifully greet her with a “chào Bác” and she would still be taken aback that I could properly execute Vietnamese greeting customs. They seemed delighted that a Chinese girl like me could successfully pick up a little Vietnamese.
It feels like a betrayal — an intrusive thought — but for many years when the holiday would roll around, I would think of how different it would be if I was a Bui and not a Chen.
I don’t wish for it, but do wonder if life would be simpler that way.
I give the Fourth of July three and a half stars.
At some point in my life, I definitely knew Mandarin. There’s a blurry video of me screaming in Chinese at a toy train as it rounds the plastic tracks that can attest to the fact. It was my grandparents’ doing.
During the long summer months, before I attended school, my Ye Ye and Nai Nai traveled from their home in Australia to stay with my family. I recall the memories hazily: the brightly-colored flimsy plastic poster boards filled with Chinese numbers and common phrases being a constant fixture as I sounded out words to my eager grandparents. I delighted in spitballing numbers up to 100 and singing Chinese nursery rhymes about climbing a mountain and finding squirrels. But as soon as those summers ended, so did my Mandarin education.
Except, when I was 10 years old, my siblings and I started attending Chinese school every weekend. Packed into the family car, I endured the lengthy commute to spend my Sunday afternoon between four walls where I was mind-numbingly incompetent, abysmally inept. Those summers and the knowledge I reaped within them had all but faded with time. Sitting and staring blankly at the combination of pinyin and Chinese characters that scored the pages of my textbooks each class — amongst the Level One 6-year-olds — was my personal hell.
For every pop quiz where I traced a character and secretly felt a proud thrill at my success, I would silently curse my father’s decision not to speak to me in Chinese when I was younger. In defiance to the sudden enrollment, I would refuse to complete my homework and then feign innocent confusion when it came time to turn it in.
When the end-of-course ceremony eventually happened, I received a trophy. To this day, I don’t remember what it says — I’m honestly not sure if I ever read the inscription. I do remember the acrid shame I felt when I realized I received something for doing nothing. That I didn’t even try to learn.
For an incredibly long time after, I pretended the course never existed, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, I was never signed up for the next level. I don’t remember what I learned in that class, but I can still recite those Chinese nursery rhymes.
I give Mandarin class two stars.
Bac Trang’s House
Sometimes when the blinds are closed and the sunlight streams through the shutters at exactly the right angle, I’m whisked back to my childhood where I couldn’t differentiate Vietnamese from English even if I tried. My godmother and aunt (Bac Trang to me), who more comfortably speaks Vietnamese, raised me for a significant portion of my life while my parents worked. Since my infancy, I was rocked to sleep with the comforting lilt of Vietnamese words, taken on adventures in the park where I was given instructions that were only half English before I could run off, and sat down at the dinner table to eat traditional Vietnamese dishes.
Every “yes, con” further cemented the language into my psyche.
It was within that home that my ability to understand the Vietnamese language was born. It’s why I know more Vietnamese than my siblings, why I’m the translator, why I always admit that yeah, but I know more Vietnamese than I know Chinese.
I give Bac Trang’s house four-and-a-half stars.
On the annual visits I would take to a pediatric orthopedic hospital during my elementary-school years, I was always buzzing with anticipation to leave because I knew Caravelle awaited me after.
The homecoming would always occur around the winter holidays: exhausted from a day of clinical poking and prodding, I would blearily stare out the window as my parents and I arrived at what I classified as the ultimate culinary experience. The restaurant was never bustling on a weekday, and the ballroom layout – fit for the wedding receptions that were hosted there – made the lack of customers seem even more insurmountable. But that never mattered, because I knew that the cod, green beans, steak cubes, and bowls of white rice would arrive on pretty dishes, tantalizing as I scooped a portion from each onto my plate.
For all the merit the restaurant deserves for its food, what was more valuable was the waitress that served our trio each year. A woman who never seemed to age arrived like clockwork as we sat down. She would volley in Mandarin with my dad, asking him about his life and family, and then proceed — to my consistent shock — to dote on my mom, telling her how beautiful she was in English, before fluidly switching to Vietnamese and asking her about her childhood.
Her voice was confident, her questions assured; she was everything I wasn’t, she was everything I could be.
Located amongst an array of nondescript businesses in a suburban strip mall, the Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine-serving restaurant was the clash of two cultural worlds I didn’t even recognize that I craved in my adolescence.
Before that point, I had never met anybody who shared the same ethnic combination as me, save for my siblings. It was enthralling, that annual experience of receiving verbal confirmation that these two languages could coexist harmoniously.
In the interims between those yearly meals and the tumult of daily life, my interest would wane and I’d forget about the magic of this woman’s knowledge. But each year, I was enchanted all over again. There would be a renewed vigor in me to learn Mandarin, to master Vietnamese — except, when the hospital visits ended, so too did the visits to Caravelle.
All over again, I forgot. Time passed, and those meals became a distant memory, a blip in the half-and-half experience I existed in daily.
One day after school, sometime during the unrelenting high school years, my dad, in passing, mentioned that Caravelle had closed (even when we went there already weren’t many patrons — their heyday had long since passed). But it was almost visceral, the searing anguish that sliced across my chest when I heard the news. It felt like I had lost a significant portion of my culture (though I knew that didn’t particularly make sense). I was being stripped of that yearly reminder, the proof that an older version of me existed, and that we made it – that we would make it.
When I think about the singularity of that experience, witnessing the mastery of both my native languages by a single woman, I feel a deep melancholy and an ardent pride. She did it, and so could I. The restaurant might have closed, but the awareness it gave me of coexisting cultures has always remained.
I give Caravelle four stars.
I’ve always grappled with my identity, choosing to lean into it when convenient, distancing myself when beneficial — and for years I questioned why I excelled in Spanish, loved American Sign Language, dedicated myself to German, and took to the Romance languages so enthusiastically. I’m naturally good at languages, I would tell myself. To a certain extent that’s the truth: I love languages a lot. But I also spend so much time learning different ones so I never have to address that I was born directly into two that I’ve yet to master. Languages, though they make up so much of me, have long been my crutch.
When I consider my heritage — how I’ve often rejected it, chafing at every turn — I know I still am navigating what it means to hold the responsibility of knowing and practicing two cultures. On introspective days, I have a renewed desire to learn my native languages that makes me look back constructively on the dread, derision, and insecurity of being deemed not enough.
Half and half? Well, it’s two parts of a whole.
And I give the entire experience — with its intense joy and unrelenting difficulties — five stars. ■
By: Hayle Chen
Photography: Anastasia McCants
Models: Morgan Cheng & Remy Tran
HMUA: Irina Griffin
Stylist: Andre Tran
Photography: Anastasia McCants
Models: Morgan Cheng & Remy Tran
HMUA: Irina Griffin
Stylist: Andre Tran